Greek government split over anti-racism bill
ATHENS - Agence France-Presse
Panagiotis Iliopoulos, a deputy for the far-right Golden Dawn party, right, gestures as he shouts insults at other lawmakers while his colleagues in the same party prepare to leave the Greek Parliament in Athens, Friday, May 17, 2013. AP photoGreece's ruling coalition is split over a bid to toughen an anti-racism law aimed at curbing neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, amid fears it could unwittingly alienate the influential Orthodox church.
The proposed bill would impose prison sentences of up to three years and a fine of up to 20,000 euros for hate speech and the denial or praise of war crimes and genocide.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' New Democracy party had initially backed the bill, which was crafted to curb Golden Dawn -- a party widely believed to have been orchestrating attacks on migrants.
But the ruling coalition's biggest party has since backtracked to avoid alienating its base of supporters who includes members of the influential Orthodox Church and the army, critics claimed.
Senior clerics have in the past made remarks about Jews that could be deemed anti-Semitic, while Greek conscripts have been filmed chanting anti-Albanian and anti-Turkish slogans.
New Democracy now says the proposed legislation goes too far in limiting freedom of expression.
"There was no agreement," Evangelos Venizelos, leader of the Socialist party, said after late-night negotiations with New Democracy.
Venizelos, whose party is the a junior coalition partner, claimed in an interview with state television NET that Samaras' party was trying to reach "an audience on the fringe of Golden Dawn" ideology.
He said his party would put forward its own version of the bill if the government failed to act and that it would be a "historic" mistake if New Democracy deputies did not support it.
New Democracy insists that existing legislation on prejudice, some dating 1979, is sufficient to curb Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party which has made huge strides in popularity amid Greece's economic crisis.
Current law imposes a maximum jail term of two years for hate speech.
Golden Dawn has 18 lawmakers in parliament and currently polls at around 10 percent in opinion surveys. Rights groups believe that it has instigated a recent wave of violence against migrants, which the party denies.
Venizelos and the coalition's third partner, moderate leftist leader Fotis Kouvelis, insist that Greece must update its anti-hate legislation under its obligations as a modern European state.
"(The bill) is an obligation to the European Union and the Council of Europe," Kouvelis told reporters after the meeting with Samaras.
"Any delay is unacceptable." Golden Dawn has repeatedly shown contempt for Greek democratic institutions such as parliament and the country's president Karolos Papoulias.
On Monday, Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos said the group could operate "outside the law" if necessary.