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EU approves criminal measures against Holocaust denial
By The Associated Press
European Union nations agreed Thursday to set jail sentences against those who deny or trivialize the Holocaust, as part of efforts to combat racism and hate crimes across the 27-nation bloc.
A compromise deal on the anti-racism rules was reached by EU justice and interior ministers after nearly six years of negotiations, officials said.
The proposed rules, which still have to be vetted by national parliaments, calls for EU governments to impose up to three-year prison sentences for those convicted of denying genocide such as the mass killing of Jews during World War II and the massacre in Rwanda in the 1990s.
Getting a deal has been difficult amid vastly different legal and cultural traditions on how they combat racism and notably on whether all EU nations should impose criminal penalties against those denying the Holocaust or other genocides.
In a declaration, EU justice and interior ministers said the rules would aim to penalize anyone who incited to hatred or violence, and anyone who publicly condoned, denied or grossly trivialized crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
However, an effort by Baltic nations demanding major Stalinist atrocities should be included in the EU law was rejected.
German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, whose country holds the EU presidency, said a compromise had been reached on the basis that the EU would organize a public debate on the issue of genocide and other hate crimes currently not included in the draft rules on combating racism and xenophobia.
The genocide of Jews is the only genocide referred to within the new rules, which still needs the backing of national parliaments and the European Parliament, officials said.
EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini called the deal a major achievement. However, in order to reach agreement, the original proposal drafted in 2001 had to be drastically watered down.
Diplomats said the EU-wide rules, which set only minimum standards on fighting racism and xenophobia, would only cover genocides recognized under statutes of the International Criminal Court.
Previous efforts to get a deal ended in failure. Several countries, including Britain, Italy and Denmark, were reluctant to sign up to the measures because they feared EU-wide laws could overstep the right to expression protected under their countries' laws.
The latest plan, however, was watered down, offering numerous opt-outs of certain aspects of the EU-wide rules.
The proposal calls on EU nations to punish those who publicly incite violence or hatred based on a person or group's race, color, religion, descent or ethnic origin.
More contentious aspects of the draft rules require member states to criminalize those "publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivializing ... crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes," as listed and defined by the International Criminal Court.
However, member states may opt out of the requirement to criminalize those who deny the Holocaust or other genocide if such rules do not exist under their national laws, according to the EU proposals.
Opt-outs also are foreseen for racist remarks based on religious grounds and on Nazi symbols, like the swastika.
Many EU nations already ban denials of the Holocaust, including Germany, France, Spain, Austria and Belgium.
EU agrees new racial hatred law
The text does not cover all cases of inciting hatred against a religion
European interior ministers have agreed to make incitement to racism an EU-wide crime, but have stopped short of a blanket ban on Holocaust denial.
The agreement makes it an offence to condone or grossly trivialise crimes of genocide - but only if the effect is incitement to violence or hatred.
The deal follows six years of talks, and will disappoint Germany, which pushed hard for a Holocaust-denial law.
Berlin has also had to drop a proposal for an EU-wide ban on Nazi symbols.
The European Network Against Racism said most European countries already had laws against incitement to racism, and the "weak text" would leave many national legal codes unchanged.
Under the agreement, incitement to hatred or violence against a group or a person based on colour, race, national or ethnic origin must be punishable by at least a year in jail.
STATES WITH HOLOCAUST DENIAL LAWS
Banning the freedom to deny
However, member states can choose to limit prosecutions to cases likely to disturb public order.
Punishing incitement to hatred against religion will only be compulsory in cases where it amounts to inciting hatred against a national or ethnic group, race or colour.
Some countries will have to put the agreement to parliamentary vote, before it is finally adopted. Each member state will then have two years to bring its laws into compliance.
Officials said the wording was carefully designed to avoid criminalising films or plays about genocide, or discouraging academic research.
But dissemination of "tracts, pictures or other material" is punishable if it is designed to incite violence or hatred.
Freedom of speech
The chief difficulty holding up an agreement, since the proposal was first put forward in 2001, was the concern of some states that it would impinge on freedom of speech.
The text of the decision says the new rules will not modify the obligation to respect fundamental legal principles, including freedom of expression and association.
Countries where it is already a crime to deny the Holocaust will stick to their existing rules, but other countries will not be obliged to help them with judicial investigations.
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