Verdict in the most important hate crime case in modern history
A gang of neo-Nazis killed six Roma and wounded several others in carefully planned attacks across the country in 2008 and 2009, creating a climate of fear for members of Hungary’s largest ethnic minority. Three men were jailed for life without parole and a fourth for 13 years, also without parole. The judgment of the first instance can be appealed. In a joint communiqué, Amnesty International, European Roma Rights Centre, Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union welcomed the Budapest District Court decision according to which the series of attacks against Hungarian Roma in 2008-2009 were racially motivated. Emphasizing and evaluating the biased motivation as an aggravating factor is of crucial importance, as most of the racially or ethnically motivated attacks on the Romas remain out of the scope of the consideration of the authorities.
The NGOs highlighted the importance of the ruling in which the judge stressed that no one’s rights should be violated based on their nationality or Roma ethnicity, and that such killings are hate crimes. The culprits past demonstrated that they had a strong aversion to Roma before committing the series of crimes. The convicts aimed to intimidate and control members of the Roma ethnic group. The court complied with international human rights standards in making a decision that punished the bias motivation behind the crimes. Hate crimes represent the most extreme offences against human dignity and equality. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg began in mid-2000 the development of its case law on member states’ answers to hate crimes. In Nachova v. Bulgaria, the court was very explicit about the duty, prescribed by law, of member states to uncover and state firmly any racist motivation behind violent crimes.
Nothwithstanding the correctness of the present ruling, the NGOs raised the awareness on the fact that the state still needs to act. Racially motivated attacks against Roma have continued since these serial killings. The state still doesn’t provide a sufficiently strong response to this kind of violence. It is Hungary’s international obligation to guarantee special protection against racially-motivated violence. As with previous governments, the current government has not taken the necessary steps to improve the efficiency of the authorities in these investigations.
Furthermore, human rights organisations are calling on the government to prevent and counter hate crimes by taking the following steps: develop effective, systemic solutions within the police force and the prosecution; apply a criminal protocol in line with international standards; introduce special training for law enforcement; improve victim protection; build an effective data collection and statistical monitoring system.
The tragic case and the following steps taken by the criminal justice system provided an opportunity for the NGOs to express their stand point on the handling of hate crimes, furthermore, it is a frame to debate the segregation and anti-discrimination of the Roma minority, and hence a chance to put public pressure on the government to act against discriminatory habits and policies.
Petition to the Ombudsman to abolish discretionary ID checks
According to the Police Act (XXXIV. Of 1994), the head of the territorial police unit has the power to order “increased check” as an extraordinary state of use of police powers. This power is absolute discretionary since there are no conditions (for instance “exercise of dangerous activity, terrorist threat, etc.) enlisted in the act that would limit such power. The increased checking means that anybody can be stopped and searched in the designated area. Recently, the police used such measures to harass the youth throughout a week long trance festival, where allegedly, the level of the drug consumption was very high. The results of the increased checks are clearly asymmetrical: the police found 123 drug user (not one single dealer!), but searched approximately 12.000 young and peaceful participant of the event. The week-long measures cost 9 million Forints (25.000 Euros) for the taxpayers. The Hungarian Helsinki committee (HHC) petitioned the Ombudsman to launch a constitutional review process at the Constitutional Court because, in their opinion, the increased checks violate the rule of law, the right to privacy, the right to due process and the human dignity. As the case of the trance festival shows, the discretionary police power can lead to massive restriction of freedom (even if the restriction is temporarily), moreover, its effectiveness as a crime preventive tool is not proportionate.
It is worth mentioning that in 2010, the European Court of Human Rights found in Gillan and Quinton v United Kingdom that the UK’s stop and search powers without reasonable suspicion under the Terrorism Act 2000 were a violation of the right to privacy because senior police officer were in the position to authorise searches to be carried out without reasonable grounds for suspicion have been severely limited, although this power still exists.
HHC seeks to achieve change in the legislation to fulfill its own mission in line with the liberal values it promotes, that is less tough on sentencing and more like re-integration oriented system of punishments. One way to do so is to use the accessible legal procedures that can procedures remedy.
Right-wing media takes on the liberal NGO sector
Series of articles and television news appeared throughout the recent weeks on the financial background of the liberal NGOs. The fact that the Open Society Institute is one of the most important contributors to the budget of the NGOs was published as a “grand revelation” even though the financial reports of the NGOs in question have been available in the past just as they are available today. The media – loyal to the current government – constantly refers to the founder of the OSI, George Soros, as “Wall Street speculator” who organizes an international conspiration against the Orban-government, completely ignoring his pioneering role in philanthropy. Furthermore, the NGOs financed by the OSI are referred to as civil “opposition” and anti-Hungarian NGOs. The series of articles is clearly a Putin-style attack on the NGO sector which more or less managed to resist the attempts of influence by the government. Several NGOs replied in public letters (only in Hungarian), highlighting the fact that the OSI were their main financial source during periods of governance by Socialist Party, when the right wing media were more the sympathetic to their activities and criticism of the government. The public statements point out that the task of the NGOs is to work independently from the governments in power, disregarding their political position, and to criticize the governmental acts which contravenes values represented by the government. Atlatszo.hu, an investigative journalism, emphasized that freedom of information and transparent governance is a democratic value they fight for, and they undertake FOIA cases, no matter who is in charge of the governance. Similarly, Eötvös Károly Institute emphasized their dedication to the freedom of expression, and this is the sole reason why they will not sue the government spokesman and the right wing media organs for defamation. One might notice that the more authoritarian a regime is getting, the more likely that NGOs have to defend their free status.
