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Australian province to toughen law against hate crimes


Melbourne : The string of attacks on Indian students in this Australian city has led the provincial government of Victoria to push for a plan that would have tougher sentences for hate crimes. The damage control action comes within months of Australia launching a multi-million dollar effort to woo Indian students.

Melbourne is the capital of Victoria.

In a plan being pushed by Attorney-General Rob Hulls, judges would have to take into account “hatred for or prejudice against a particular group of people” as an aggravating factor when sentencing offenders, The Age reported Tuesday.

Tougher sentences would apply to crimes deemed to be based on victims’ race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

The state government is moving to crack down on violent attacks against Indian students, homosexuals and other targeted groups.

Indians form the second highest population of overseas students in Australia, after the Chinese. About 90,000 Indian students are currently studying in Australia.

“The Age understands ministers distressed at the spate of assaults on Indians in Melbourne are also considering a longer-term proposal to make `hate crime’ a new statutory offence.”

There have been four attacks on Indian students in quick succession in Melbourne and Sydney, the two largest cities of Australia. The first took place May 9 and the most recent one a week ago.

Three of the attacks on Indian students took place in Melbourne. Sravan Kumar Theerthala, 25, was hit with a screwdriver, Baljinder Singh was robbed and stabbed, and Sourabh Sharma, 21, suffered a fractured cheek bone and a broken tooth.

In Sydney, hospitality graduate Rajesh Kumar received 30 percent burns after a petrol bomb was hurled through the window of his Harris Park home.

Meanwhile, Chief Commissioner Simon Overland has defended the actions of police after images of officers using force to break up a protest by thousands of Indians in central Melbourne caused outrage in India.

La Trobe University nursing student Eric Leroy told the Age he saw the police bashing protesters at the demonstration near Flinders Street Station. He said police dislocated his thumb and broke his glasses as they moved to end the sit-in.

Australia has reason to worry about a potential slowdown in enrolments from overseas as international education is its third largest export industry after coal and iron ore.

On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd vowed to punish attackers of Indian students.

Rudd told parliament in Canberra that he had spoken to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and said Australians strongly deplored the string of attacks on Indians studying in the country.

He said the state authorities had been told to bring the perpetrators to justice.

“I speak on behalf of all Australians when I say that we deplore and condemn these attacks,” Rudd said.

“I said to (Manmohan) Singh that the more than 90,000 Indian students in Australia are welcome guests in our country … and the more than 200,000 Australians of Indian descent are welcome members of the Australian family.”

According to officials, Indian students represent about 18 percent of foreign students and are worth 2 billion Australian dollars ($1.6 billion) to the economy.

An expatriate group in Australia has suggested that Australian universities should arrange houses for Indian students in “safe areas”.

Yadu Singh, coordinator of the newly formed Community Committee on Indian Students’ Issues, also asked the students to have health and emergency insurance.

Indian students in Australia should have their own ombudsman to whom they can go in times of trouble, said the coordinator of the committee that has been formed in consultation with the Indian consulate in Sydney.

Yadu Singh said Indian students in Australia were not reporting many of the incidents. “Police must increase its visibility and start undercover patrolling. Proactive measures need to be taken rather than the reactive ones.”

But he held that “Australia is not a racist country” and that most attacks were “opportunistic attacks”.