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10 June 2016, 12:33
A record number of charges has been brought under controversial legislation aimed at cracking down on sectarianism at football matches, new figures have revealed.
In 2015-16 a total of 287 charges were brought under the part of the law which deals with fans singing sectarian songs or chanting sectarian slogans at or around matches - a rise of 49% from the previous year.
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said the new figures, reported by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, showed the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act ``continues to be an important tool'' for the authorities dealing with the problem.
The laws came into force at the start of March 2012 after the SNP used its then majority to put the legislation through Holyrood despite criticism from opposition parties and many football supporters.
The number of charges in 2015-16 is higher than the first full year of the act's implementation, which saw 267 brought in 2012-13.
Meanwhile, a total of 87% of those charges which were brought last year led to court proceedings.
Mr Matheson said: "The recent appalling scenes at the Scottish Cup Final demonstrated that the unacceptable behaviour of a minority of football fans continues to be a problem.
"An increase in the number of charges under the Offensive Behaviour Act shows that the legislation continues to be an important tool in tackling all forms of offensive behaviour, including sectarianism, and sends a clear message that such behaviour has no place in a modern, open and inclusive society.
"I have asked Scottish football to take further steps to address this long-standing issue and I expect to see progress on this imminently.
"Recorded crime in Scotland is now at its lowest level in 41 years and the country is becoming a safer place thanks to the combined efforts of our communities and law enforcement agencies.
"But one incident of hate crime is one too many. Intolerance in any form is simply unacceptable and there is no place for it in 21st-century Scotland.
"Whether you're a victim, or you are someone who witnesses unacceptable behaviour, be assured that the police and other authorities will take your report seriously and respond in a robust way.''
Tories said the SNP government had praised the legislation last year when the number of charges had fallen to 193.
Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Douglas Ross said: "From the SNP's perspective, this is a brilliant law whether the number of charges is high or low.
"But the truth is it's unpopular with fans and has been criticised by the courts.
"The Scottish Government can't have it both ways.
"When the number of charges went down, it celebrated the legislation. Now, after a 50% hike, it still seems to think the law's working a treat.
"It's bad and unnecessary legislation, and it needs to be scrapped now.''