Romania’s president on Monday signed off on a law that punishes “verbal or physical” actions against the sizable and socially marginalized Roma community with tough prison sentences.
The law is considered a landmark in the EU member state where prejudice against the group is commonplace.
Lawmakers passed the legislation on Dec. 15 in a 244-1 vote and the draft was then sent to President Klaus Iohannis for his signature.
It comes after a nationalist party, which had flown under the radar, won 9% of the votes in parliamentary elections last month. Lawmakers from the party didn’t take part in the vote which happened a week before the new Parliament convened.
Under the law, anyone found guilty of “initiating or constituting an organization (with an) anti-Gypsy character” could face a jail sentence of three months up to ten years.
Distributing anti-Roma material or content, including text messages carries a prison sentence of up to five years, while “promoting in public … anti-Gypsy ideas, concepts or doctrines” can lead to a three-year prison sentence.
‘Anti-Gypsy’ symbols are permitted if they are used in art, education or research.
“Anti-Gypsy-ism” or “antitiganism” as the term is rather clumsily called in Romanian is defined as “hateful expressions about the Roma.”
“Anti-Gypsy-ism is not just about what is said, but about what is done and what is not done. To recognize its full impact, a more precise understanding is crucial,” the initiators of the law wrote.
„Anti-Gypsy-ism is often used in a restricted sense to indicate an anti-Roma attitude or express negative stereotypes in public or to speak hatefully” about the group.
Officially, there are more than half a million Roma in Romania, although there are believed to be many more. Some don’t declare their ethnicity due to prejudice.
Romania is holding a referendum this year.
Some 25,000 Romanian Roma were deported during World War II to Trans-Dniester in the then-Soviet Union. About 11,000 died there in labor camps, in squalid conditions where hunger and disease were rife.
Anti-Roma comments are frequent in Romania on social media and in everyday life. Roma also complain of discrimination on the job market.
The law “to prevent and combat anti-Gypsy perception surrounding the Roma … expressed as hatred against them”, as well as “verbal or physical manifestations motivated by hatred against Roma” that is directed against members of this ethnic group, their property, their institutions and leaders or their traditions and culture.