"An average police department": The ERRC discusses the Hajdúhadház police department with the head of the Hungarian police
05 September 1999
On Wednesday August 18, Claude Cahn and Viktória Mohácsi, representatives of the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) met with Major General Dr Péter Orbán, High Commissioner of the Hungarian National Police. The explicit purpose of the meeting was to present ERRC concerns about police abuse in the eastern Hungarian town of Hajdúhadház. However, the meeting provided an opportunity to discuss the problems of police abuse in Hungary in general; anti-Romani sentiment in the Hungarian police force; and the ineffective application of penal code provisions pertaining to racially motivated crime. A summary of the discussion with High Commissioner Orbán follows.
The ERRC began by presenting its concerns about police abuse in the town of Hajdúhadház in Hajdú-Bihar County, roughly twenty kilometres from the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen. The ERRC had first been alerted to the problem of police abuse against Roma in autumn 1997, when the Hungarian organisation Foundation for Romani Civil Rights held a press conference in Debrecen to call attention to the issue. Subsequent ERRC investigation in Hajdúhadház revealed that police abuse in the town was rampant. Numerous Roma provided testimony to physical abuse by local police officers, as well as the practice of exacting exorbitant fines for minor offences such as not carrying personal identification documents. The ERRC published much of that testimony in the Autumn 1997 issue of the quarterly Roma Rights. That testimony is available on the ERRC internet homepage at www.errc.org.
In March 1999, following reports in the Hungarian electronic media of severe physical abuse against Roma in Hajdúhadház by police officers, the ERRC again conducted field research in the town. During that mission, the ERRC took detailed testimony in connection with three cases. In the first case, the ERRC documented the physical abuse of 16-year-old Attila Rezes while being detained and in police custody on January 11, 1999. He sustained permanent brain injuries as a result of being struck in the head with a truncheon; he remained in hospital for approximately twelve days after the attack. In the second case, four family members - 21-year-old Mr A.R., 19-year-old Mr Z.R., 19-year-old Mr D.R., all brothers, and their underage cousin, 15-year-old Mr L.H. - had been subjected to physical abuse in police custody while being interrogated on March 6, March 8, March 9 and March 10 in connection with a burglary. Additionally, police officers refused entry to the father of L.H. on March 8 and interrogated L.H. without a legal guardian, in contravention of Hungarian law. Finally, following the broadcast of a television program on the private Hungarian television station RTL-Klub about police brutality in Hajdúhadház, police officers reportedly detained a number of individuals, including a non-Romani man named József Vass and physically abused him on March 13. On March 17, journalists from RTL-Klub returned to Hajdúhadház and visited together with Mr Vass a bar known to be frequented by police officers . In the presence of a hidden camera, officers punched Mr Vass in the face. The incident was broadcast on RTL-Klub on March 18, 1999. Documentation of all three cases is available on the ERRC internet homepage at www.errc.org.
In response to public and international pressure, the Hungarian National Police Headquarters opened investigation into events in Hajduhadház. On June 18, 1999, the National Police announced at a press conference in Budapest that investigation at the national level had been closed with the result that one officer had been transferred. A second officer had, according to the National Police statement, voluntarily left the police force. The results of the investigation had been forwarded to the Interior Ministry and relevant police departments, and the National Police Headquarters stated that a conflict resolution program would be implemented in Hajdúhadház in co-ordination with the Interior Ministry.
The ERRC was subsequently provided with more detailed information concerning legal proceedings against officers in Hajdúhadház. Specifically, in connection with the case of Attila Rezes, the Hajdú-Bihar County Prosecutors Office had, on May 28, 1999, brought the following charges: Sergeant I.N. was charged with one count of life-threatening assault and one count of ill-treating a suspect in the course of official duties; Sergeant L.V. was charged with one count of ill-treating a suspect in the course of official duties; Major S.N. and Sergeant-Major J.K. were each charged with two counts of using force while interrogating a suspect. Additionally, in connection with the case, a civilian named G.H. was charged with one count of perjury. As of June 18, 1999, no date had been set for hearings in the case.
In the incidents pertaining to the mistreatment in detention of A.R., Z.R., D.R., and L.H., according to information provided to the ERRC, no officers were charged. In connection with the physical mistreatment of Mr József Vass, the Hajdu-Bihar County Prosecutors office charged Sergeant-Major L.E. with bullying and assault. Officer L.E. was reported to have left the police force. Additionally, prosecutors charged Mr G.M and Mr T.M., the two owners of the pub in which the televised assault took place, with suspicion of perjury, for telling investigators that the assault had not taken place.
