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Freedom Party leader may face hate speech charges

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Freedom Party leader may face hate speech charges
Heinz-Christian Strache. Photo: Facebook/Personal
13:59 CEST+02:00
Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), may face charges of “hate speech” as the Vienna prosecutor investigates whether he is responsible for posts made by other users on his Facebook page.

This comes after someone posted a video of a young Syrian asylum seeker who lay down on some tram tracks in Vienna in a bid to kill himself. It triggered a wave of hate comments directed at asylum seekers, and anyone who criticised the anti-immigration viewpoint.

The prosecutor is looking into several posts by users on Strache’s popular Facebook page that may be considered to have broken Austria’s speech laws against minorities and refugees.

Lawyers have differing views on whether or not the FPÖ chief is responsible for the comments that other users make on his popular Facebook page. Though many of the ‘hate speech’ posts are promptly removed by the page’s administrator, some are left up for hours.

Roland Pichler from the Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology of the University of Vienna told Der Standard newspaper that there is little chance that Strache will have any charges brought against him. He said that even if Strache had provoked the comments, it is unlikely that he could bear any responsibility for the people who posted them.

However, Strache's employees who run his Facebook page may be. Some legal experts claim that the length of time it takes to delete the posts could be a factor - especially if they are inciting violence.

Katharina Beclin from the Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology says that the owner of the page is only liable if they have been made aware of the illegal posts and haven’t acted on them. But she thinks Strache is to blame for the comments, saying: “He knows that particularly sensitive issues provoke certain reactions. When he knows that he has no control over it, he must not post such content.”

Jörg Matthes, head of the Institute for Journalism at the University of Vienna, says that hate speech is nothing new, but what is new is how many people such comments can now reach. “We’re seeing hate postings every day, around the clock - and many more people are reading them… and possibly being influenced by them.”

The punishments for hate speech were toughened up last year. In 2015, 179 cases of incitement were reported in Vienna, and six people were convicted. Nationwide, there were 44 convictions. So far in 2016, 16 cases have gone to court. In July, a 40-year-old Viennese woman was sentenced to four months in prison for posting hate comments on Facebook.

In neighbouring Germany, PEGIDA founder Lutz Bachmann was found guilty of inciting hatred earlier this year after he posted comments on his Facebook page, referring to asylum seekers as "cattle," "scum," and "trash."

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