Police Violence Against Roma in Szombathely, Western Hungary
10 April 1997
On February 15, 1997, a mixed group of seven Roma and non-Roma were detained by a Budapest police unit in the Hungarian town of Szombathely, near the Austrian border, and subjected to severe beatings in the Szombathely police station. According to testimony, five plain-clothed policemen with shaved heads made the arrest in downtown Szombathely. The police additionally detained two minors, 13-year-old R.A and 17-year-old A.S. 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". The police were intent on extracting statements from the various members of the group implicating 29-year-old Mr. Z.Z., in the theft of the wallet of an Austrian tourist. Another man, Z.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. One pregnant woman allegedly had her hair pulled and was hit in the stomach by Szombathely police officer J.R.
Mr. Z.Z. refused to sign a confession. As a result he was 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 Z.Z., 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 police officers told him that if he did not sign the confession, he would be beaten to death. Mr. Z.Z. was finally released late in the afternoon. Following his release, Mr. Z.Z. sought medical help at the Markusovszky Hospital, where a doctor documented head and abdominal injuries.
Before releasing the two men, the police allegedly made both Mr. Z.Z. and Mr. Z.E. sign statements that they had not been ill-treated. Officer Csaba Mészáros of the Szombathely Police Department told the ERRC that this is not standard practice in Hungary. Officer Mészáros also claimed that the Budapest unit had been responsible only 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 Hungarian daily newspaper Magyar Hírlap, Szombathely Police Chief Emil Tóth confirmed that his department had organised 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 organise similar events in the future.
An official complaint on behalf of the victims has been filed against the police by a representative of the local Roma self-government. An investigation into police behaviour has been launched by the Uas County Prosecutor's Office of Investigation. The ERRC wrote to the General Prosecutor of Hungary and is closely monitoring the case.
Police brutality cases against Roma are not without precedent in Hungary; Helsinki Watch and Human Rights Watch reports in 1993 and 1996 both documented instances of abuses of police power. More recently, the Roma Press Center reported on March 11, 1997 that on February 16, 1997, Mr. L.A., a Romani man, had been beaten in a police car by two police officers and two civilians. Mr. L.A. had been stopped by two men while riding his bicycle in the town of Mandatanya, two kilometres from his home in northeastern Hungary, on the road between Nyíregyháza and Bálintbokor. The men accused him of stealing a chicken and called the police, with whom, according to the victim, they were on first-name terms.
The policemen and the two men then allegedly forced L.A. into the police car and beat him on the way to his home, where an unwarranted and destructive search turned up no evidence of theft of any kind. As a result of the beating, L.A. suffered a broken arm and a broken nose, although he was twice refused a medical protocol by the doctor who examined him. The doctor allegedly told investigators from the Roma Press Center that he had been unable to give him a certificate affirming his injuries since „he did not know the circumstances surrounding the injury".
According to Jenő Kaltenbach, ombudsman for national and ethnic minorities of Hungary, the most severe form of discrimination against minorities in Hungary is prejudicial treatment during police investigation. In a recent report to parliament, Mr. Kaltenbach claimed that judging informally on the basis of petitions and complaints addressed to him, this phenomenon concerns mainly Roma.
(ERRC, Roma Press Center)