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26th Aug 2019

EU anti-hate law sparks debate on Nazi and Soviet crimes

With Germany reviving its proposal on EU-wide minimum sentences for incitement to racial hatred and genocide denial, some EU states are taking a firm anti-communist stance demanding that totalitarian regimes become part of the bill's scope.

Estonia, Poland and Slovenia – all carrying the burden of a communist past – demand that denial of the crimes of totalitarian regimes, including communism, should be explicitly mentioned in the text, with one EU diplomat saying "the aim is to achieve morally equal treatment of the crimes of the Nazis and communism."

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But even the camp of post-communist countries is divided over the issue, with, for example, Slovak justice minister Stefan Harabin saying "we cannot place the two [fascism and communism] on the same level."

According to diplomats, some EU capitals favour the idea of having a separate proposal on political crimes, as the current German proposal is linked to hatred based on race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethic origin.

German justice minister Brigitte Zypries, speaking on behalf of Germany's presidency of the EU, was reluctant to reveal details of Thursday's debate which saw no real progress on the issue as yet.

But she said that "all EU states want to give a strong signal of being ready to combat racism and xenophobia" adding there is unanimous support for "a legal instrument" to be put in place.

The current draft proposal outlines two groups of acts that should be punishable by one to three years' of imprisonment throughout the 27-nation bloc.

The first group of offences includes "publicly inciting to violence or hatred, even by dissemination or distribution of tracts, pictures or other materials".

The second one prohibits "publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes defined by the Tribunal of Nuremberg" which means an indirect reference to the Holocaust.

"Incitement to discrimination" has been removed from the scope of the package, the German EU presidency's paper states.

According to German justice minister "not any act of racism and xenophobia is a criminal act" stressing the importance of "respect for freedom of expression."

The German initiative has also seen the Poles attempt to add-on a clause saying that using the phrase "Polish death camps" in the media should be banned, as it suggests Poles, not German Nazis, built and ran the camps on occupied Polish land.

"If one talks about Polish camps it's a serious deformation [of the facts]," Polish deputy justice minister Andrzej Duda told Rzeczpospolita after the 15 February meeting.

The Polish embassy in Washington made an official complaint to the White House over use of the phrase by CNN and the Associated Press on 13 February.

Earlier EU proposals on how to harmonise sentences for hate crimes were rejected twice in 2003 and 2005, due to national differences over the scope of freedom of speech and historical perception.

Back then, Italy had requested there should be no specific reference to the Holocaust and the UK opposed any interference with its current rules, saying Holocaust denial is in line with freedom of speech unless it specifically incites racial hatred.

The issue of historic crimes has recently spilled into the EU foreign policy arena, with an emotional exchange of words between Croatia and Italy over WWII-era killings and reprisals in Croatia's Istria peninsula.

EU candidate Croatia even fears the row could damage its EU entry talks, after a European Commission spokeswoman this week called the Croatian outburst "inappropriate" but did not censure Italian statements.

In Estonia, a draft new law permitting the demolition of Soviet monuments in the country - including the iconic Bronze Soldier in the capital - has seen Moscow accuse Tallinn of neo-fascism and threaten sanctions against the small EU state.

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