Last week, uniformed police officers surrounded the high school of a small Hungarian town. Their targets: four Roma students, all between the ages of 14 and 16, who were to be arrested and transported in handcuffs for questioning at the neighboring city’s police station. But according to residents of the town, the conflict between the local authorities and the Roma community involves more than just a school-yard spat. Namely, it has to do with religion, discrimination, and most especially with the responses of the town’s residents to the national census.
Trouble in the Local School. On February 23, as many as ten uniformed police officers entered the school building of the North-Eastern town of Sajókaza. Three female and one male student were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and for restraining another person’s liberty – for attacking a 17-year-old female student a week ago, on February 13. The students were taken away in hand-cuffs, the teachers overheard the officers using racial slurs.
Leaders of the local community, among them the chairman of the local Roma minority council hurried to the police station upon news of the arrest. Only one of them, the headmaster of the school – who made the case that in his official capacity he was personally responsible for the students – was allowed to stay with them at the police station.
The investigation concerned a case that had occurred a week ago. The students’ statements had already been taken at that time, after a spat on the school’s campus which involved two female students who got into the argument over a boy.
When asked about the racial slurs, the spokesperson for the county’s police stated that the students did not make an official complaint about their treatment. He told the press that during their questioning the four teenagers admitted to the charges and that the students’ treatment were within legal bounds. Civil rights activists are doubtful: regulations for the police explicitly forbid police conduct “evidently not commensurate” with the purported goal of the action taken. Furthermore, when police officers have a choice among more than one possible ways of handling a case, they must choose one that, besides efficiency, also guarantees the least restraint, injury or damage against the target of the action.
Census Investigation. The incident took place in the Dr. Ámbédkar School, an institution operated by the Dzsaj Bhím Buddhist community, which works in partnership with many organizations – among them the Hungarian government and Amnesty International – to provide Roma youth with a high-school education. In the impoverished north-eastern region of Hungary, a high school degree is an important prerequisite of a livable future. Despite the fact, however, several communities in the region have segregated their schools.
But despite its connections outside the community, or perhaps precisely because of them, the Dzsaj Bhím (Helping Hands) Buddhist community has an uneasy relationship with the local authorities. One of the manifestations of this longstanding conflict is an investigation under way against the leaders of the Buddhist community, who stand accused of committing census fraud.
Hungary’s census was conducted during the month of October 2011. Already by mid-October, however, a complaint had been made to the police of Sajókaza citing preliminary results of the census data collected via internet filing.
As described by the town’s notary to the television crews arriving to the scene in October, over 300 persons – one in ten residents of the village – identified as Buddhists in Sajókaza, which raised doubts that leaders of the local Buddhist community may have filled out census forms for the town’s Roma residents. Indeed, over 600 individuals, many of whom belonged to the Roma minority, used the internet connection at the Buddhist community center to file their census forms.
Nevertheless, at the time of the television reports, the Hungarian authority entrusted with ensuring the anonymity of the census denied providing access to the local authorities to the results of the data collected.
The police investigation under way since last October concerns the role of István János Lázi, leader of the local Roma minority council, who is also a prominent member of the Buddhist community. Lázi assisted census responders at the Buddhist community center and is now accused of over-reporting the number of Buddhist believers in the village.
The majority of the Roma residents of the town are known to be Roman Catholics. When asked, however, they also point out that the question on the census form asked them to name the religious community to which they belong, and that regardless of their religion, they consider Dzsaj Bhím their true community. Not even the mayor’s informal threats – that the Catholic church will refuse to provide them a burial or to baptize their children if they identify as Buddhists – led them to reconsider their answers.
Addressless. There is solidarity among the Roma and the Buddhist community regarding other matters as well. The town’s Roma residents are thankful to Dzsaj Bhím for assistance in restoring their houses after a flood. They also appreciate the support received in their fight against the policies of the local municipality.
In March of 2011, the municipal government of Sajókaza introduced new regulations for registering a local residence: in every house of the municipality, at least ten square meters have to be available to house the resident registered at the address – bathroom, basement and storage not included.
But refusing to register persons as officially residing in the village may have been a longstanding practice in Sajókaza even before the regulation was made official: some of the Roma in the town have not been able to obtain residency in Sajókaza for as many as six years.
