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Hungarian Court Acquits Two Romani Men after 2100 Days in Prison

1 August 2005

ERRC Secures Release after Wrongful Imprisonment for Murder

The Hajdú-Bihar County Court has acquitted at retrial two Romani men previously found guilty of murder. The two men, originally convicted on the basis of very weak evidence, had been sentenced to serve 15 and 13 years imprisonment respectively in 1999.

The facts of the case are as follows:

On 4 March 1999, a man was robbed and murdered in the village of Újszentmargita in northeastern Hungary. On the same evening and sometime before the incident, Mr. Ferenc Burka Jr. (28) and his father, Mr. Ferenc Burka Sr. (48), both Romani men, had a few drinks together in a local bar. On the following day, the two men were arrested and an investigation was initiated against them. Two witness testimonies were considered sufficient evidence for an indictment. The first was the bartender's witness statement, according to which the two Romani men had seen a large amount of money in the possession of the victim on that day. The second was the testimony of a villager who reportedly saw the two Romani men walking in the direction of the victim's house, where the murder took place.

The investigation produced solely circumstantial evidence. An officer of the local police department even stated during one of the court hearings, "I immediately thought of Ferenc Burka. It was intuition. I thought he was probably the perpetrator." During proceedings, the prosecutor stated that Ferenc Burka Jr. had burnt and buried the boots of his father, "a common perpetratoral behaviour of Gypsies when they commit a murder and robbery". However, no buried boots – destroyed or otherwise -- were actually found. The prosecutor took as evidence that a pair of boots had been burned and buried the fact that only one pair of boots was found in the house. Furthermore, the prosector described as "suspicious" the fact that, at the time of arrest, the Burkas had washed their clothes and hung them out to dry. During the investigation, police disregarded the fact that they discovered a red hair in victim's hand when they found the body and that the Burkas both have black hair.

On 2 April 2002, having been found guilty, the two men were sentenced to 15 and 13 years imprisonment. They began serving the sentences on 16 March 1999.

After lawyers engaged by the ERRC – Dr. László Zeke and Dr. Péter Margitics – appealed the decision, the case went to the Szeged Judicial Court in September 2003. This tribunal quashed the lower court judgment and ordered a retrial. In March 2005, in the repeated procedure, the two men were ordered released from custody but were placed under house arrest. They had, by that time, already spent exactly 2100 days in a penitentiary. In the meantime, other witnesses came forward who testified to their innocence. Witnesses also fingered another man, Mr. L.T., who reportedly stated that he was the actual perpetrator and had carried out the deed because he thought the victim had stolen some construction tools from him.

On 9 July 2005, on the basis of extensive argumentation indicating that the Burkas had been wrongly convicted, the Hajdú-Bihar County Court acquitted the two men. The prosecutor has appealed the decision and, therefore, the judgment is not yet legally binding. The proceedings confirm that racial animus continues to play a significant role in the Hungarian criminal justice system.

Dr. László Zeke represented Ferenc Burka Sr. and Dr. Péter Margitics, supported by the ERRC, represented Ferenc Burka Jr. For more information on the case, please contact ERRC Legal Monitor Dr. Rita Izsák at +36-1-413-2200 (rita.izsak@errc.org).

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ERRC submission to UN HRC on Hungary (February 2018)

14 February 2018

Written Comments of the European Roma Rights Centre concerning Hungary to the UN Human Rights Committee for consideration at its 122nd session (12 Narch - 6 April 2018).

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24 January 2018

Romani and Traveller children in England are much more likely to be taken into state care than the majority population, and the numbers are rising. Between 2009 and 2016 the number of Irish Travellers in care has risen by 400% and the number of Romani children has risen 933%. The increases are not consistent with national trends, and when compared to population data, suggest that Romani and Traveller children living in the UK could be 3 times more likely be taken into public care than any other child. 

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21 November 2017

There’s a high percentage of Romani and Egyptian children in children’s homes in Albania – a disproportionate number. These children are often put into institutions because of poverty, and then find it impossible ever to return to their families. Because of centuries of discrimination Roma and Egyptians in Albania are less likely to live in adequate housing, less likely to be employed and more likely to feel the effects of extreme poverty.

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