I collected updates to three important stories reported on the Contrarian Hungarian blog in this post. The first details a legal decision that closed the Magyar Sziget incitement to hatred case. The second describes recent developments related to the criminalization of homelessness in Hungary. The third part continues the story of how problematic it is for a Buddhist community in north-east Hungary to ally itself with the local Roma community.
1. Incitement to Violence at Extreme Right Festival (Summer of 2011)
In the summer of 2011, and during many summers prior to 2011, various groups of the Hungarian far right gathered for a festival called “Magyar Sziget” (Hungarian Island). It was almost accidental that an especially outrageous lecture from the event was recorded and leaked to the public.
On the tape, one could hear the leader of Betyársereg, a self-proclaimed Hungarian guerilla group fighting for racial supremacy, discuss his vision of a future violent insurrection. As if he were recruiting for his troops, Zsolt Tyirityán – who remains the leader of the group to date – told his audience that they must prepare themselves for new conditions under which they should be capable of “pulling the trigger on a rifle” at the sight of someone with a “shade of a [skin] color.” In this “war of the species,” one must become “aggressive, violent, spare and greedy; almost like a wild animal,” he said. “If perhaps it was your mother lying there cold in her blood, and a dirty Gypsy kept stabbing the knife into her, do you think you would observe the commandment not to kill?” Then, in a heightened moment of interaction with his crowd, Tyirityán asked: “Are we going to have enough in ourselves to dare shoot a rotten and lousy Jew?” “Yes,” yelled several in the audience before loud applause took over the room.
It was assumed at the time that the speech violated Hungarian law on several counts, given its genocidal content and its explicit discriminatory intent and breach of human rights. For this reason, many found assurance in the fact that the Hungarian State Prosecutor’s office started an investigation into the matter. The charges to be investigated at the request received from the general public included the violation of a 1947 peace treaty whereby Hungary agreed to ban fascist organizations.
However, after an investigation that lasted until this March, the police decided to drop the matter from further persecution. In their legal opinion, what took place at the festival does not qualify as incitement against minorities. It is true that the statements heard on the tape would be criminal if they were accompanied with a “realistic possibility” that they might lead to harm. But, though the speech in question did make it “visible for others” hate incited “within the closed word of individual emotions,” goes on the document’s reasoning, no evidence was found that these emotions were induced “in emotional preparation of violent future behavior” (more about the verdict is available in Hungarian here). It appears, therefore, that it is not illegal to call for or to organize a civil war in Hungary unless one is able to in fact engage in such civil war.
For good measure, the decision issued by the Hungarian authorities lists the names of organizations and private persons that requested a police investigation into the matter. This will certainly teach the complainants how to make sense of various assurances offered by the Hungarian government of its intention to protect minority rights in Hungary.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee issued a legal complaint in the case (in Hungarian here) calling the decision of the police “unfounded” and “contrary to the law.” They point out that it is a misinterpretation of the law to imply, as the police, that the criminal act of “inciting to hatred” requires actual violence as its consequence. In fact, the law points out explicitly that mere “endangering” suffices for the crime, even if there were no intention whatsoever to see through the possible consequences to a level at which actual violence is caused to the targets of the speaker.
But the complaint also details the many reasons why there is hardly any crowd more likely to engage in violence upon being incited to hatred of the kind heard in the speech than the audience present at the lecture. “Who are we? Not men of holy lives or boy scouts,” reads the introductory statement of Betyársereg on their website. “We are outlaws, in the full sense of the word. The laws of the republic are worth very little to us, though we observe the law of the pusta under any circumstances. Just like the outlaws of long time ago, we too are being forced by the existing powers to be outside of the law. … We like to live, we like good wine, schnapps, beautiful women, but we also like fights, the manly struggle as well.”
2. Criminalization of Homelessness in Hungary (Fall of 2011)
Last fall, Hungary outlawed the use of streets for the purpose of residing on a recurring basis (I am trying to go with the official Hungarian of the law – the authorities call the offense “living in the streets as part of one’s life-style”).
The idea was first implemented in Budapest’s 8th district, which also banned anyone found rummaging through trash. The penalties for failing to comply were set at 50,000 HUF ($229) for first-time offenders. Further offenses could be punished with a prison sentence.
Seizing the political momentum of the ban – the otherwise quite impoverished 8th district even earmarked funds to finance a police campaign against the homeless – the Fidesz-dominated Hungarian parliament criminalized homelessness in the entire country. The mayor of the district, Máté Kocsis was promoted into a governmental position where he is now responsible for formulating the Hungarian government’s homeless policy.
Nevertheless, the Hungarian government had to back down on outlawing dumpster-diving (i.e. rummaging through trash, or going through garbage for any salvageable finds). The mayor of the 8th district withdrew this ordinance in March 2012, ostensibly because a new law issued by the Hungarian government was going to include the offense on its official list of infractions. The Ministry of the Interior, however, had to leave the item off of its list because in February the Constitutional Court deemed the prohibition unconstitutional.
In its legal reasoning, the court emphasized that “reaching into the trash with the intention of taking garbage out” hardly poses a danger to society. On the other hand, these deeds are undertaken for the most part with a view to the survival of those who engage in it, and prohibiting such an act, therefore, would violate constitutional principles.
