Strasbourg Court Finds Hungary in Breach of Human Rights Standards in a Roma Police Brutality Case
15 December 2004
In 21 July 2004, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found that the Hungarian Government had violated the European Convention on Human Rights in the case of Sandor Balogh v. Hungary. The case concerns abuse in police custody and was filed on 8 April 1999 as part of a joint strategic litigation project undertaken by the Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities (NEKI) and the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC). In its ruling, the Court held that there had been a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) and no violations of Article 13 (right to an effective remedy), Article 6 (access to court), and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination). Under Article 41 of the Convention, concerning just satisfaction, the Court awarded Mr. Balogh 4,000 euros for pecuniary damages, 10,000 euros for non-pecuniary damages and 3,000 euros for costs and expenses.
Sandor Balogh is a Hungarian citizen of Romani origin born in 1958. On 9 August 1995 he was taken to Oroshaza police station, where he was interrogated for several hours concerning a number of fuel vouchers which he and others had allegedly stolen. Mr. Balogh claimed that during the questioning one of the police officers repeatedly slapped him across the face and his left ear, while others punched him on the shoulder. Following this ordeal and on his way out of the station, Mr. Balogh was met on the ground floor of the police station by four of his friends, all of whom testified that he had a red and swollen face and that he must have been physically abused.
Having returned to his home in Miskolc, on 11 August 1995, Mr. Balog consulted a local doctor, who advised him to report to a hospital. On 14 August 1995 an operation was carried out to reconstruct Mr. Balogh’s left ear drum which had been seriously damaged as a result of the police abuse.
Criminal proceedings were initiated against the police officers involved and, on 16 November 1995, a medical expert concluded that it could not be determined whether the injury in question had been caused before, during or after Mr. Balogh’s interrogation by the police. On 30 November 1995, the criminal proceedings were discontinued. On 24 January 1996 the investigation resumed. Ultimately, however, the investigating authorities found that it could not be excluded beyond all doubt when the injuries in question had actually been sustained.
As of 1 August 1996, the Mr. Balogh’s working capacity was confirmed to have diminished by 50% due to bronchial asthma and impaired hearing. He was therefore unable to have his lorry driver’s licence renewed or to obtain employment as a driver. Mr. Balogh applied for compensation with the Ministry of Interior but was unsuccessful.
A subsequent medical opinion found that a traumatic perforation of the ear drum is usually caused by a slap on the ear and that Mr. Balogh’s account of how his injury occurred was entirely plausible. In response to this new evidence, Mr. Balogh’s counsel requested that criminal proceedings be re-opened. However, the Public Prosecutor’s Office declined to do so and explained that it was impossible to substantiate Mr. Balogh’s allegations.
In its judgement of 21 July 2004, the Court noted that official medical reports found that Mr. Balogh had suffered a traumatic perforation of the left eardrum and that the most common cause of such injuries is a slap on the face. Mr. Balogh’s four friends confirmed that he left the police station with a red and swollen face, and concluded that he must have been beaten. The Court noted that Mr. Balogh sought medical help several days following the incident, on 11 August 1995, but was reluctant to attribute any decisive significance to this delay. It also took into account that the Hungarian authorities had carried out a reasonably thorough investigation into Mr. Balogh’s allegations and that the prosecutor’s task was made difficult in view of the absence of independent eyewitnesses. However, the Court then pointed out that the Hungarian Government was unable to provide any plausible explanation for the cause of the applicant’s injuries, and that it was believable that they were inflicted in police custody. Consequently, the Court found a violation of Article 3 of the Convention, but on the same facts held that there was no violation of Articles 13, 6 and 14.
The Court’s ruling in the case of Sandor Balogh v. Hungary has particular significance in that the Court has made it clear that Roma unfortunately still suffer from police abuse across Europe. In addition, it has stressed that with respect to persons deprived of liberty, any recourse to physical force which is not made strictly necessary by the conduct of the detainee will amount to a violation of human rights standards. Finally, the Court’s judgement has underscored that the requirements of a criminal investigation and the undeniable difficulties inherent in the fight against crime can never justify placing limits on the protection of an individual’s physical integrity or personal dignity.