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Hungarian Appellate Court Upholds Release of Wrongly Convicted Roma

3 May 2006

ERRC Secures Release after Wrongful Imprisonment for Murder

Two Men in Custody for Close to Six Years

Budapest: In a decision communicated last week, an appellate court in Debrecen, Hungary, has upheld a July 2005 decision by the Hajdu-Bihar County Court to acquit at retrial two Romani men previously found guilty of murder. Reaffirming that the conviction of Mr. Ferenc Burka Jr. and Mr. Ferenc Burka Sr. had been unlawful, the Debrecen Appellate Court issued a binding and final decision on 24 April, confirming their release from jail. The two men had been sentenced to serve 15 and 13 years imprisonment respectively in 1999, following convictions on very weak evidence. They had spent close to six years in custody.

The facts of the case are as follows:

On 4 March 1999, a man was robbed and murdered in the village of Ujszentmargita 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 victims 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 interpreted the fact that only one pair of boots was found in the Burkashouse as evidence of the destruction of a purported second pair of boots. Also cited by the prosecutor as suspiciouswas the fact that, at the time of arrest, the Burkas had washed their clothes and hung them out to dry. Despite the fact that the police found a red hair in the victims hand, and although both of the Burkas have black hair, these facts were disregarded during the investigation.

On 2 April 2002, having been found guilty, the two men were sentenced to 15 and 13 years imprisonment respectively. They had by that time already been in custody since 16 March 1999.

After lawyers engaged by the ERRC Dr. Laszlo Zeke and Dr. Peter 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 placed under house arrest. They had, by that time, already spent exactly 2100 days in penitentiary. In the meantime, other witnesses came forward who testified to their innocence. Witnesses also identified another man, Mr. L.T., who reportedly stated that he was the actual perpetrator, and that he had carried out the deed because he thought the victim had stolen some construction tools from him.

On 9 July 2005, the Hajdu-Bihar County Court acquitted the two men. The prosecutor however appealed the decision, and the case was subsequently referred to the Debrecen Appellate Court. On 24 April, the Debrecen Court upheld the County Courts ruling. The lawyers plan to pursue claims for non-pecuniary damages.

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

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