Promoting solidarity – How to help homeless persons?
People with empathy and social solidarity time to time face the unpleasant situation in which they see an agent of the law enforcement harassing homeless citizens, but they are afraid of stepping up as a result of unfamiliarity with the relevant rules. According to a recent survey, 13% of the 400 hundred homeless interviewed, were victims of violent or degrading measures taken by the law-enforcement. The City is for All, an NGO defending the rights and promoting the interest of the homeless, published a short Q&A that is intended to guide non-homeless citizens facing such situations. This sort of information is of crucial importance, because homeless people typically lacks any kind of knowledge of administrative law, high number of them suffer mental illness, therefore they are exposed to the abuse of power by the agents of the law enforcement. Hence the indispensability of other citizens to help the weak. The leaflet – available and distributed online – emphasizes that every citizen has the right to stand by and watch actions and measures taken by the police in the public sphere; the mere presence of “well-situated” citizens in such situations results in a sort of self-imposed control on the officers; it is permitted to ask for information on the reason of the measures taken and the police officer has to answer such inquiry; we have the right to inform our homeless co-citizens that they can file complaint against the measure at the Independent Police Complaint Boards, not necessarily in writing; if one sees undue violence, one can use one’s cell-phone to document the abuse of power and file a petition with the superior of the officer.
The goal of the City is for All with this leaflet is to educate the public on their rights and promote solidarity with the weak and poor. The NGO also presented a short documentary on the life of a homeless couple finding their way back to normal life.
Átlátszó.hu, an online investigative journal especially active in the field of freedom of information (hereinafter: FOI) launched more than 50 FOI case to courts when the data processor declined its requests. As a result of the large number of the cases, the portal decided to set up a special registry to make its relevant activity more transparent and visible for its supporters and for the public in general. The “Register of Átlátszó’s Proceedings” makes public all the relevant information regarding the actions in courts so that the readers will have access to a transparent and comprehensive database about the lawsuits. The Register hopefully brings the court cases closer to the citizens, helps to understand the activities of the journal. The Register contains the texts of the requests for public data together with our petitions for judicial review. Their way can be followed until the decision of the court, or in case of appeal, until the decision of the court of second instance or even until the decision of the Constitutional Court. Naturally, if a data of public interest is obtained – with or without taking the case to the court – the documents are published and accessible to anyone interested.
The database serves another important goal: it shows patterns on how the authorities treat FOI requests and cases. For instance, in a group of cases, the request was accomplished by the data controller during the judicial proceeding but before the decision of the court; while in case of non-response, Átlátszó.hu usually submits the petition just before the deadline, which means that one and a half months have already passed after the request. In sum, the reason behind the high number of these cases can rather be the result of the fact that the defendant either has not adopted a clear position about the request earlier or has refined it (namely, that there was no good reason behind the denial), and then there are simple administrative delays. In a further and largest category can be found those cases which Átlátszó.hu won by judgment. Some of them results from the lack of the defendants’ cooperativeness. Mostly, the denial could only be proven effectively if the data custodian handed in the requested data for the court.
Lastly, the Register also helps to demonstrate and follow the judicial practice, which is more or less coherent in enforcing the guarantees of the Freedom of Information Act and the Civil Code. Rarely, but it still happens, that the courts guarantee the publicity of the requested data based on pure constitutional principles only. Consequently, if Átlátszó.hu loses important cases it often happens because courts use rules other than the Freedom of Information Act’s. In this way, the FOI NGO tries to educate the public on their right of access to documents and data of public interest.
Homophobia and the police
A recent incident showed again what is more or less clear: the police tends to ignore the rights of homosexuals and fails to protect their physical integrity. A same-sex couple were kissing publicly when the owner of a Taboco store rushed out and threatened the couple with a baseball bat, shouting homophobic imprecations at the youngsters. The victims called the police which is located in the same street. After arriving at the scene, the officers checked the ID of the couple, but failed to take any sort of action against the assailant. Furthermore, the police officer gave the following advice: the shopkeeper should report the case to the police as an act of indecent public behaviour; meaning that kissing of the couple was an infringement of law. Háttér Support Society for LGBT People petitioned the police to apply the criminal law (homophobic violence) reasonably. Along with other pro- LGBT organizations, it held a demonstration in front of the police station. The petition – given to the head of the station – highlights that the relevant article of the new Criminal Code, in force since July, which includes references to sexual orientation and gender identity in its provisions on hate speech and hate crime and does away with degrading terminology on same-sex sexual relations. Following intensive lobbying by LGBT and human rights NGOs, the new Code extends the groups specifically covered by hate speech and hate crime provisions. While homophobic and transphobic hate has – in theory – been punishable under current legislation which sanctions incitement to hatred against certain group of the population and assault and coercion committed because of the victim’s belonging to a certain group of the population, unlike race, ethnicity and religion, sexual orientation and gender identity has so far not been specifically mentioned in the relevant provisions. The new Code extends the groups specifically covered to include sexual orientation, gender identity and disability, and the law enforcement has the duty to apply these rules. The goal of the NGO is to change the relevant application of the law in order to promote the right of our fellow LGBT citizens. This goal paradoxically needs good cases, i.e. crimes and malicious police procedure. Intervening by organizing demonstrations and handing over petitions is one tool to pressurize the law-enforcement.
This text is a result of a research prepared within the project “Powerful Watchdogs” supported by a grant from Switzerland through the Swiss Contribution to the enlarged European Union. The report aims to show the up-to-date information regarding activity of watchdog organizations in a given country. The author refers to the classification on watchdog functions, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the international concepts of the transparent governance.