ERRC Letter to the General Prosecutor of Hungary Kálmán Györgyi
21 March 1997
Honorable Mr. General Prosecutor,
The European Roma Rights Center is concerned about an incident of alleged police brutality in the town of Szombathely in Vas County.
On February 15, 1997, a mixed group of Roma and non-Roma were detained by a Budapest police unit in Szombathely and, according to our information, subjected to severe beatings in the Szombathely police station. According to testimony, five plain-clothed policemen (and women) with shaved heads made the arrest in downtown Szombathely. The police additionally detained two minors, including 13-year-old Richárd F. Legal guardians were not informed of his arrest.
The police then brought the group to the police station, where they were insulted by officers from both Szombathely and Budapest with such taunts as "stinking Gypsy" (büdös cigány). The police were intent on extracting statements from the various members of the group implicating 29-year-old Mr. Zoltán Zs. in the theft of the wallet of an Austrian tourist. Mr. Zsolt F. had his fingers bent and was beaten and kicked by the police until he signed a piece of paper which he did not read and on which, according to police, "the truth" was written. One pregnant woman allegedly had her hair pulled and was hit in the stomach by a Szombathely police officer whose name is known to the ERRC.
Mr. Zs. refused to sign a confession. As a result, he was allegedly beaten repeatedly in the stomach, chest and the back of the head for three hours in a cell at the Szombathely police station. According to Zoltán Zs., during the beating he vomited blood and lost clumps of hair. He also at one point lost consciousness; he does not know for how long. Two different officers told him that if he did not sign the confession, he would be beaten to death.
Mr. Zs. was finally released late in the afternoon. Following his release, Mr. Zs. sought medical help at the Markusovsky Hospital, where a doctor documented head and abdominal injuries.
Before releasing the two men, the police allegedly made both Mr. Zs. and Mr. F. sign statements that they had not been ill-treated. Officer Csaba Mészáros of the Szombathely Police Department conceded that this is not standard practice in Hungary. Officer Mészáros also claimed that the Budapest unit had only been responsible for the arrest, and that the Szombathely police had carried out the interrogation. Officer Mészáros acknowledged having been present during the entire detention of the group, but would not comment further.
According to the daily newspaper Magyar Hírlap, Szombathely Police Chief Emil Tóth confirmed that his department had organized the action with the help of the Budapest police. He acknowledged that the police had acted forcefully but that, according to him, this use of force had been justified. Officer Tóth told Magyar Hírlap that he plans to organize similar events in the future.
Although all of the victims were too afraid to file a complaint, an official complaint on behalf of the victims has been filed against the police by a representative of the local Roma self-government. Mr. László Hegedűs of the Szombathely Prosecutor's Office confirmed that an investigation into police behavior has been launched. The initial investigation is being conducted by the head of the Vas County Prosecutor's Office of Investigation, Mr. Árpád Bakucz.
Honorable Mr. General Prosecutor, we urge you to see to it that a thorough investigation into the conduct of both the Budapest police and the Szombathely police is carried out and that any officers responsible for the unnecessary use of force or racist breaches of authority be appropriately disciplined. We are especially concerned that, should the wishes of Officer Tóth, as reported by Magyar Hírlap, be realized, the ERRC and Roma throughout Hungary can look forward to an increase in abuses of police power. We therefore urge the General Prosecutor's Office to closely supervise any future coordinated law-enforcement actions. Finally, we ask that the ERRC be kept fully informed of the results of the investigation and any subsequent disciplinary or judicial proceedings.