Austria Considering Legislation to Ease Punishment of Neo-nazis

The Austrian Parliament is considering new legislation and amendments to existing laws that would reduce penalties for neo-Nazi activity, in the hopes of more successfully prosecuting offenders.

The proposed changes were to have been enacted last week. But the vote was postponed until Feb. 27 at the urging of the president of Parliament, Social Democrat Heinz Fischer, who wanted to avoid the appearance of “emergency” legislation.

Neo-Nazi activity has become more violent and more widespread in Austria, as in neighboring Germany. January in particular saw an unprecedented wave of assaults on asylum-seekers and other foreigners, anti-Jewish epithets, Holocaust denials and activities typical of neo-Nazis and their extreme right-wing cohorts.

According to Austria’s Interior Ministry, the Austrian neo-Nazis have close connections with right-wing extremist organizations in Germany, the United States and Canada, and even small neo-Nazi groups emerging in Hungary.

Interior Minister Franz Loschnak detailed neo-Nazi incidents in a report to Parliament last week. He reported arrests, searches and seizures by the police in January that netted large quantities of weapons, neo-Nazi literature and paraphernalia.

On Jan. 4, two brothers walking in a Vienna park were attacked by six neo-Nazis who shouted “foreigners out” and “Judensau” (Jewish pigs).

The brothers reported the assault to the police. The ensuing investigation resulted in the discovery of a neo-Nazi gang Known as Wehrsportsgruppe Trenck, a term from Nazi times that loosely means military sports group.

Their leaders were arrested after police found a weapons cache including 23 machine guns, some of World War II vintage. Considerable amounts of neo-Nazi literature were found, including leaflets calling for the “end of the Holocaust fairy tale.”

‘NO IMMEDIATE DANGER’

On Jan. 7, police in Vienna arrested neo-Nazi leader Gottfried Kussel, who made racist and anti-Semitic statements, including denial of the gas chambers, on two U.S. television broadcasts.

On Jan. 25, several other neo-Nazis activists were arrested.

Despite these incidents, Loschnak maintained that the situation is much better in Austria than in Germany, Switzerland, France or Belgium, where assaults are reported daily on foreigners, political refugees and immigrants.

“I adhere to the principle that we have to stop all this at the very root,” the minister said “But at the same time, we should neither over estimate their size nor their impact.

“The right-wing extremists are small in numbers in Austria, and therefore no immediate danger to the democratic state,” he does not mean that we do not have to fight them from the very beginning,” Loschnak said.

Most Austrians are increasingly unsettled by the rise of neo-Nazi activity in Austria and want it stopped, according to an opinion poll published Monday in the popular weekly magazine Profil.

The survey showed that two-thirds of the respondents believe neo-Nazis threaten the country’s democracy, and 78 percent believe the rise of the right wing is a problem to “be fought by every possible means.”

The neo-Nazi groups recruit their members from among disaffected, jobless youths who have no family attachments and hang out with trouble-makers and racist Skinhead street gangs.

JAIL TERMS WOULD BE REDUCED

The courts have been accused of leniency toward those elements when they are caught. But legal authorities blame the Verbotsgesetz (“Forbidding Law”), the rigid legislation passed right after World War II, which mandates a life sentence for reactivating Nazi ideology.

In any relatively minor case, the jury shrinks from imposing a life term and the defendant goes free.

Under the proposed new law, anyone trying to establish, organize or support a Nazi organization would face 10 to 20 years in prison, with a life sentence still a possibility.

Lesser activity, now punishable by five to 10-year sentences, would be reduced under the new law to one to 10 years.

The law would also make it a crime “to deny, grossly minimize, praise or justify through printed works, over the airwaves or any other medium, the National Socialist genocide or any other National Socialist crime.”

The minimum sentence for denying that the Auschwitz gas chambers existed is now five years, which jurors consider too harsh.

The new law would more clearly define this offense and permit sentences as low as one year.

The various political parties expressed concern over the negative image abroad if Austria drastically reduces the penalties for neo-Nazi acts. But leaders of Jewish groups, human rights monitors and other officials welcome the new proposals, which are expected to put more neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists behind bars.

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