State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014 - Case study: The unequal application of hate crime legislation in Hungary

by Eszter Jovánovics

While the conviction, almost five years on, of four people in 2013 for the serial killing of six Roma in 2008 and 2009 is a welcome step in the fight against Hungary's endemic hate crime, the community is still poorly protected against a rising wave of targeted violence. This is reflected in the fact that the suspected perpetrators were only arrested after their eleventh attack and the subsequent trial lasted 28 months as the court had to gather much of the evidence again to address the shortcomings in the original investigations. However, many other instances of anti-Roma hate crimes are overlooked by police and do not even reach the courts.

The resistance of the police to considering bias motivation and effectively investigating crimes reported by Roma victims was illustrated by the inadequate official response to the ethnically motivated 'patrols' of extremist paramilitary organizations in the village of Gyöngyöspata in 2011, where the local Roma community were subjected to weeks of abuse and intimidation by armed vigilante gangs. In one of the reported cases, for example, a woman carrying her two-year-old daughter in her arms was threatened with an axe by an extremist. Although the perpetrator was a well-known far-right activist who even boasted of his anti-Roma activities in Gyöngyöspata on the internet, the police refused to investigate racist motivation and terminated the investigation shortly afterwards without reasonable grounds. Importantly, these and other incidents would not have occurred if the authorities had recognized the racist intent of the vigilante group from the outset and taken legal action to prevent them from occupying the village.

This is in contrast to the speed with which Roma have been accused of anti-Hungarian racist bias and brought to court. One of the most flagrant cases where the law was misused in this way occurred in 2009, when nine Roma men were charged for allegedly perpetrating an anti-Hungarian hate crime after they attacked a car in which they believed skinheads were sitting. The incident occurred shortly after one of the serial killings, in which a four-year-old Roma boy and his father were killed, and amid rumours that another attack was imminent. As a result, when in the middle of the night a car slowly proceeded on two separate occasions through the Roma neighbourhood of Miskolc, a number of Roma residents – determined to defend their families from the presumed racists – attacked the car with sticks. The individuals in the car, one of whom had ties with racist groups, suffered minor injuries.

Despite the lack of credible evidence and the heightened fear of the community as a result of the recent attacks against Roma, the prosecutor specifically accused the defendants of having committed a bias-motivated crime against Hungarians. The first instance court agreed with the prosecution and imposed disproportionate prison sentences on the defendants. In October 2013, however, the second instance court found the defendants guilty of disorderly conduct instead of hate crime, declaring that the existence of specific anti-Hungarian motives could not be proven. This court's decision also confirmed the Supreme Court's 2011 ruling that racist organizations such as skinhead groups cannot be protected by the hate crime provision.

While the final court decision in this case complied with international human rights standards, in another similar case the second instance court, ruling in September 2013, upheld the first instance judgment, which again sentenced a number of Roma for committing a bias-motivated crime. Even though all the evidence pointed to the defendants being motivated by anger at the openly racist group arriving in their town, the classification of the crime as specifically anti-Hungarian was again based on unsubstantiated evidence and a perverse legal reasoning. Institutionalized racism is most likely one of the main reasons for this apparent double standard in Hungary's law enforcement. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union continues to advocate for the appropriate implementation of the hate crime provision and to address the structural discrimination within the country's criminal justice system.

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