ATHENS, Greece – Greece will toughen sentencing for hate crimes, following a surge in attacks against immigrants and violence involving members of a far-right political party, the country's justice minister said Wednesday.
Antonis Roupakiotis said racially motivated crimes would carry a minimum three-year prison sentence, under judicial reforms due to be voted on in parliament later this year. Current guidelines generally do not have specific provisions for racial motives in sentencing, and prison sentences for assault are often suspended.
Migrant and human rights groups have reported an alarming rise in assaults against mostly South Asian immigrants since the start of the country's crippling financial crisis.
"It seems like the Greek government is finally taking xenophobic violence seriously," Judith Sunderland, a senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the Associated Press.
"But we need to see concrete action, not just announcements. We hope draft legislation will be examined in parliament soon."
The U.S.-based group, in a report issued in July, said it had documented a rise in anti-immigrant attacks, including stabbings and serious beatings, in Athens over the past two years, leaving dozens of confirmed victims.
Earlier this week, Greece's government launched an urgent inquiry into attacks by members of the extreme right Golden Dawn party against immigrant street vendors, whom they accused of operating illegally.
Four people were arrested Tuesday in Messolongi, a town in central Greece, for demanding document inspections from immigrant vendors, while a police officer was suspended for allegedly participating in a Golden Dawn-led attack on immigrants' stalls in the same town over the weekend.
Golden Dawn won nearly 7 percent of the vote in June general elections, getting 18 seats in the 300-member parliament.
Roupakiotis accused the party of trying to cultivate a "neo-Nazi ideology" in Greece.
"We condemn in the strongest possible way every act of violence, and especially actions by members and supporters of Golden Dawn against immigrants or other citizens," he said. "We believe this is an insult to our long-standing notions of justice and the defense of human rights. It is a threat to harmony in society and creates the conditions to develop fascist and neo-Nazi ideology."
Golden Dawn on Wednesday said it had taken legal action against Greece's public order minister and chief of police, seeking their prosecution for alleged breach of duty, after police were ordered to stop and search passers-by outside the party's Athens headquarters on Tuesday.