Far-right violence against Roma in Hungary: victory in Strasbourg for the Helsinki Committee

By Bernard Rorke

Just one week after the Fidesz government launched its latest brazen assault on Hungarian NGOs specifically targeting the Helsinki Committee, the Committee scored a victory against the state in Strasbourg. In a judgment in the case of Király and Dömötör v. Hungary issued on 17 January, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that the Hungarian State violated Article 8 of the Convention in the wake of violent incidents in the village of Devecser, during an anti-Roma demonstration attended by nine far-right groups and members of Jobbik. The applicants were awarded EUR 10,700 each in damages, and the ECtHR sent a clear message to the Hungarian Government about its positive obligations and abject failures to protect Roma communities from intimidation by far-right extremists.

Devecser August 2012: Riotous and racist assembly

On 5 August 2012 the western town of Devecser, better known for being flooded by toxic red sludge in 2010, found itself flooded again, this time by an estimated 1000-strong mob of neo-Nazis and far-right thugs. Speakers at the demonstration called on demonstrators to fight back against “Gypsy criminality” and to “sweep out the rubbish from the country.” Video footage shows Zsolt Tyirityán of Betyársereg (Outlaw Army), speaking of racial warfare and ethnic cleansing. “The gypsy is coded in such a way that criminality is in him,” he said. “I consider myself a racist, and I am going to stand up for the cause of not giving our living-space over to an ulterior race.” Other statements included “The genetically coded trash must be exterminated from public life”; “We are going to stamp out this phenomenon, it must be extirpated from our lives.”

The demonstrators marched on the Roma neighbourhood chanting “Gypsy criminality”, “Gypsies, you will die”, and “We will burn your house down and you will die inside”, “We will come back when the police are gone”, and other obscenities. According to the court report “Sporadically, quasi‑military demonstrations of force occurred, involving military-style uniforms, formations, commands and salutes.” Some demonstrators, equipped with sticks and whips, covered their faces and dismantled the police cordon between the mob and the Roma houses. Then they threw pieces of concrete, stones and plastic bottles into the gardens egged on by the baying mob.

The applicant’s case

The applicants stated that the police were aware of the potential for violence, and had been officially informed that in addition to members of Jobbik, nine racist far-right militant groups would be present and would seek to provoke conflict with the Roma community – a message that was clear from their websites. Devecser had been classified as special risk zone and 200 police officers were deployed to secure the demonstration. According to the applicants, the police remained passive and did not disperse the demonstration; nor did they take any steps to establish the criminal responsibility of the demonstrators.

In November 2012 the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights concluded in its report that the police had failed to assess whether the event had infringed the rights and freedoms of others, and that the demonstration had been used to incite ethnic tensions on the basis of the collective guilt of the ethnic group.  By not enforcing the limits of freedom of assembly, the police had caused anomalies in respect of the right to peaceful assembly and the Roma population’s right to dignity and private life. Certain speeches amounted to incitement, evidenced by the fact that rocks were thrown at Roma houses during the speeches; and the Commissioner “found it regretful that the police had failed to identify the perpetrators on the spot, which was inconsistent with their task of preventing and investigating crimes and with the right to dignity, non-discrimination and physical integrity.”

The applicants argued that as members of a captive audience, subjected to intentional harassment, the threats made in the course of an openly racist rally accompanied by acts of violence, caused such a degree of fear and distress that rendered Article 8 applicable in this case. The applicants also referred to the general context of the demonstration and the widespread discrimination suffered by the Roma minority, including repeated instances of hate speech and a series of hate-motivated killings.

The government’s case

The government contended that the applicants had not exhausted available domestic remedies; and submitted that the alleged failure of the police to ban or disperse the demonstration had corresponded to their obligation to strike a fair balance between two competing interests: the right of a political group to freedom of expression and assembly, guaranteed by Articles 10 and 11 on the one hand, and on the other, the right of the local residents to their private life, guaranteed by Article 8. In the government’s opinion, the interference with the applicants’ right to private life had been negligible, the demonstration had lasted only two hours, and the sporadic acts of violence only a couple of minutes. Thus, the government maintained that the event could not be characterised as violent, justifying possible dispersal.

It also maintained that the subsequent criminal investigation complied with the State’s positive obligations under Article 8. The government submitted that domestic authorities, having a better knowledge of a particular society, were better placed to decide where the limits of free speech and hate speech should be set, and an open debate would allow for mitigating racist tensions within the society.

The Court’s assessment

The court made short shrift of the government’s objections and declared the application to be admissible on all grounds, and in summing up was strongly critical of the Hungarian state failures. The court found that the cumulative effect of shortcomings in the investigations, especially the lack of a comprehensive law enforcement approach into the events, was that an openly racist demonstration, with sporadic acts of violence remained virtually without legal consequences and the applicants were not provided with the required protection of their right to psychological integrity.

The court found that the applicants were left without effective legal protection against an openly anti-Roma demonstration, the aim of which was no less than the organised intimidation of the Roma community, including the applicants, by means of a paramilitary parade, verbal threats and speeches advocating a policy of racial segregation. And in a particularly damning final sentence: “The Court is concerned that the general public might have perceived such practice as legitimisation and/or tolerance of such events by the State.”

Thus the Court concluded that the State failure to comply with its positive obligations under Article 8 of the Convention amounted to a violation of Article 8, and awarded non-pecuniary and pecuniary damages to both applicants.

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