Albania, in a move hailed as a “revolution” by officials, has passed an LGBT-inclusive hate crimes law which for the first time codifies a commitment to specifically tracking and preventing bias motivated crimes and distributing over the Internet anti-LGBT materials that advocate violence or overt prejudice.
The first change in the law, approved by the Albanian Parliament on Saturday May 4, amends The Criminal Code of the Republic of Albania, and specifically clause “j” of Section 50 of the Criminal Code, to enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity so that the clause now reads:
j) when the offense is committed due to reasons related to gender, race, color, ethnicity, language, gender identity, sexual orientation, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, health status, genetic predisposition, or disability[.]
This change has been labeled an important one because it distinguishes such crimes as designed not just to attack an individual but to quell the voice and visibility of a particular group of people based on a defining characteristic, in this case their sexual orientation or gender identity, these alongside long-established classes such as race and disability. Prosecutors can now pursue extra penalties to specifically balance such crimes.
It is the second change to the law, however, that has drawn widespread praise. It amends Article 119 to create a list of offenses to outlaw:
Providing to the public or distribution of deliberate materials containing racist, homophobic or xenophobic content, through [...] information technology [...] punishable by a fine or imprisonment up to two years.
This, as far as hate crimes legislation goes, is a broad statement of intent that far exceeds comparable legislation like the United States’s Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that, in deference to free speech, would never usually penalize for the distribution of anti-LGBT material over the Internet.
This bold step has prompted Mr. Igli Totozani, of Albania’s Ombudsman’s Office, to remark, ”The approval of amendments to the Criminal Code against homophobia represents a revolution in the Albanian legislation against homophobia.”
“Albania is on the way to a more fair, equal and European society,” he reportedly added. “[The laws are a] valuable contribution to a greater protection of human dignity and a more open and European Albania.”
Changes in the law were supported by a number of LGBT organizations and the Ministry of Justice and, according to Totozani, serve to put Albania at the forefront in a highly religious conservative region.
While the law concerning the distribution of homophobic materials on the Internet, such as on sites like Facebook, could be considered unduly broad, the law is designed — with existing balances for religious freedom of expression still in force — to try to tackle the work of radical Islamic groups in particular who have taken to popular social media sites to advocate for the killing of the LGBT community.
An April release of the European Social Survey, established in 20o1 and conducted bi-annually, established that “53% of Albanians believe that ‘gays and lesbians should not be free to live life as they wish,’” and rated Albania as one of the most homophobic countries out of the 30 countries surveyed.
However, Albania’s lawmakers have seemed keen to be seen to take the lead in improving this situation with Albania’s Prime Minister, Dr. Sali Berisha, meeting LGBT activists in April, making him the first sitting prime minister to ever do so in an official capacity.
It was announced last year that the government would also be removing from medical teaching materials so-called anti-gay academic medical texts that condemned homosexuality as unhealthy. These they replaced with books that do not pathologize homosexuality and offer accurate and scientifically tested information.
Albania decriminalized homosexuality in 1998, and the age of consent has been equal since 2001. Other progress has been relatively slow in coming, though has picked up in recent years with gay and lesbian people being allowed to join the military as of 2008, while in 2010 the Albanian Parliament passed comprehensive anti-discrimination measures that included sexual orientation and gender identity.
Authorities have been criticized, however, for the fact that so far very few legal challenges to cases of anti-LGBT discrimination have been heard. Whether the new hate crimes provisions will make a difference in criminal prosecutions will likewise depend on how willing the authorities and judiciary are to identify anti-LGBT animus and follow through with maintaining this, a legal framework designed to protect the LGBT community.
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