Nearly three years after it was first brought to parliament, Greek MPs are poised to pass an anti-discrimination bill which human rights groups say still falls far short of dealing with an epidemic of racist and homophobic violence in the country.
Before this week’s vote, gay rights protesters have taken to the streets to denounce the conservative-dominated government’s refusal to extend protective rights, including domestic partnerships, to same-sex couples.
Rightwing MPs have resisted introducing legal protection for gay people despite an alarming rise in homophobic attacks in Athens, claiming that such measures could take Greece down a dangerous path.
“In Holland there are parties that recognise paedophilia; what are we going to do, adopt it too?” asked Anastasios Nerantzis, an MP with the ruling New Democracy party, as debate raged in the 300-seat house.
“There are also brothels that allow bestiality; what are we going to do, adopt that too? Since the third century marriage has been defined only between man and woman,” he railed. “As such, there is no place for civil unions in Greece.”
With debate at such levels, there is concern that far from curbing hate crimes, the law will allow violence to flourish.
Anna Hatzisofia, who represents the radical left Syriza party, the main opposition, said it was appalling that Greece had come up with an anti-discrimination law “in name only” when more than 400 racially-motivated assaults had been recorded since 2012.
Petros Tatsopoulos, a left-leaning independent MP, said the refusal to protect gay people was an alarming omission.
“Greece has been condemned by the European court of human rights on the issue of [same-sex] civil unions and yet is doing nothing to fix it,” he said.
“This law, in effect, allows people to think that homosexuals in this country are second-class citizens who do not have the same rights, and that will pave the way to discrimination through the back door.”
International consternation has been exacerbated by the recent surge of attacks on men and women in Greece’s gay community – often by black-shirted supporters of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.
Piling the pressure on the government, Nils Muiznieks, the EU’s commissioner for human rights, urged Greek authorities to move forward with the adoption of wide-ranging anti-discrimination laws.
In a statement, he said: “The reported rise of homophobic attacks and the continuing racist hate crime in Greece signal the urgent need to adopt and effectively implement comprehensive legislation in order to eliminate intolerance, hate speech and violence in the country.”
Over the summer, assailants have not only targeted dark-skinned immigrants but also appear to have singled out gay people for attack. Some have been so brutally beaten they have required extensive surgery after being set upon in public.
One man, a schoolteacher who would only give his name as Kostas, told the Guardian how he and his Kashmiri partner were savagely beaten up two weeks ago as they sat on a bench in a square in central Athens.
The 39-year-old, speaking from his bed after his left leg was broken in three places above the ankle, said: “First, two men on a motorcycle drove by and threw a bucket of filthy water all over us – we were just sitting there laughing and enjoying the cool late-night air.
“Then, a group of between 12 and 15 men with shaved heads and black shirts came and put the bucket over my head and started punching and kicking us. It went on for about 10 minutes and when the police eventually showed they said we had only suffered minor scratches, when I ended up being operated on in the hospital for three hours,” added the victim, who previously lived in London where he studied art before returning to Greece.
Greek security forces have been accused of complicity in racist violence. Officers who were discovered to have been collaborating with the neo-fascist Golden Dawn have been removed from their posts. After six years of withering economic crisis, the party is the country’s third-biggest political force despite most of its leadership being detained in pre-trial custody on charges of running a criminal operation that sowed terror on the streets of Greece.
Senior MPs have openly hailed Hitler as “a great personality”, questioned the Holocaust and denounced homosexuality as “a sickness”. In comments before the Greek parliament, the few Golden Dawn representatives who have escaped prison described the anti-racist bill as a “satanic plot” and an “insult to Greek history”.
The bill, which seeks to reinforce legislation drawn up in the 1970s, will toughen criminal sanctions for those inciting hatred, discrimination and violence. Deniers of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity will also be penalised. But human rights groups said with widespread opposition from rightwing forces and the church, it still failed to encourage the reporting of violent hate crimes or guarantee appropriate action by the police and judiciary.
“It is tragic that people like me now feel at risk,” said Kostas, adding that he would be moving to a new neighbourhood. “My home is three streets away from the square and I don’t feel safe. But is the law going to protect me? Am I, after the attack and all this hullaballoo in parliament, really going to feel secure anywhere in this country?”