By Elias Hazou
PARLIAMENT on Thursday amended the penal code, making it a crime to engage in unacceptable behaviour and violence against people based on their sexual orientation.
Depending on the offence, perpetrators could face up to three years in jail or a fine of up to €5,000, or both.
The law criminalises “the deliberate public, and in a threatening fashion, incitement to hatred or violence, and the incitement to hatred or violence, verbally or through the press, textually or pictorially or by any other means, against any group of persons, or a member of a group based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Lawmakers had initially mulled inserting a clause enabling individuals claiming to be victims of such acts to launch private criminal prosecutions.
But they decided against it because of concerns that this right might be abused, as well as a desire to strike a balance with freedom of speech.
As such, prosecutions can only be launched after approval from the Attorney-general’s office.
The Combating of Racial and Some Other Forms of Discrimination Law already addresses incitement to hatred or violence against people based on race, colour, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or ethnic heritage.
Rather than update that law to include LGBT people, legislators had opted to amend the penal code instead.
On the House floor, a colourful debate unfolded before voting got underway.
Voting against the bill were Panicos Stavrianos (AKEL), Aristotelis Misos and Andreas Themistocleous (DISY), Sofocles Fittis and Giorgos Procopiou (DIKO), and independent MP Zacharias Koulias.
And a few deputies walked out before the show of hands.
The dissenters complained that the law is loosely worded and would land innocent people in trouble.
“There is going to be bedlam,” warned AKEL’s Stavrianos.
“With this, anyone doing the usual cussing at a football match could be liable for homophobic speech.”
DISY’s Aristotelis Misos likewise said the bill is too generic, and argued that existing legislation was sufficient.
“So tomorrow, if a religious person simply voices a view on these matters, he or she could end up in jail.”
DISY’s Andreas Themistocleous, known for his reactionary views, having in the past branded homosexuals as social deviants, gruffly stated:
“I didn’t become a member of parliament to vote for such laws.”
MP Koulias, never short of snappy sound bytes, delivered this one:
“Not even in Tanganyika do they have laws like this,” he said.
“This bill is a testament to genericness. It criminalises behaviour in such a way that people will have the threat of prosecution dangling over their heads every single day.”
His colleague Soteris Sampson tried to set the record straight. For a person to be liable under the law, the DISI MP explained, it is not enough to use insulting language, they must also publically incite violence against LGBT people.
And DISY’s Stella Kyriakidou spoke of double standards.
“There is an element of hypocrisy here,” she noted.
“We have in the past enacted laws on racism and xenophobia, but when it comes to this particular matter, some of us now object, using the pretext that the law is too vague and thousands could end up in jail.”
Thursday’s debate may be seen as a dress rehearsal for an upcoming vote on a separate bill regulating civil partnerships.
Cyprus ranked at 18 per cent in a report issued earlier this month by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. None of the countries ranked at 100 per cent although the UK came closest with 86 per cent.
The rankings were compiled based on points accumulated in terms of anti-discrimination and equality, hate crimes and hate speech, legal gender recognition and freedom of assembly and expression.
The report sheet on Cyprus said that overall, acceptance of LGBTI people appeared to grow in all but the most conservative corners of society on the island, and mentioned last year’s first pride parade.
But it also found that gay and lesbian jobseekers here were up to 43 per cent less likely to be interviewed for a job.