Push for Europe-wide swastika ban

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Displays of Nazi symbols such as swastikas could be banned across Europe under a German proposal put to European Union members overnight.

Germany will also seek to make denial of the Holocaust a crime punishable by up to three years' imprisonment during its six-month presidency of the EU.

German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries was expected to outline details of the proposed law, that would punish anyone in the EU who publicly rejected the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews, at an EU meeting in Dresden.

"We have always said it cannot be the case that it should still be acceptable in Europe to say that six million Jews were never killed," she said yesterday.

The push to criminalise the flaunting of the swastika gained momentum after Prince Harry was photographed in Nazi uniform at a fancy dress party.

A previous attempt to ban Nazi symbols was blocked by several governments, including Britain, while Holocaust denial was halted on the grounds of free speech by Italy, which then had the post-fascist National Alliance in its ruling coalition. Italy's change of government has given Germany hope for agreement.

But there will be extra pressure from former Soviet-bloc countries for a ban on the provocative use of the communist hammer and sickle.

Ms Zypries was expected to appeal to EU members to build a European criminal code on racism and xenophobia. The move would need unanimous support.

Laws banning the denial of the Holocaust already exist in 10 of the 27 EU states and Latvia and Estonia ban the display of communist symbols.

The revisionist historian David Irving escaped prosecution until he proclaimed his scepticism in Austria and was jailed for 13 months.

A British government spokeswoman said that a specific offence of Holocaust denial "would sit uncomfortably with existing freedom of speech legislation", but did not dismiss the German plan.

Details of the German proposal came as an Italian military court convicted 10 former Nazi SS officers and soldiers in absentia for taking part in the worst massacre committed on Italian soil during World War II.

All those convicted for the slaughter of more than 800 civilians at Marzabotto in the Appenine mountains near Bologna in 1944 are now in their 80s. None attended the hearings at La Spezia and, because of their age, none is likely to be extradited from Germany to Italy.

Lawyers and descendants of the Italian victims wept and embraced each other as the sentence was read out.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi voiced regret that the convictions would hold only "symbolic value".

"If (the convictions) could have been possible 40 years earlier, it would have had real value," Mr Prodi said at his home in Bologna.

Seventeen former Nazis, now aged from 81 to 88, were accused of taking part in the killings, but the court acquitted seven of them.

Major Walter Reder, the commanding officer at Marzabotto, was given a life sentence by a military court in Bologna in 1951 but was freed in 1985 and died six years later.

The residents of Marzabotto were rounded up and shot by retreating German forces at the end of September and in early October 1944, as Allied forces advanced north, and Nazism and fascism crumbled.

The operation by the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division was ostensibly aimed at Italian partisans and local people giving them shelter and support. In reality, the killings were indiscriminate, with 300 women and 216 children - 40 under the age of 2 - among the dead, as well as five priests. Some historians put the total shot dead in the Marzabotto area at nearer 1800 than 800.

During the trial, Nicola Canestrini, one of the defence lawyers, argued that even Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, had worn a German uniform as a member of the Hitler Youth as a teenager. But prosecutor Marco De Paolis likened the SS to al-Qa'ida terrorists.

Gianfranco Lorenzini, a witness who was 13 at the time of the massacre, described how the SS troops "threw newborn babies into the air and killed them with sub-machineguns, and then raped the women".

The court ordered compensation amounting to E100million ($165million) to be paid to the victims' descendants and local authorities. It is not clear how the order can be enforced.

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