by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Albania, a small, poor country that recently was labeled the 'most homophobic country in Europe,' has passed a new hate crimes law that specifically includes LGBT persons - and goes beyond U.S. law in protecting them.
Passed by the Albanian parliament on May 4, the new law amends the country's existing criminal code to add LGBT protections not previously offered in the law.
The first change amends Section 50, clause J, to name sexual orientation and gender identity as explicitly protected classes, just as race, ethnicity, language, and other factors are. The clause now reads: '& 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[.]'
Albanian prosecutors can now pursue extra penalties for hate crimes against LGBT individuals.
NO HATE IN CYBERSPACE
In the second amendment to the criminal code, distributing homophobic material is outlawed, even over the Internet. The new language amends Article 119 to create a list of offenses that include '[p]roviding to the public or distribution of deliberate materials containing racist, homophobic, or xenophobic content, through the communication and information technology.' Violations are 'punishable by a fine or imprisonment up to two years.'
This language goes beyond the U.S. Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which does not penalize the distribution of anti-LGBT material over the Internet.
Albania's ombudsman, Igli Totozani, who was one of the driving forces behind the legislation, hailed the new law.
'The approval of amendments to the Criminal Code against homophobia represents a revolution in the Albanian legislation against homophobia,' Totozani said.
'Albania is on the way to a more fair, equal, and European society,' he added. '[The laws are a] valuable contribution to a greater protection of human dignity and a more open and European Albania.'
Bekim Asani of the LGBT United group in neighboring Macedonia told Gay Star News that he was in tears at the news.
'Albania is leading the region with its visionary and tolerant approach to LGBT rights,' he said. 'It really brings tears to my eyes to think that a mainly Muslim, secular, Balkan state can be so progressive. We hope Macedonia and other countries in the area will follow its lead.'
SECULAR BUT PREJUDICED
Perhaps 60% of Albanians identify as Muslim, but many do not actively practice religion. Under the Communist government that ruled Albania from 1944 to 1992, religious institutions were suppressed and public worship was forbidden.
Same-sex relations were forbidden as well, and were only decriminalized in 1995. An anti-discrimination law including protections for LGBT individuals was passed in 2010, but Albanian society retained its reputation for homophobia in spite of government efforts to bring the county's social attitudes into line with those of the European Union.
In March, the European Social Survey named Albania the most homophobic country in Europe, based on the findings of its opinion survey. According to the EES poll, 53% of Albanians believe that 'Gays and Lesbians should not be free to live life as they wish.'
Albanian LGBT rights activist Xheni Karaj told Balkan Insight that the survey's findings reflect the discrimination that members of the community face every day in Albania.
'It's part of a mentality that does not see us as members of the community and often perceives [being Gay] as a phenomenon imported from developed countries, and that there is no such thing as homosexual in Albania,' she said.
'People should understand that we have been, are, and will continue to be Albanians and homosexual,' Karaj added.
In March 2012, Albanian Deputy Defense Minister Ekrem Spahiu said Gay Pride marchers should be 'beaten with billy clubs.' Prime Minister Sali Berisha promptly denounced his remarks as 'unacceptable,' and Ombudsman Totozani began to campaign for a hate crimes law that protected LGBT Albanians.
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