It was subsequently reported to the ERRC that the officer who had resigned the force, Sergeant-Major L.E., had been hired as a private security guard by the Hajdúhadház mayor's office.
MAJOR GENERAL ORBÁN SPEAKS
The ERRC met with Major General Dr Péter Orbán after first submitting written documentation pertaining to Hajdúhadház cases by fax. At the meeting, the ERRC requested information pertaining to the situation in Hajdúhadház and the disciplining of police officers in the town. The ERRC additionally explored more general problems pertaining to the Hungarian police including: the problem of anti-Romani sentiment among the police; the problem that legal proceedings are much more likely against persons suspected of crimes against police officers than vice versa; and the problem of obtaining accurate data concerning disciplinary actions taken against police officers who abuse their power. Finally, the ERRC requested information on internal instructions provided to police officers on how to investigate racially motivated crime.
Major General Orbán told the ERRC that the Hajdúhadház police department comprises 83 police officers and fifteen civilian employees. According to him, in 1998 three police officers were indicted for crimes; one received a prosecutorial reprimand; seventeen cases pertaining to police officers were heard by courts. Additionally, there were six police officers against whom a prosecutorial investigation was open. In total, judicial and prosecutorial proceedings were open in forty-two separate cases against Hajdúhadház police officers. Major General Orbán was keen to emphasise that not all of the cases open pertain to Roma. He stated that in the cases of Attila Rezes and József Vass, investigations ordered by the Hajdú-Bihar County Prosecutor's Office had been opened prior to the investigation by his office.
Given the length of time necessary for judicial proceedings to bring results, the high standards of evidence required to prosecute a police officer, and the possibility that if criminal proceedings were the only method of sanction applied against police officers, it was highly unlikely that police brutality against Roma in Hajdúhadház would end soon, the ERRC was anxious to learn what internal sanction was being applied against police officers by the police department itself. Major General Orbán responded that in 1998 there had been 15 disciplinary actions in Hajdúhadház. Of these, five police officers had been reprimanded; a fine was imposed on two police officers; one police officer was suspended; and "milder action", including written warning and six-month exclusion from the possibility of receiving bonuses, had been taken against six police officers. Finally, the sum of fifteen was completed by one case in which there were "no negative consequences". Although it was not clear how "no negative consequences" constituted a disciplinary action, the ERRC left the issue. Major General Orbán additionally stated that as a rule, internal disciplinary procedures are suspended if there is a criminal procedure open against an officer. Given the relatively low number of internal procedures open against police officers (intuitively, one would expect that internal sanction would take place at a much higher rate than the extreme measure of criminal proceedings), the ERRC concluded that initiating legal proceedings against police officers, however ineffective, was still more likely to produce results than expecting superior officers to exercise proper control, at least in the case of Hajduhadház.
Finally, given the considerable number of criminal proceedings open against officers from Hajdúhadház, the ERRC inquired as to whether, in the opinion of Major General Orbán, he thought that the Hajdúhadház police department was a normal Hungarian police department or whether it was somehow aberrant. Major General Orbán stated: "I have to say that the Hajdúhadház police department is an average police department. [...] Since on that territory the percentage of the Romani population is much higher than elsewhere, it is much more infested with crime."
ARE HUNGARIAN POLICE PREJUDICED?
The ERRC told Major General Orbán that it was concerned about anti-Romani sentiments in the police force. The ERRC asked Major General Orbán to comment on the study by sociologists György Csepeli, Antal Ă–rkeny and Mária Székelyi, published in the Hungarian daily Magyar Hirlap on March 28, 1998. According to the study, which solicited the opinions of 1530 police officers, 80% of police officers consider Roma violent and 54% of officers questioned stated that they believe that a criminal way of life is a key element in the Romani identity. Only 11% of officers questioned disagreed explicitly with the statement. Seventy-eight percent of officers surveyed in the 1998 study responded that they believe there is an explicit connection between crime and ethnicity. Ten percent of police officers surveyed held explicitly racist views, according to the study. Finally, the study found that police officers tend to drastically overestimate the size of the Romani population of Hungary. Major General Orbán's comment, when asked about the findings of the 1998 study, was, "Yes, from a sociological perspective this does happen, but the police is a law enforcement body and not a sociological one, although there are sociological moments as well."
