How racist and incompetent policing cost Romani lives in Hungary

24 February 2023

By Bernard Rorke

Thursday, 23 February marked the 14th anniversary of the murder of five-year-old Robika Csorba and his father Robert, victims of a murderous series of attacks on Roma settlements across Hungary in 2008 and 2009. Six Roma were slain and over 50 others wounded in the wave of far-right terror, which left the maimed and the bereaved severely traumatized.

After midnight on 23 February 2009, in the village of Tatárszentgyörgy, attackers first threw Molotov cocktails, setting the Csorba family home ablaze. On hearing the bangs, Robert  grabbed his two eldest children, while his partner took the youngest child Maté.  As Robert fled the burning house, holding Robika close to his chest and Bianka by his side, a waiting gunman opened fire hitting all three. Only Bianka would survive.

Denying the crime and urinating on the evidence

When they arrived at the scene of the Csorba double murder, the police even denied a crime had taken place. They issued a statement later that morning saying “the fire in Tatárszentgyörgy, in which two people had died, had been caused by a short-circuit.” The police had to be called back to the scene because the family found footprints and spent cartridges in the bloodstained snow. One officer suggested the cartridge cases had been planted by the family. So careless were they that one police officer even urinated on one of the footprints. 

Only after Viktória Mohácsi, a Romani Member of the European Parliament, arrived and called in the National Investigation Bureau, was this incident acknowledged as a double homicide. An on-site fact finding mission by human rights groups including ERRC found the conduct of the police, paramedics and firefighters to have been criminally negligent, and the rights groups demanded that the police investigate the likelihood that this double murder was a racist hate crime.

More Romani lives lost as police deny racial motivation 

The police refused to see that this and other gun and bomb attacks on Roma were linked and racially motivated. They had previously speculated these attacks were carried out by loan sharks, jealous lovers, or feuding families, instead of investigating known violent far right extremists. 

Confidence in the police force was further shaken by an article which appeared in their trade union newsletter which stated that a “crumbling country, torn apart by Hungarian-Gypsy civil war could easily be claimed by the rich Jews [...] Given our current situation, anti-Semitism is not just our right, but is the duty of every Hungarian homeland lover, and we must prepare for armed battle against the Jews.”  Concern mounted further when the union announced a formal alliance with the anti-Roma far-right Jobbik, with the editor of the police newsletter running as a Jobbik candidate in the European elections. 

Finally, after Jenő Kóka was gunned down as he left home for his nightshift in a local factory in Tiszalök in May 2009 assassination, the police conceded that the atrocities were likely linked and carried out by a four-man cell with military expertise. However, they failed to apprehend the killers and to prevent the final assault in August 2009, when gunmen smashed their way into the home of Maria Balogh in the village of Kisléta, murdered her in her bed, and seriously wounded her 13-year-old daughter Ketrin. Following the arrests of the perpetrators, what was especially chilling was the lack of public sympathy and solidarity with the Romani victims.

No justice: under-policing, inaction, failure to protect, and police brutality 

No lessons were learned by the Hungarian police concerning their failures during the wave of serial killings to protect and serve Romani citizens. This was made clear when police stood idly by and allowed a 100-strong neo-Nazi mob of paramilitaries to descend on the village of Devecser in August 2012, hurling rocks and shouting “you are going to die” and that “All the trash must be swept out of the country” outside Romani homes. 

Five years later, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Hungarian authorities failed to protect Roma from racial abuse, and that the inaction of law enforcement “could be perceived by the public as the State’s legitimation and/or tolerance of such behaviour”

Police practices remain unchanged: ethnic profiling, stop and search, and discriminatory fining practices by local police are routine, while excessive use of force against Roma and a culture of impunity within law enforcement remains the norm. in addition to the intrusive and abusive practices of over-policing in the everyday lives of Roma, communities commonly feel unprotected by law enforcement officers, who have repeatedly failed to ensure public safety, a process referred to as the overpolicing-underpolicing paradox.

Research by FRA pointed to the link in Hungary between minorities’ lack of trust in the police and extensive under-reporting – 85% of Romani victims of serious harassment, assaults, or threats did not report these in-person crimes – and the reason most gave was that they were “not confident the police would be able to do anything.”

The police also fail to protect Roma from racially motivated hate crimes. On five occasions since October 2015, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found in favour of Romani applicants against the Hungarian state. On four occasions, Romani victims’ fundamental rights were violated due to the omissions of law-enforcement authorities in hate crime procedures, and the fifth case involved failure by the State to properly investigate police brutality against Roma.

Time to call out racist policing all over Europe

As we remember Robert Csorba and his little son Robika, we must not forget the casual racism of the police, their disrespect towards the victims of these atrocities, and the lethal cost of their neglect and incompetence as killers roamed free and undetected. Worse still, lessons went unlearned, police practices remain unchanged, and 14 years on Roma are still denied justice. As it is in Hungary, so it is across the European Union despite all the platitudes about embracing diversity.

The evidence gathered in ERRC’s recent report on police violence against Roma in six EU Member States suggests that all too often there is impunity for law enforcement concerning crimes against Roma; and demonstrates the extent to which anti-Roma racism is endemic and systemic within the ranks of officers paid to ‘protect and serve’. Beyond the blather about ‘bad apples’, the report demonstrates that law enforcement agencies are saturated with institutional discrimination. The case files cited in this report comprise a catalogue of official lies and botched investigations, testimonies concerning incidents of excessive, arbitrary, and sometimes lethal violence against young and old, deliberate attempts to discredit and intimidate victims, and protracted struggles through the courts for remedy, where justice for Roma is often denied and always delayed. Time to break the silence.


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