Roma dignity restored in a landmark judgement
12 April 2000
Roma dignity restored in a landmark judgement1
R.J. and his sons R.L. and R.J., together with their families, live in a village in Pest County, Hungary. On 12 August 1997, in a neighbouring village, a local company office had been robbed by a group of armed men. On the night of the incident officers of the Special Metropolitan Police Force surrounded the area where the three men lived. Through a loudspeaker, the police then asked them to come out of their houses. Once they did so, R.J. and R.L. were immediately handcuffed and forced to lay on the ground with their faces down. Finally, the three men, all wearing slippers, shorts and tee shirts, were taken to the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police. At the same time, the police apprehended their cousin R.B. in the same manner. He too was scantily dressed — wearing nothing but boxer shorts. R.L. begged the police not to handcuff R.B. in view of his age and his heart condition. The officers ignored this request; moreover, they put a hood on R.B’s head and pulled it down across his face, which prevented him from seeing anything and considerably impeded his breathing. None of the four Romani men resisted the police in any way. Their homes were searched, but nothing incriminating was found.
Later on, during the night, the detectives discovered that the men they arrested were not the ones who committed the robbery — and that, in fact, they had nothing whatsoever to do with the incident. The following day, on August 13, around noon, the police released them. Still barely dressed, just as they were when they were brought in for questioning, the men hid in a nearby park until their wives came to pick them up and drive them home.
Following the incident, and having felt grossly humiliated by the police ill treatment, the victims sought assistance from the Budapest-based non-governmental organisation NEKI (Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities). NEKI attempted to settle the case out of court, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Therefore, on 15 April 1998, on behalf of the victims, NEKI filed a civil complaint with the Municipal Court of Budapest. The plaintiffs requested that the defendants (the Central Police Force of Budapest, the National Central Police Force, and the Standby Police), a) apologise for the ill treatment at issue, b) pay damages for the humiliation caused, and c) that the court bar similar future violations of their rights. In the complaint NEKI cited abundantly relevant domestic and international legal standards, and attached to it Dr. István Szikinger’s extensive legal opinion on domestic and international policing standards with respect to house searches, arrests, and police raids. In view of those, and the data available, Dr. István Szikinger found that the “actions [taken by the police] in this case were, on the whole, unprofessional... Their enforcement against “armed criminals”, after initial assumptions to that effect had undoubtedly been proven wrong, ... was not simply unprofessional but at the same time illegal”.
On 16 March 2000 the Municipal Court of Budapest rendered its ruling in favour of the plaintiffs. The court ordered the 1st and the 3rd defendant (the Central Police Force of Budapest and the Standby Police), to apologise to the plaintiffs for the ill treatment at issue, pay damages for the humiliation suffered, and barred similar future violations of the plaintiffs’ rights.
In addition, for the first time in Hungarian legal practice the court based its judgement, inter alia, on a legal expert’s opinion, that of Mr István Szikinger, thus giving a new interpretation to the ancient legal principle of iura novit curia. Traditionally, in continental legal systems, judges are considered to be the ultimate experts in deciding on legal issues. Expert opinions on medical, technical, and indeed other non-legal problems are commonplace, but this is the first time that a judge has accepted “outside clarification” of relevant legal points as a kind of an amicus curie brief. In view of the rapid development of international and comparative human rights law, and thus the emerging need for the harmonisation of legislation and legal practice on a global level, such open-mindedness has long been lacking.
Given that, in this sense, the judgement referred to truly qualifies as a landmark decision, below we will present relevant portions of its English language translation:
Municipal Court of Budapest
In the name of the Republic of Hungary, the Municipal Court of Budapest has rendered the following judgement in the action for damages filed by
- R.J., the 1st [plaintiff],
- R.J., the 2nd [plaintiff],
- R.L. the 3rd [plaintiff],
- R.B. the 4th [plaintiff],
- Represented by Dr. F.I. — attorney at law,
- The Central Police Force of Budapest, 1st defendant, represented by Dr. K.J. — legal advisor (BRFK Legal Department),
- The National Central Police Force, 2nd defendant, represented by Dr. T.Z. — legal advisor, general counsel,
- The Standby Police, 3rd defendant, represented by Dr. L.K. — legal advisor.
The Court hereby states that by using excessive force, which exceeded any reasonable standard, the 1st and the 3rd defendant committed an invasion of privacy and [a violation of] human dignity of the [...] plaintiffs. The Court bars the defendants from any further infringements [of the plaintiffs’ rights].
It orders the 1st and the 3rd defendant to apologise to each plaintiff in closed letters, and furthermore, to pay to the 2nd and the 3rd plaintiff each 250.000 HUF (i.e. two hundred and fifty thousand Hungarian Forints) within 15 days, and to the 4th plaintiff 400.000 HUF (i.e. four hundred thousand Hungarian Forints).
The Court dismisses all claims with respect to the 2nd defendant.
Reasoning of the Court
The Court found the claims of the plaintiffs well-founded...
...There was no justification for placing a hood on R.B.’s head, nor for forcing him to lay on the ground ... [having already been]... handcuffed; [all of] this impeded his breathing. In addition, he [was known to have been suffering] from a heart condition.
The plaintiffs appeared scantily dressed ... and were not armed, nor did they appear to be holding any object in their hands. They did not resist [the police]. There was no chance of escape because of numerous armed officers who had surrounded [and sealed off] the entire area... After their identification, and their homes having been searched, there was no need to keep them lying face down on the ground...
When they were taken to central police station, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th plaintiff remained handcuffed, while R.J. was handcuffed to a radiator...
After [the plaintiffs] were questioned, it became clear that they did not commit the crime at issue, and in the morning hours they were released just as scantly clothed as when they had been brought in to the police station for questioning ...
In the Court’s opinion, the 1st and the 3rd defendant used excessive force...
The plaintiffs attached S.I.’s ... [report] ... on the instant case, and requested that it be taken into account as an expert opinion. The paper analyses the police conduct with respect to the plaintiffs, in view of [relevant] policing standards, service regulations, criminal law, and the European Convention on Human Rights .... which the Court accepted. It [the opinion] shows that the defendants exceeded authority vested in them by the state when they acted with regard to the plaintiffs in a way that violated their human dignity. [Emphasis added]
- Factual description of the case is based on NEKI's White Booklet, 1998. NEKI is a Budapest based legal defence organization for national and ethnic minorities, and is together with the ERRC currently involved in an extensive human rights litigation project in Hungary.