Italy has joined the ranks of other countries in criminalizing the spread of anti-Semitic propaganda based on Holocaust denial, with a new law punishing such conduct with prison sentences ranging from two to six years.

The bipartisan bill was approved late Wednesday by the Chamber of Deputies, the lower assembly, with 237 votes in favour, 5 against and 102 abstentions.

Strengthening an existing law that already punished propaganda and incitement to violence on racist, ethnic or religious grounds, it also targets those who negate genocide or crimes against humanity, as defined by the International Court of Justice.

"This is a criminal law that does not punish negationist opinions, but criminal conduct aggravated by negationist opinions," Walter Verini, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party who backed the legislation, told dpa on Thursday.

Responding to criticism that the law may curtail freedom of expression, Verini referred to the controversy over the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman troops in 1915, which Turkey insists was not genocide, while Germany and other nations consider it as such.

"If you say that the Armenian genocide never happened, your opinion may be questionable, but you will not be prosecuted. If you start saying, 'let's kick out the Armenians,' then you are in trouble," Verini said.

The President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna, issued a statement hailing the new law as "historic."

He said it would be "a fundamental new tool in the fight against professional liers, while safeguarding at the same time inalienable principles such as freedom of opinion and research."

In its final version, the bill punishes incitement to violence and propaganda "based entirely or partly" on negationist ideology only when "there is a real danger of their dissemination."

It was carefully worded after some commentators had expressed concerns that it would limit freedom of expression.

In an editorial last month, Corriere della Sera columnist Pierluigi Battista wrote that it would be better to counter negationist views with public arguments, rather than through "liberticidal" laws that extend censorship.

"Censorship is an insatiable monster: it constantly extends its boundaries, covering an ever greater number of opinions that are labelled as crimes, which instead may be disgusting, but not criminal," Battista wrote.

Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Poland and Romania are among the countries with laws specifically against Holocaust denial. In Spain, the Constitutional Court struck down similar provisions in 2007, out of freedom of expression considerations.

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