Six perpetrators of a “hate crime” were released last week in Hungary, after having served two years and eleven months in jail for attacking three passengers of a car passing through Miskolc. Considering that the crime targeted the victims on the basis of their ethnicity, the combined sentences of the eleven individuals convicted totaled over 41 years. At that time, the court was satisfied with the prosecution’s claim that the accused, all of whom are Roma, committed the crime out of racist motivations.Theirs is a peculiar case demonstrating the idiosyncrasies of Hungarian law originally designed to punish hate crimes. To be pedantic about legal distinctions, the Hungarian penal code does not designate a legal category for “hate crimes” or “hate speech.” Instead, a supposed legal equivalent -“közösség elleni izgatás” or “incitement against a community” – covers bias-motivated acts that intentionally perturb an atmosphere free of prejudice. Two subclasses compose this unusually defined crime: crimes inciting before the greater public to hate against a) the Hungarian nation or b) a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, or a particular group of the population.
To be sure, subclass a is much more frequently used in Hungarian legal proceedings than subclass b. The hate crime recently retried is a perfect point in case.
On the night of March 15, 2009 (a national holiday in Hungary) rumors were spreading that skinheads and the Hungarian Guard, an extremist paramilitary organization of the far-right party Jobbik, were to march to the Muszkás side, a Roma neighborhood of the city of Miskolc. With the community in upheaval in anticipation of a pogrom, the regional online news portal mentioned the news and the local police was placed on a state of alert.
Preparing for a possible attack, the residents built a bonfire. A conspicuous car, a red Peugeot, had appeared several times in the neighborhood, driving slowly by on each approach. Eventually, the group of perpetrators stopped the car and attacked it with sticks, baseball bats and iron pipes. The three passengers of the car suffered injuries from the broken glass of the windshield. The damage in their car was approximately 100,000 Hungarian forints (at current exchange rates, 447 US dollars).
The incident took place only three weeks after the infamous killings in Tatárszentgyörgy. In this small town only about 40 miles from Hungary’s capital, Budapest, unidentified perpetrators threw a Molotov cocktail into the house of a Roma family during the dark of the night, and opened gunfire on the family as it was trying to escape the flames. A five-year-old child and his father died in the attack; the mother of the family, their six-year-old daughter and a three-year-old child were injured. The police did not notice the bullets or the gunshot wounds during the first phase of the investigation: until civil rights activists monitoring the investigation pointed these out to them, they were investigating an electric fire resulting from an illegal connection to the power grid. The perpetrators of this series of murders were not apprehended until well into the summer of 2009.
The court trying the case of the assault in Miskolc, however, did not consider the resulting mindset of the Roma an attenuating circumstance. To the contrary, the group that attacked the car was charged, in addition to truculence, with “incitement against community.”
Originally, the indictment even stipulated that their hate crime was pre-mediated. “False rumors were disseminated that the Roma minority population had been physically assaulted, or that they would be, citywide by armed right-wing radical groups,” described the document. “An atmosphere hostile to Hungarians evolved for this reason in the above mentioned locales; the Roma population formed groups, and taking possession of various stabbing, beating and cutting devices, they were preparing for a clash with Hungarians.”
The court’s original verdict, from 2010, that the car was attacked because of racist hatred against Hungarians relied on two facts. A wooden stick, with the words “death to Hungarians” carved into it was recovered from the crime site. In addition, one of the witnesses at the scene heard shouts of “Stinky Hungarians, beat them!”
Nevertheless, the verdict passed produced absurdly paradoxical consequences. The judge’s ruling over the proceedings determined the victim of the crimes to be “the Hungarian nation.” Following this logic, one could also conclude that the Hungarian Roma are not a part of the Hungarian nation.
In May 2011, the appeals court discovered several mistakes in the judicial proceedings of 2010 and ordered a retrial. By this time, however, five of the perpetrators were already serving 4-6 year prison sentences. Even the lesser sentences were unusually severe: one of the group convicted, who did not actively participate in the attack on the car but was heard yelling, was sentenced to two years and eight months.
It was widely known at the time of the attacks that the victims of the crime were far-right sympathizers. On the retrial of the case, two out of the three accusers failed to show up, despite subpoenas. Evidence, however, was presented of their personal background: a photograph of one of them posing in the company of his brothers with a Hungarist flag (i.e. the flag of Hungarian neo-nazism), their hand extended in a Nazi salute. On a social networking site, the same individual listed a number of skinhead bars as his favorite hang-out places.
The stick carved with the sentence “Death to Hungarians” was also presented, for the first time during the second trial, to the court. According to the indictment used during the first trial, it belonged to one of the perpetrators who received a lesser, suspended sentence – in an expert’s examination, he is “feeble-minded” to a mild extent, and even his own words demonstrated that he had a child-like understanding of the events surrounding him.
This stick is a key exhibit: the only physical evidence establishing that the accused were driven by anti-Hungarian sentiments into the commitment of the crime. But, as noted by the defense, the actual craving in the stick is so difficult to make out that already at a distance of 2 meters (6 feet) one could not even discern that there is writing on the stick.
Since its election to the Hungarian parliament, representatives of the Hungarian far-right Jobbik party regularly exert pressure on the government, demanding that the Hungarian government crack down with the same vehemence on hate against Hungarians as it uses for fighting hate crimes in general.
In the meantime, civil rights activists in Hungary are not impressed by the judicial system’s “vehemence” to bring justice to minority victims of hate crimes. The standard of evidence required to establish that assaults on minorities are motivated by bias is so difficult to meet that hate crime prosecutions regularly fail to lead to legal consequences. Besides cases brought on behalf of the Hungarian Roma, members of the Hungarian LGBT community are also unable to find protection under the Hungarian hate crime clause (note that the above definition of “incitement against a community” does not even make reference to sexual orientation – their complaints therefore must be brought as hate crimes committed against a “particular group of society”).
It is a well-known fact that Hungarian legal practice has yet to be brought in line with international standards for hate crime prosecutions. As an OECD report put it – highly recommended reading, even though it only covers the wave of crimes against the Roma up to 2009 – in Hungary “the weakness of legislation specifically addressing hate crimes and limited capacity to investigate or prosecute such crimes”continually hampers efforts to stem the tide of bias-motivated criminal acts. In the current political atmosphere, however, improvements in this regard are hardly on the horizon.