3 March 2012 by John Cordina
A bill which would expand existing hate crime laws to take sexual orientation and gender identity into account will be moved in parliament next Monday, Justice Minister Chris Said announced yesterday.
If approved, the bill would amend a number of articles in the Criminal Code and an article in the Press Act to ensure that crimes motivated by the victims’ sexual orientation or gender identity would be considered aggravated by law.
At a press conference, Dr Said explained that the Prime Minister called for the introduction of these provisions last month following two incidents which are thought to be related to homophobia, and which put the issue under the spotlight.
Proposals which were issued following discussions with stakeholders including the Malta Gay Rights Movement – which has long sought extending hate crime legislation to cover sexual orientation and gender identity – went through the Attorney General’s Office and were approved by the Cabinet in recent days. Whether they become law, and when, will be up to parliament, the minister said.
Laws covering offences motivated by racial or religious hatred are already on the books. A 2009 act introduced many of the provisions which are set to be amended by the bill, although a number of provisions had existed earlier.
The amendments uniformly substitute references to racial, ethnic, religious or other grounds to “gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, colour, language, ethnic origin, religion or belief or political or other opinion.” They cover a wide range of crimes, including bodily harm, incitement, threats, harassment, arson and wilful damage of goods.
If the bill becomes law, the punishment for these crimes will be increased by one or two degrees if their motivation on the grounds mentioned is proven.
The amendment to the Press Act concerns the use of the media to threaten, insult, or expose people to hatred, persecution or contempt. Those who breach the provision may face a three-month jail term and a fine.
The government believed in inclusion and that the proposed amendments would help prevent discrimination or victimisation.
When asked whether enforcing existing legislation would be sufficient, the minister pointed out that the law already provided for factors which could aggravate the punishment for a crime. The bill, he explained, would ensure that a person committing a crime motivated by the victim’s origin or characteristics would face a stiffer punishment, as long as this motivation was proven.
Dr Said’s announcement was welcomed by the MGRM, Integra Foundation, Drachma, LGBT Labour and We Are, which issued a joint statement.
“The enactment of such legislation sends a strong message that bias-motivated crime is not acceptable in a society that aims to provide equal treatment to all its citizens and offers much needed protection to a wider range of vulnerable groups. We hope that this will also be accompanied by appropriate training to the police force with respect to the identification of hate crimes, accompanying measures aimed at reaching out to potential victims and adequate data collection of such crimes,” the groups said.
Human rights NGO aditus expressed similar sentiments, stressing the importance of including gender identity given the difficult situations often faced by transgender people.
The organisations also welcomed the extension of the remit of the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality to formally deal with discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Approval of disability bill drawing close
Dr Said also used the press conference to announce that a bill to amend laws concerning people with disabilities was set for its third and final reading in parliament, after being unanimously approved in committee.
In an unusual provision, the bill states that the burden of proof is shifted on to the defendant in cases where people with disabilities claim a breach of the Equal Opportunities (Persons with Disability) Act. Provisions shifting the burden of proof on the defendant already exist in Maltese law, including on sexual harassment and drink-driving, although they are rare.
The minister explained that both the government and the National Commission for Persons with Disability felt the need for the provision as people were being discouraged from seeking redress due to the effort required to prove their case.
On a wider scale, Dr Said explained, the bill would allow Malta to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and to conform with EU directives.
The bill amends various laws, including by replacing obsolete and offensive language which had not been changed since the 19th century.
The definition of disability in the Equal Opportunities Act was also updated to “a long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment which in interaction with various barriers may hinder one’s full and effective participation in society and on an equal basis to others.”
The bill’s measures also include mandating curators of people who have been declared interdicted or incapacitated to submit a yearly report. This measure, Dr Said said, aimed to ensure that the arrangement remains in the persons’ best interest and to prevent possible abuse.
The minister also noted that an act which amends the Social Security Act to address a number of pending matters will come into force on 27 March, following the publication of a legal notice.
One of the measures in the act updates the list of medical conditions eligible for free medicines by adding 40 medical conditions to the list, including dementia.
The act also sets out that claims for invalidity pensions whose validity is not conclusively determined are to be looked into by a four-person panel made up of a psychiatrist, a psychologist, an occupational therapist and a social worker.
Another provision concerns the pension due to people who were born before January 1962 and who applied for early retirement since 2008 while employed in the civil service or in companies either wholly-owned or mostly-owned by the government. Their pension will now be calculated on the best three years before retirement: Subsequent years will not be taken into account and possibly reduce the amount due.