The ERRC turned to the issue of the possibility of achieving criminal redress when police officers exceed their authority and the possibility that such officers will be adequately disciplined by their superiors. Toward this end, the ERRC presented Major General Orbán with statistics published in the 1998 "White Booklet" of the Budapest-based non-governmental organisation Legal Defence Bureau for Ethnic Minorities (NEKI). These show that in cases where the alleged victim is a civilian and the perpetrator a police officer, legal proceedings were far less likely than in the opposite case, i.e., where the officer claims to have been attacked by a civilian. Specifically, according to the NEKI study, in 386 reports of forced interrogation, only 41 (11%) resulted in indictment; in 843 reported cases of police ill-treatment, only 114 (14%) resulted in indictment; and in 174 complaints of unlawful detention, only 22 (13%) resulted in indictment. These figures compare starkly with indictments in cases in which police officers were reportedly victimised: in 465 reported instances of violence against a public official, 329 (71%) reportedly resulted in indictment. Much of the problem appears to be, according to the NEKI study, at the level of police investigation; investigations are often not ordered or are terminated in cases where the alleged perpetrator is a police officer.
Major General Orbán's explanation of this problem was that police officers, who fill out reports about abuse every day, tend to be better at filing complaints than civilians. Thus, when they themselves feel they are the victims of abuse, police officers know exactly what to put into the report such that it will result in indictment. Major General Orbán additionally stated that the statistics could be explained because abuses against police officers tended to take place in public. When the ERRC prompted him, stating that it was true that many abuses by police officers took place in detention, Major Orbán replied, "Or in places such as dark alleys." The ERRC then asked what measures the national police had taken in order to overcome this phenomenon. Major General Orbán responded at length:
"It is very difficult to prove ill-treatment, abuse during interrogation or unlawful detention because of these circumstances. Also, cases in which the prosecutor dismissed the charges should be examined one by one. [...] Here is a typical example: A Mr Kolompár, a Rom, is on the wanted list. Two police officers go to his residence and tell his family that they will arrest him on the charges of burglary. He is handcuffed and led out of the house. The arrested person's family cling onto the man, saying that they will not let him go. The police officers say that if the family members don't let him go, they will use force. The family does not obey, the police officer hits the family member on the hand. The family member then goes to hospital for a medical certificate and then brings charges against the police officer. But the law says that if somebody hinders a police officer in performing his duties, force can be used against him or her. A high percentage of cases are of this kind." Kolompár is a typical Romani name in Hungary.
In response to the ERRC's request for current statistics on internal disciplinary action taken against police officers, Major General Orbán refused to provide any.
The ERRC had intended to raise the issue of anti-racism training in the Hungarian police academy. However, Major General Orbán raised the issue himself, describing the issue, however, not as a problem of the abuse of state power, but rather as one of conflicting groups - on the one side the Roma and on the other side the police:
"Around eight years ago, officials gathered the courage to acknowledge that there is a certain degree of antipathy between the Romani population in Hungary and the police. It also has to be emphasised that the position of both sides is somewhat exaggerated. Police officers say that they have many more problems with Roma than with other citizens, while Roma say that the police are picking on them, are prejudiced against them. Since the time this problem came to surface, both the Minister of the Interior and the National Police Headquarters took a number of measures to remedy the situation. The present Minister of the Interior who was then the Chief of Police invited the executives of all Roma non-governmental organisations to meet for an informal discussion to address the problem. I attended that meeting too - I was at that time a County Police Chief. We concluded an agreement to co-operate."
"A program was subsequently launched. The origins of the Romani ethnicity, the traditions, culture and Romani lifestyle became a subject of instruction at police schools. The current chief of the press office of the Ministry of the Interior who then worked for the National Police launched a project in those days designed to support talented Roma who potentially can become police officers. There also was a soccer match, which I unfortunately could not attend, organised for the Roma team and the team of the National Police. There are counties which have a separate Romani civil guard body to assist the work of the police. And I am looking forward to an appointment with [Head of the State Advisory "National Gypsy Minority Self-Government"] Flórián Farkas to sign an agreement of co-operation with the National Police." Major General Orbán did not provide the ERRC with details on the proposed content of National Gypsy Minority Self-Government and National Police co-operation. Major General Orbán also stated that he was aware of the number of Romani members of the police force, but data protection laws prevented him from disclosing this number.
Finally, the ERRC raised the issue of the investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crime in Hungary. Until 1996, no one had ever been prosecuted under Hungary's racially motivated crimes provisions, Article 156 of the Hungarian Penal Code. In 1996, the Penal Code was amended and a new provision, Article 174B entered into force. Article 174B(1) states, "Any person who, because he knows or suspects that his victim is a member of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, threatens or forces his victim to act or tolerate any act of another person, commits a felony and is punishable with imprisonment of up to five years [unofficial translation]." Article 174B(2), provides for stricter punishment under the aggravating circumstances that the perpetrators were armed, "used other dangerous objects", caused a deliberate injury or loss, tortured the victim, committed the crime in a group, or were members of an organised group.