Nevertheless, the law which had eventually passed the Hungarian parliament raises the maximum fine for infractions such as sleeping on the street to 300,000 HUF (1390 USD). The offenses to which such penalties might apply are by no means limited to being homeless. The same penalties could be set for traffic violations, for walking one’s dog without a leash, for wearing headgear that prohibits the recognition of one’s face by the police at a protest – to all violations of the lower, “offense” (or szabálysértés) category of the criminal code.
The “exchange rate” of the fine is as follows: Every day spent with 5 to 6 hours of work on behalf of the public reduces one’s public debt by 5000 HUF (23 USD). Alternatively, one may choose a prison sentence (or be sentenced to jail by a judge if he or she refuses both payment and work) in which case the same rate, 5000 HUF/day, applies. The maximum fine can be paid off, therefore, by 60 days of incarceration or 300 hours of public work.
As for the really sad news: according to the records of only one hospital in Budapest, 45 or 46 homeless people died of hypothermia this year (this is a 5% increase compared to last year). This number, however, is not recognized as an “official fact.” The mayor of Budapest made claims at a press conference that he knows of “only one death case in Budapest” and has declared his tough stance on homelessness an unprecedented success both in fortifying public order and in looking after the homeless. When asked about the source of his “data,” he referred to records kept by the Budapest police. The spokesperson for the police, however, knows of at least 14 hypothermia deaths during the last six months in Budapest.
With the arrival of the spring, many temporary shelters of the city closed. For the most part, the police suspended its campaign against the homeless during the cold months of the year: those found on the streets were taken to shelters, or hospitals, instead of a facility like the 24/7 center set up for processing the homeless in the 8th district last fall.
In the meantime, many suburban municipal councils in Budapest also undertook ruthless campaigns to destroy shelters built by the homeless in wooded, uninhabited areas of the city. These unseen people without permanent residence will only shore up the “visible” homeless population of Budapest as the summer season of enforcing laws against homelessness is about to get underway.
3. Being Buddhist and Roma in Hungary
A post entitled “Trouble in Sajókaza” from February of this year chronicled a long-enduring standoff between local authorities and a Buddhist community in north-Hungary vocal in protecting the town’s Roma minority.
The harassment of the Buddhists and the Roma in the town has taken many forms, from the hand-cuff arrest of bickering teenagers through an investigation of “census fraud” charges and threats of refusing Catholic rites to those who avail themselves to the aid of the Buddhists.
The conflict, however, concerns institutional forms of racism in the town’s local policies: such as the municipal council’s residency requirements, which has rendered many Roma residents of the town ineligible for social benefits; or plans of building a sewage treatment plant in a flood-risk area populated by the Roma, even though the system is designed to collect sewage exclusively from non-Roma neighborhoods.
Since the writing of this post, the Dr. Ambedkar High School – which specializes in preparing socially disadvantaged students for university studies, an educational goal rarely available to Roma youth in Hungary – was fined to the tune of 3.2 million HUF, the equivalent of 14,663 USD. This is the same educational institution where in February racial epithets interrupted the school day as police handcuffed and dragged away four teenagers to be interrogated at the police station about their involvement in a school-yard fight during the previous week.
The school is being penalized for being unable to present time sheets tracking teacher hours spent on grading and educational activities outside of the school. It is a violation common in other Hungarian schools as well, and tax inspectors, who said that this was the first time their office undertook a tax audit of a high school, were unable to advise the school on how to keep proper records in order to avoid further fines.
Dr. Ambedkar High School is a private not-for-profit institution which has already suffered financially in the wake of the Hungarian government’s recently passed law regulating official religions. The law grants church status to only a select number of religious groups – the Jai Bhim Buddhist community is not one of them – and forces the rest to new accounting practices (the irregularities that resulted in the fine were made prior to the new law). Due to losing funds on account of the fact that the Buddhist group is not recognized as an official church, the school had to let go of four full-time teachers.
The Buddhist high school in north-east Hungary is in fact the most thoroughly investigated school of the entire country. Over the last 5 years, various authorities from all levels of government have paid a total of over 50 visits to the institution. These included investigations by three regulatory authorities of the national government probing the public health practices, the educational standards and the employment practices of the high school.
The 3.2 million fine could easily bankrupt the school, and this would accord perfectly with the goals of the extreme right party Jobbik, which is widely credited with stirring up the privileged attention in the school’s operations. In fact, the exorbitant fine was set by a county agency headed by a Jobbik politician. The director of the Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén supervisory agency for employment practices which issued the fine is also known for defending the operations of the Hungarian Guard, an extreme right militant organized which had been banned by the courts since. In a campaign speech in 2008, Panyik said that the paramilitary troops were an important means of organizing the self-defense of people afraid of the Hungarian Roma.
The Jai Bhim community submitted an appeal to the penalties set for the bookkeeping mistakes. They are asking for a lower fine and the possibility to pay it in smaller installments. Even if their request is granted, however, the war of attrition seems to be successful: filing the appeal in itself cost the school board 128,000 HUF, or about 586 USD.