Golden Dawn lawmaker Ilias Panagiotaros is le
Golden Dawn lawmaker Ilias Panagiotaros is le Reuters

Greece on Tuesday ratcheted up its punishments for racism, anti-Semitism and hate speech, in a move prompted by the surprise rise of a neo-Nazi party.  

A new law approved by parliament sets prison sentences of up to three years - up from two years - and fines of up to 20,000 euros ($26,000) for "inciting acts of discrimination, hatred or violence" over race, religion or disability.

Similar punishment is meted to those denying or praising the Holocaust, genocide and war crimes against humanity.

It took more than a year of debate for Greece to update the legislation, previously dating from 1979, on the urging of the European Commission and the World Jewish Congress.

The bill was shelved last year after the main party in the ruling coalition, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' New Democracy conservatives, proposed to exclude state institutions such as the Church and the military from prosecution under the law.

Senior clerics from the influential Orthodox church have been criticized in the past for remarks deemed anti-Semitic, while Greek conscripts have been caught on film chanting anti-Albanian and anti-Turkish slogans.

But the impetus for the update was the rise of the aggressive neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which is under investigation for allegedly instigating attacks on migrants.

Magistrates have linked Golden Dawn to at least two murders. But the far-right party recently scored election victories, sending its first deputies to the European Parliament.

It consistently ranks third in opinion polls, behind New Democracy and the main opposition leftists, Syriza.

Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos has publicly denied the existence of gas chambers and crematoria during World War II.

He has also called Adolf Hitler "a major historical figure of the 20th century".