Accordingly, many of the Roma of Sajókaza are “addressless.” Without a registered home address, they are also disenfranchised: they are ineligible to vote and addressless persons do not qualify for local aid either.
In Hungary, it is within the power of each municipality to set local regulations for registering one’s residence in the municipality. For example in Hajdúhadháza, in another town in Northeast Hungary, registration is tied to keeping an orderly yard and maintaining standards of hygiene within the residence. Hajdúhadháza’s municipal council therefore also reserves the right to access the town’s residences and yards in order to monitor the hygiene of their residents.
In Sajókaza, there is a second issue causing conflict within the locality. Municipal plans drawn up for introducing sewage canals into the village exclude the two Roma neighborhoods situated at the two opposite edges of the town. At the same time, however, the sewage plant is planned to be built in one of the Roma neighborhoods, at a location where rising waters of the Sajó river could flood the streets with raw sewage.
Privacy of Personal Data. While the criminal investigation relied on the availability of personal and sensitive information from the national census, it is unclear who leaked about the “suspiciously high” number of Buddhist believers in the town. The identity of the person initiating the criminal probe has not been reported, and the governmental authority responsible for conducting the census denies releasing this information data to the local authorities.
Just days prior to the arrest of the high-school students, the local police also made an attempt to obtain permission from Roma residents to investigate their census responses.
“I authorize release of my information as provided during the census regarding my religious affiliation to the police,” the affidavit of permission to use statistical information in a criminal investigation states. Two uniformed police officers had made visits to Roma residences in Sajókaza to hand-deliver the forms and to explain the criminal investigation under way. This took place just days before the police escalated its proceedings against the Roma students of the community.
The affidavit is a legal absurdity, points out András Jóri, who used to serve as Hungary’s ombudsman for data protection until his office was reorganized under Hungary’s new constitution. If the police decides to investigate something, the law defines the scope of information they are entitled to use. Otherwise, the police does not typically ask for permission to investigate.
What is especially disconcerting about the affidavits collected by the police in Sajókaza is that their text suggests – falsely, as was pointed out by a governmental agency – that the police has access to the census forms, and, what is more, that it is capable of matching up the authorizations obtained with the census form submitted by the specific individual who agrees to a criminal probe.
The spokesperson for Hungary’s national census insists that this would be impossible. The only identifying personal data on the census form is the person’s home address, but even this information is deleted, eventually, from the census database once the data processing has been completed.
Data Protection under the Hungarian constitution. András Jóri, who spoke out against the illegalities of the criminal investigation in Sajókaza in spite of that fact that he no longer serves as Hungary’s ombudsman for data protection, also points out that the relative benefits of investigating a Roma rights activist’s involvement in the census-taking are insignificant compared to damages thereby caused to the integrity of the census and to protecting the privacy of the responses given.
Jóri has clashed with the Hungarian government on issues related to data collection before. One of the most memorable standoffs between the ombudsman and the Hungarian government took place in the summer of 2011 and concerned the Hungarian government’s “social consultation,” a questionnaire sent to every Hungarian citizen 16 years of age or older regarding their approval of the government’s policy goals. The forms were bar-coded (and asked for the name and place of residence of each responder). Jóri ordered deleting the personal data collected through the survey.
Jóri’s objections to the form were followed by statements from the Hungarian prime minister’s spokesperson, Péter Szíjjártó, alleging the ombudsman with acting out of sheer retribution (it was known by that time that Jóri would lose his position as a result of the constitutional changes pushed through by the Hungarian government). Szíjjártó also claimed that the ombudsman’s objections were aimed at undermining public trust in the Hungarian government.
Since the new Hungarian constitution came into effect, protecting the privacy of government-mandated statistical data collection falls under the purview of the newly formed National Agency for Data Protection. Given these transformations, Jóri had been fired from what, under Hungary’s previous constitution, would have been a tenured position not to expire prior to 2014.
Hungary’s new constitution allows for the prime minister to dismiss the supervisor of the new data protection agency at will. The EU has initiated an infringement proceeding into the matter, which is becoming a hotly contested legal issue between the Hungarian government and the European Union.
Update: The Dzsai Bhím community (who spell their name as “Jai Bhim” in English) are also impacted by the Hungarian government’s selective law of religions. Only 34 churches are officially recognized as religions in Hungary. According to the justification of the decision, Dzsai Bhím does not qualify for church status because its paperwork was filed one day after the application deadline.