The ERRC is aware of only three instances in which judges sentenced perpetrators under Article 174B, and the first such decisions were reached only in 1999. In at least two of these cases, the victims were not Roma. In light of the socially grave nature of racially motivated crime and the relative paucity of prosecutions of racially motivated crimes in Hungary, the ERRC asked Major General Orbán to describe the instructions provided to police officers on how to investigate racially motivated crimes.
Major General Orbán responded as follows: "What makes us different from the United States police is that one cannot become a policeman in Hungary having completed a six-week course. Training is at least two years and since we do not have police judges, the functions are delegated to police officers. Thus the police officers receive legal education in special schools so they don't have to be instructed every week. An example: vandalism in a Jewish cemetery. We conducted a criminal investigation. Finally the court of criminal justice passed a sentence on charges of vandalism, not racially motivated crime. The judge's interpretation of the case was that three drunk persons got into the cemetery, didn't know where they were, and started overturning tombstones."
When asked, Major General Orbán stated that no special written instructions were provided to police officers as to how to investigate racially motivated crimes. The ERRC therefore asked him to explain what standard of evidence was required by police officers in order to regard a crime as racially motivated. Would, for example, the fact that a person with no hair had beaten up a Gypsy lead the police to conclude that a crime was racially motivated. Major General Orbán stated, "If the skinhead says that he beat the Gypsy because he hates Gypsies and wants them out of the country, then it is a racially-motivated crime. But if the skinhead says, "I beat the Gypsy because he said that the soles of my mother's feet were hairy," [then the crime would not be considered racially motivated]."
The ERRC therefore asked if regarding a crime as racially motivated were entirely dependent on the confession of the alleged perpetrator. The ERRC asked if, for example, peers were questioned to determine whether the perpetrator had made racist statements in the past. Major General Orbán responded, "You don't have to instruct police officers to do this, we have certain information in our records, and a house search can be organised where evidence can be found, for example printed materials containing racial propaganda."
The ERRC stated that it was concerned that, in the recent case of the killing of a thirteen-year-old Romani boy named Krisztián Mohácsi in the village of Göd, just outside Budapest, police statements to the effect that the crime had not been racially motivated were made a disturbingly short period of time after the crime had been committed. How was it possible that police were conducting a thorough investigation into the possible racial motivation of a crime if they were declaring within a matter of days that the crime was not racially motivated? Major General Orbán responded, "As far as I am advised on this case, this young Romani boy was rather a violent person, mugged several children and used a knife in the process. The two young perpetrators were held at knife-point by the victim. Also this young person was on his way to buy a car, and at the age of 13 you don't normally buy a car."
The ERRC told Major General Orbán that nevertheless it seemed that police statements concerning racially motivated crime in the case might have been premature. Were police instructed to continue inquiring into possible racial motivation after they had arrived at one version of events which might seem plausible to them? In response, Major General Orbán stated, "Naturally. A full investigation is carried out including an examination of the perpetrators by forensic psychologists for aggressiveness, as well as to determine whether they are telling the truth. The Criminal Procedure Code says that all mitigating and aggravating factors must be explored by the investigating authority in all detail. In such major criminal cases arousing public interest, police are under close supervision of district attorney's office and the police are bound by law to submit weekly reports to the prosecutor's office on the progress they are making in the investigation of the case."
The ERRC left the interview with Major General Orbán pessimistic that racially motivated crime against Roma was being adequately investigated and punished in Hungary. In comparison with the Czech Republic, where several gruesome killings of Roma by skinheads have caused the issue to become the subject of public scrutiny in recent years, in Hungary no such debate has taken place, although non-governmental organisations estimate the number of violent skinheads in Hungary to be roughly the same as that of the Czech Republic. On the issue of police abuse and racism among the police, both of which have been the subject of documentary films, media scrutiny and a number of human rights reports, the ERRC left no more reassured. Where the commanding officer of the Hungarian police can in one breath dismiss reports of racism among police officers as "sociological" and in the next describe the main reason for police abuse in one Hungarian town as the fact of its having a large Romani population, evidently the effective strategy to reform the police is lacking. Indeed, on the most important issues within the competence of Major General Orbán's office, such as specifically how many officers in the Hungarian police force have been suspended, dismissed or otherwise disciplined by their superiors for breaches of conduct, the Major General provided no information.