"Local apartheid" in Sátoraljaújhely, Hungary

07 November 1997

Csilla Dér

Articles appearing in the Hungarian press report that on June 20, 1997, the representative body of the local government in Sátoraljaújhely in Borsod Abaúj-Zemplén County in northeast Hungary adopted the following resolution:

"The Sátoraljaújhely representative body has resolved that [...] people who are unable to adapt to life in the city and who violate and endanger public safety are declared persona non grata and in the future [the representative body] will use all available legal means to ensure that these people move out of the city."1

Although the resolution does not use the term "Roma", only four Roma families - approximately forty individuals - were mentioned by representative body officials by name. The body went on to instruct the "procedural and minority committee" of the town to investigate what legal possibilities were available to the local government to carry out the decision.

The targeted families had moved to Sátoraljaújhely from the neighbouring village of Ricse. The extraordinary session at which the decision had been adopted was called by local Roma leader and member of the representative body Mr Mihály Márton.

In explaining how he intended to implement the decision, Mr Károly Lackó, the mayor of Sátoraljaújhely, told the press, "The houses where the Roma live are low-price properties. When we learn that one of them wants to sell the house, we also make an offer. One of the families left already. In their case I told them that unless they lelt within a week, I'd send their children to a social care home. They left, and the municipality financed their moving. There is another family's house which we will buy and then bulldoze."

In an interview shown on the weekly television news program A Hét, Sátoraljaújhely Mayor Lackó cited "genetic reasons" for the behaviour of the families in question. Five Hungarian non-governmental organisations, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Foundation for Romani Civil Rights (RPA), Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities (NEKI), Hungarian Center for Human Rights (MEDOK), and Civil Liberties Association (TASZ), subsequently protested the statement by the mayor and called on the mayor to make a public apology. The mayor then stated that he had "no reason to apologise", because his statement had been taken out of context due to an editorial cut.

Ombudsman for National and Ethnic Minorities Jenő Kaltenbach, commenced an ex officio investigation of the decision of the Sátoraljaújhely local authorities. On August 25, he announced that his office had found the decision unconstitutional. Mr Kaltenbach stated that the decision violated constitutional provisions on the separation of powers,2 the presumption of innocence, the freedom of movement and the freedom to choose one's place of residence,3 and the provision banning discrimination.4

The Ombudsman also found violations by both the Sátoraljaújhely notary and the County Public Administration Office (Közigazgatási Hivatal) of Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County. Mr Kaltenbach stated that the notary of Sátoraljaújhely had violated his duties by not informing the representative body that their decision and procedure were unconstitutional. He went on to note that the County Public Administration Office had not acted in accordance with its legal obligations because it had not found the decision unconstitutional and, as a result, had not taken the necessary measures5 Finally, Mr Kaltenbach stated that attempts by local authorities to isolate Roma, which he condemned as "local apartheid", are common in Hungary. The Ombudsman called for a criminal investigation of the local government's actions to be carried out by the County Prosecutor's Office of Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County.

On August 27, the County Public Administration Office found that the local authority's decision did not violate any law. On October 28, Dr György Borsodi, the second highest official in the Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County Prosecutor's Office, told the ERRC that criminal investigation into the actions of the local government was still open. The mayor has publicly repeated his determination not to withdraw the decision.

On September 8, the Legal Defense Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities (NEKI) submitted a complaint to the Constitutional Court, requesting annulment of the resolution of the Sátoraljaújhely local government. NEKI argued that the decision of the Sátoraljaújhely local government is unconstitutional because it violates, among other things, the right to property; the right to freedom of movement and the freedom to choose one's place of residence; and the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of race, social status, wealth and other circumstances. NEKI additionally expressed its concern that the decision of the local government could result in a number of residents of the town suffering further discrimination. NEKI further emphasised that if such a decision is not withdrawn, it could create a precedent under which other local governments might bring unconstitutional and unlawful decisions. Finally, NEKI requested that the court order annulment of the finding by the County Public Administration Office that the local government resolution had not violated any law. The Constitutional Court is examining the complaint.

Endnotes:

  1. Resolution no. 129/1997/7756/V1.20.
  2. Article 57(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Hungary. Mr Kaltenbach reasoned that in Hungary, courts are the exclusive authorities for the administration of justice. The constitutional rights of citizens of the country cannot be restricted by denouncing them as persona non grata, even if the restriction is purportedly adopted in the interest of public safety and order. The local government applied the punishment of expulsion (Criminal Code Article 60) without having the authority to do so.
  3. Articles 57(2) and 58(1)
  4. Article 70/A(2).
  5. Under the 1990 Local Government Act, the County Public Administration Office is empowered to investigate local governments and, if it has found a violation of the law, Gall upon the local government to cease its infringement of the law, setting a deadline by which to do so. If the local government does not comply, the County Public Administration Office may, among other things, refer the case to the Constitutional Court.

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