Toulouse shooting spotlights problems of tracking hate crimes in Europe

The aftermath of an attack on a synagogue in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, in 2010.

By Cnaan Liphshiz, JTA

BRUSSELS — Jihadist websites eat up a fair share of Bart Olmer’s workday. He even has passwords to some closed hate forums.

“Reading hate speech is part of the job,” says Olmer, who reports on intelligence services for Holland’s largest circulation daily, De Telegraaf.

It’s an explanation he may need to repeat for security services on future visits to France, if that country’s parliament passes legislation aimed at making it illegal to visit hatemongering websites.

The legislation was among several measures proposed following the March 19 slaying of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Parliament is to vote next month on the measures aimed at stopping “self-radicalized lone wolves” like the killer from Toulouse, Mohammed Merah. Leftist parties said they’d oppose the bills.

Researchers and European politicians are split on France’s post-Toulouse legislation push.

Some want to use this opportunity to introduce similar legislation elsewhere in Europe while the Toulouse shooting is still in people’s minds. Others find it risky and “emotionally motivated,” favoring better law enforcement rather than new legislation.

“In Western Europe we have the legislation we need: Murder and incitement are illegal,” said Mike Whine of the Community Security Trust, the defense agency of Britain’s Jewish community. “We need better application of existing laws. We need to ban more hate preachers from entering our countries, for instance.”

Bruno de Lille, a Belgian minister from the Flemish Green Party who is a campaigner for gay rights, said legislation that originates in emotions should be avoided.

“It’s often ineffective and jeopardizes basic values and liberties in a manner disproportionate to the contribution to collective security,” he said.

Whine and de Lille made their remarks at a conference last week in Brussels on monitoring hate speech and hate crimes in Europe. Titled “Facing Facts,” the conference was organized by a Brussels-based nonprofit called CEJI: A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe. The goal of the conference was to talk about how countries and nongovernmental organizations can better cooperate on monitoring discrimination.

Joanna Perry, hate crimes officer for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, said at the conference that too many governments take a negative view of local watchdog NGOs that present them with figures about hate crimes that often are politically unsavory.

Ten governments — including Greece, Estonia, Latvia, Moldova and Ukraine — reported to the OSCE that their police forces had recorded fewer than 10 hate crimes in 2009. Portugal and Macedonia said they did not compile any data on hate crimes.

Only nine members of the OSCE, the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization, submitted official data on anti-Semitism in 2009, compared to 48 member states that did not.

Other than in France, Perry said she “couldn’t point to any direct impact on policy or legislation” following the Toulouse shooting, though “it does raise awareness to the issue.”

Robert Trestan of the Anti-Defamation League said he believes the Toulouse attack helped European governments and authorities “better understand that people who target Jews will often also target law enforcement agents. It’s something American authorities know very well.”

Two weeks before the attack at the Ozar Hatorah school, Merah murdered three French soldiers at Montauban. Merah admitted to all the killings during a daylong siege at his apartment on March 22, before he was killed by police in a shootout.

“This understanding further motivates law enforcement agencies to monitor hate crime and hate speech because it helps them protect their own agents,” Trestan said at the conference.

NGOs monitoring racism and hate speech also need to improve their performance, according to findings published at the conference.

A survey conducted by conference organizers showed more than half of watchdog NGOs in the European Union have no working definition for what constitutes a hate crime. Of the 44 NGOs surveyed, 27 reported that they had no system to verify complaints, and 17 did not share information with police.

Beyond legislation, the Toulouse shooting already is changing how European governments monitor radicals, according to a Belgian civil servant who attended the conference. Since April 1, the Belgian secret service has been scrutinizing the comings and goings of suspected radicals more closely.

“Before the shooting the issue was marginal. Now it’s a priority,” said the civil servant, who spoke under condition on anonymity.

The post-Toulouse legislation in France also aims to outlaw trips abroad for weapons training. After the killing, security services learned that Merah had trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Hate crimes tragedies like the Toulouse shooting sometimes serve as a catalyst for change in the fight against extremism, according to Superintendent Paul Giannasi, manager of the UK interministerial program for fighting hate crime. He attended the CEJI conference as a representative of the British police.

Public outcry following the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black boy from London, by a gang of white extremists “brought on massive change” in how hate crimes are handled in Britain, Giannasi said. “Since then, authorities are actually encouraging more people to complain about discrimination.”

It was a major change in policy for British crime fighters, whose performance is usually judged on crime statistics.

“It was realized that more complaints about hate crimes don’t mean greater prevalence, just more awareness and trust in the authorities,” Giannasi said.