Romani university student beaten by police in Hungary

15 July 1999

The Budapest-based Roma Press Center reported on June 10, 1999, that the organisation Foundation for Romani Civil Rights had filed a lawsuit against unknown police officers who had allegedly physically abused Mr László Sárközi, a young Romani college student, the previous day in one of the parks of Budapest and then in the city's 10th district police station.

According to Mr Sárközi, he was walking home on June 9 at around 4:00 pm near the Népliget Park when a white car stopped next to him. Three plainclothes policemen stepped out of the car and asked him to show his identification card and place the contents of his pockets on the bonnet of the car. He handed them his identification card and gave them the documents he had with him, which included his poems and his college notes. However, when he refused to let them read his papers, the policemen reportedly threw him to the ground, handcuffed and kicked him, calling him a „stinking Gypsy" and a homosexual. They then summoned an officer by walkie-talkie whom they referred to as „Major", who told them to bring him to the police station of the 10th district. Officers transported Mr Sárközi to the 10th district station, where they reportedly further abused Mr Sárközi in detention. He was held for a period of approximately two hours. Mr Sárközi states that, when released, he reportedly told the police officers that he intended to file a complaint against them. In response, they kicked him again in the stomach and the back, and threatened to charge him with refusing to identify himself.

After being released at around 7:00 pm the same day, Mr Sárközi went to the nearest hospital to dress his wounds and to ask for a medical certificate. However, the hospital's staff claimed that they did not have the necessary documents and sent him away. He had to find another hospital where they were willing to attend his wounds. Officer Lukács Kádár, police chief in Budapest's 10th district reportedly told the Roma Press Center that Mr Sárközi had not been arrested by police officers in the 10th district, and that „no police officer had reported physical abuse during the period". The Foundation for Romani Civil Rights reported that they had commissioned a lawyer to represent Mr Sárközi.

Hungarian courts have recently found officials guilty in cases in which Roma have been physically abused and even shot. On March 12, the second instance court of Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county reached a decision in the case of the foresters and policeman who had shot Romani inhabitants of Tiszakarád in January 1996. The sentence is more strict than that imposed by the first instance court. In the incident, bullets fired by the foresters and police officer reportedly hit two Romani men, and the police officer allegedly beat a Romani woman and sprayed tear gas in her face.

The case concerns an incident in which, on January 31, 1996, at around 10:00 am, two foresters and an off-duty police officer shot Roma who were gathering wood on the banks of the frozen Tisza river. According to testimony given to the Prosecutor's Office by Romani victim Mr B.E., he started to run along the river after he heard Ms M.S., a Romani woman, shout that the police were there. He heard five or six shots, and then a call to stop. At the same time as the call to stop, Mr B.E. heard a shot and felt a sting in his neck. The medical report confirms that a bullet had entered his neck from behind and on the left side. He carried on running and heard more shots fired from both sides. Mr B.E. noticed that bullets hit the bank close to him but he was not hit again.

In his testimony, Romani victim Mr H.M. described how he observed the above events from the far bank of the river. As he crossed the frozen river he saw two men come on to the river from the opposite bank. One of them fired a warning shot. Mr H.M. started to run away from the men and heard two more shots which hit the ice around him. When he reached the other bank, the policeman and two other men ordered him to stop. He did not stop, but carried on running. Between six and nine shots were fired after him, some hitting his legs and the back of his thighs. Mr H.M. sustained eight minor injuries, confirmed by a doctor's testimony. According to the testimony of Romani victim Ms M.S., the police officer sprayed tear gas in her eyes without warning. He then allegedly knocked her to the ground and kicked her repeatedly in the shins and lower back. She stood up and attempted to run away, at which point one of the foresters reportedly tried to hit her with the butt of his rifle but missed. As Ms M.S. ran away, he allegedly shot at her twice, but neither shot hit her. After the incident, one of the injured Roma told the Roma Press Center that the attackers had shouted racist slogans.

The public prosecutor's office began investigations into the actions of five foresters and one police officer. In June 1996, they suspended the case against three of the foresters; in the case of one forester because the act committed was not a crime, and in the case of two others, because the crime could not be established. The prosecutor's office filed an indictment at the town court against three persons — two foresters and the police officer — for abuse of hunting weapons, deliberately endangering life in the course of duty, abuse of an official position and light bodily harm. The first court verdict, reached on April 17, 1998, sentenced the police officer, who had by that time retired, to eight months imprisonment suspended for two years, and the two foresters to seven and six months imprisonment respectively. Both of these sentences were suspended for two years. The verdict ruled that over half the court costs, which totalled around 400,000 Hungarian forints (approximately 1600 euros) should be paid by the Hungarian state. After the court decision, the prosecutor applied for a graver, the perpetrators for a lighter sentence.

On March 12, 1999, the appeal court sentenced the ex-police officer to fifteen months, and the two foresters to one year and ten months of imprisonment respectively, all suspended for the period of two years of probation. While the first decision transferred a significant part of the court costs to the taxpayers, the appeal court revised this decision. The court obliged the perpetrators to pay court costs totalling 318,000 Hungarian forints (approximately 1270 euros), while the state would pay only around 77,000 Hungarian forints (approximately 310 euros).

The Ministry of Interior Department of Oversight held a press conference on June 18 to announce the results of on-going Ministry investigations of police departments in three municipalities, including the eastern Hungarian town of Hajduhadház, site of intensive ERRC investigation into police brutality against the Romani community (see „Notebook", Roma Rights, 1/99). The Ministry announced that in the case of Attila Rezes, a Romani youth who suffered severe head injuries at the hands of officers on January 11, 1999, four officers were currently under investigation. According to the Ministry, Hajduhadház has the highest reported level of police violence in Hungary. The Ministry stated that 26 police officers — exactly half of the Hajduhadház police department — have recently been under investigation in relation to complaints lodged over the past three years. Most of the complaints concern the use of force during police interrogation. A Ministry spokesperson announced that one police officer, Mr Lajos Enyedi, who was recorded on video tape by the Hungarian television programme Fókusz punching a non-Romani man named József Vass on March 17, 1999, had reached a mutual agreement with the head of the Hajduhadház police department to resign from the force. The Ministry stated that one other officer, the head of the criminal investigations department of the Hajduhadház police department, had been transferred. The Ministry reportedly concluded that, „In Hajduhadház, citizens do not have adequate possibility to complain against the police." The Ministry stated that investigation is continuing into the actions of the other officers. Statements by the Ministry on June 18 provoke the suspicion that no further disciplinary action is planned: Ministry spokesperson Dr György Eiselt stated, „The removal of the guilty officers will not resolve the problem." Mr Eiselt called for a conflict resolution programme in Hajduhadház. The Ministry presented a person named Dr Sándor Geskó at the press conference who stated that his profession was „sociologist" and who has evidently been provided with an unspecified sum of money to conduct a conflict resolution programme in Hajduhadház including promoting „dialogue between minority groups and the police". As of June 19, Dr Geskó had contacted neither the European Roma Rights Center nor the Foundation for Roma Civil Rights, another group that has carried out extensive work in Hajduhadház. The ERRC continues to monitor the situation in Hajduhadház and calls for officers who have abused their authority to be suitably disciplined.

(ERRC, Magyar Hírlap, NEKI, Roma Press Center)


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