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Constant Brand / AP | April 19, 2007

European Union nations agreed Thursday on new rules to combat racism and hate crimes across the 27-nation bloc, including setting jail sentences against those who deny or trivialize the Holocaust.

A compromise deal on the rules was reached by EU justice and interior ministers after nearly six years of negotiations, officials said.

The proposed rules, which still have to be vetted by national parliaments, calls for EU governments to impose up to three-year prison sentences for those convicted of denying genocide such as the mass killing of Jews during World War II and the massacre in Rwanda in the 1990s.

Getting a deal has been difficult amid vastly different legal and cultural traditions on how they combat racism and notably on whether all EU nations should impose criminal penalties against those denying the Holocaust or other genocides.

In a declaration, EU justice and interior ministers said the rules would aim to make a crime "incitement to hatred and violence and publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivializing crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes."

An effort by Baltic nations demanding major Stalinist atrocities should be included in the EU law was rejected, however.

German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, whose country holds the EU presidency, said a compromise had been reached on the basis that the EU would organize a public debate on the issue of genocide and other hate crimes currently not included in the draft rules on combating racism and xenophobia.

The genocide of Jews is the only genocide referred to within the new rules, which still needs the backing of national parliaments and the European Parliament, officials said.

EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini called the deal "a major achievement" however the compromise reached led to a drastic watering down of the original proposal drafted in 2001, to get agreement.

Diplomats said the EU-wide rules, which set only minimum standards on fighting racism and xenophobia, would only cover genocides recognized under statutes of the International Criminal Court.

Previous efforts to get a deal ended in failure. Several countries, including Britain, Italy and Denmark, were reluctant to sign up to the measures because they feared EU-wide laws could overstep the right to expression protected under their countries' laws.

The latest plan, however, was watered down, offering numerous opt-outs of certain aspects of the EU-wide rules.

The proposal calls on EU nations to punish those who publicly incite violence or hatred based on a person or group's race, color, religion, descent or ethnic origin.

More contentious aspects of the draft rules require member states to criminalize those "publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivializing ... crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes," as listed and defined by the International Criminal Court.

However, member states may opt out of the requirement to criminalize those who deny the Holocaust or other genocide if such rules do not exist under their national laws, according to the EU proposals.

Opt-outs also are foreseen for racist remarks based on religious grounds and on Nazi symbols, like the swastika.

Many EU nations already ban denials of the Holocaust, including Germany, France, Spain, Austria and Belgium.

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