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Sweden must do more to combat hate crime

If the man who burned a copy of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm had been brought to book for hate crime, Sweden would not have come under heavy condemnation from across the Arab and Islamic world.

Hafiz Hassan
5 minute read

Görel Granström & Karin Åström’s Lifecycle of a Hate Crime - Country Report for Sweden (2017) is an eye opener. Granström is associate professor at the Department of Law, Umeå University, Sweden while Åström, who was a senior lecturer in 2017, is also associate professor at the same university.

Both should be exemplary of academic honesty.

According to the authors, measures against hate crimes, which are crimes motivated by bias, have been defined as a priority issue in Sweden since the mid-1990s. The Swedish government has stated that these crimes are seen as a violation of human rights and, as such, important to combat.

Since 2016, the Swedish government has implemented a national plan against racism, similar forms of hostility and hate crime. The national plan states as follow:

“Effective measures against racism and hate crime contribute towards the objective of ensuring full respect for Sweden’s international human rights obligations. Combating racism and similar forms of hostility prevents the risk of individual’s rights being infringed.”

Despite a significant majority of state prosecutors interviewed for the report being of the opinion that hate crimes “are an increasing feature of Swedish society and that the legal system has become better at identifying these crimes”, there were still very few cases that led to prosecution and conviction.

Take the example of the crime of insult, a common hate crime. A prosecutor explained that while “insult is something that is often reported, it is possible to say that many of those reports do not lead to prosecution just because of the way the law is designed, where only in exceptional cases are they designated a public prosecution offence.”

The legislation dealing with agitation against a national or ethnic group and the law criminalising unlawful discrimination – again, hate crimes – are rarely used. According to Granström and Åström, all those interviewed for the report – judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers – stated that they almost never handled cases regarding unlawful discrimination, and that cases of agitation against a national or ethnic group were rarely brought to court.

One of the prosecutors explained why prosecutors were reluctant to prosecute actions in accordance with the legislation on agitation against a national or ethnic group as follow:

“I make the assessment that when it concerns agitation against a national or ethnic group, I usually prosecute… but there is quite a lot of caution, too much caution in using this legislation due to the relation to freedom of speech and freedom of opinion.

“And of course that is important, absolutely basic rights one should not tamper with, but at the same time there are regulations that some opinions are not allowed to be expressed.”

The above is somewhat in line with what a minority of the judges referred to a “hassle” having to handle hate crime cases. One of the judges interviewed explained:

“This is a damn hassle…. [W]hat I think is the dilemma… is the balance between freedom of expression and the right of vulnerable groups to be protected, not to be exposed. [T]hat is difficult.”

A significant majority of the prosecutors found it difficult to prosecute an offence as a hate crime. From their experience there are two aspects to these difficulties.

First, the prosecutor needed to provide evidence both regarding the requirements for the actual crime, the intent to commit a crime, and also of the motive behind it. So, there was a double burden. Secondly, it was difficult to provide evidence of the motivation as a motive is seldom visible.

The few cases that proceeded to prosecution perhaps explain why all the judges that were interviewed said that they had very little experience of dealing with hate crimes, and could only remember a handful when asked about them.

The prosecutors (and some of the defence lawyers), too, said that judges were not always very good at handling hate crime cases.

The authors wrote:

“A significant majority of the legal actors were of the opinion that the legislation regarding hate crimes is sufficient and that problems in Sweden have more to do with implementation, that is, how the legislation is used or rather not used.

“There is also the matter of the legislation on unlawful discrimination and agitation against a national or ethnic group, two provisions that are almost never used. Hardly any of the prosecutors interviewed mentioned prosecuting cases of unlawful discrimination, and when they talked about the crime of agitation, almost all of them stated that the statute was difficult to use.”

Accordingly, the authors recommended that the legislation on unlawful discrimination and agitation against a national or ethnic group should be critically evaluated focusing on investigating why it is so seldom used, and in what way it could be amended to allow more effective application.

Sweden regularly reports hate crime data to the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), an agency under the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Hate crime reports are published every second year.

The ODIHR has recognised Sweden's efforts to address hate crime in a comprehensive manner, as well as information submitted to the ODIHR on the overall hate crime situation in the country. However, based on the available information, it has also been observed that Sweden has not reported data on hate crimes recorded by the judiciary to ODIHR. In other words, it has not reported on state prosecution against hate crime.

In August 2020, Swedish daily Aftonbladet reported that several Islamophobic Islam activities had taken place in Malmo, including three men kicking a copy of the Quran between them in a public square.

The Islamophobic protests occurred after Rasmus Paludan, leader of Danish far-right political party Hard Line, had been denied permission to have a meeting in Malmo and was stopped at the Swedish border. A riot broke out when counter protesters gathered to protest against the Islamophobic activities.

Riots erupted two years later in 2022 after a demonstration organised by Paludan, yet again. He had permission for a series of demonstrations across Sweden during the Easter weekend. By then, Paludan was already known for Quran burnings.

According to media reports, Paludan burned a copy of the Quran in a heavily populated Muslim area in the country.

If only Paludan had been brought to book for hate crime instead of being given permission to demonstrate outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm where he, again, burned a copy of the Quran, Sweden would not have come under heavy condemnation from across the Arab and Islamic world.

That’s a world of more than two billion people.

Sweden must do more in combating hate crime by bringing the perpetrators of hate crime to justice.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.