The decision by the County Court (Törvényszék) of Miskolc to sentence nine Roma persons for racism „against Hungarians” for attacking the car of far-right activists in a small Hungarian town, Sajóbábony shows serious misunderstandings in how courts apply the law and demonstrates the wide-spread negative discrimination present in criminal sentencing.
On the 14th of September 2009, the extreme right-wing party Jobbik organized an event in Sajóbábony, (County of Borsod). Over hundred far right activits gathered in front of a building. Members of the group were wearing clothes similar to those of the Hungarian Guard, even though courts had previously disbanded the Guard for having repeatedly harassed Roma minorities. The presence of the Guard and activists from Jobbik clearly intimidated the local Roma since both Jobbik and the „illegal” successors to the Guard are openly racist, their anti-Roma politics are notorious. Moreover, the very last in a series of racist murders of Roma took place only a few months before the event and many Roma still feared the possibility of another murder.
A group of local Roma people went to the school where Jobbik held a public hearing. However, they were not allowed into, hence a war of words emerged between the Roma and the far right activists outside. The police came, but instead of taking action against the paramilitary group, officers just separated the two groups and pushed the Roma back. According to press reports, the local leader of Jobbik invited „nearly 600 members of the eastern chapter of the New Hungarian Guard” to the town following this conflict. On November 15 the police halted a number of vehicles packed with extremists as they were heading toward Sajóbábony, but one red Suzuki made it into the town. At the border of the town, a number of Roma – angered by the presence of extremists the day before and by the passive intervention of the police - attacked the car with sticks and bats causing light injuries to two of the passengers.
The County Court of Miskolc sentenced the Roma for destruction of property and hate crime (crime against member of a community).
There is no question that the action by the defendants violated the law and should be sentenced. However, HCLU believes the court made a mistake when it agreed with the prosecution that this action constituted a bias motivated crime against Hungarians and therefore gave a harsher sentence than otherwise prescribed by the law (also, it was certainly disproportionate to keep the defendants in pretrial detention for two years.)
The harsher sentence for hate crimes is justified as a measure to protect disadvantaged groups of society. The motive behind the actions of the perpetrators, however, was clearly not prejudice but a fear of racism and an attempt to chase the extremists away. Therefore, there was no basis for the hate crime judgment.
Beyond the wrong assessment of the motive, the court also erred when it decided that the acts were aimed “against members of the Hungarian nation.” It is evident from the circumstances of the case, the events leading up to the act in question and the testimonies that the defendants attacked the car of those they considered members of the Guard. Members of the Guard cannot be identified with the Hungarian nation even if the perpetrators used the term Hungarian to address them as a synonym for members of the Guard during the attack.
The HCLU’s position is clear; courts cannot rely on laws against racist crime to protect anti-Roma groups. thus the imposed prison sentence is disproportionately severe. A decision by the Supreme Court from 2011 supports this position.
The judgment by the Miskolc County Court fuels our worries about the increase in the number of cases where Roma are accused of racism whereas Roma are the main target of racist violence in Hungary. However, hate crimes against Roma are systematically under-classified if procedures are at all started, and very often these cases get thrown out during inspection.
The decision by the County Court failed to take into account a long history of exclusion, severe discrimination, and inequality that affects the Roma in Hungary to this day. The court applied the hate crime law, in a manner similar to an earlier decision by the City Court of Miskolc, against a population that had been traumatized by a series of murders by racist extremists. HCLU believes that these decisions are examples of wide-spread, negative discrimination in the criminal justice system.
HCLU hopes that the Debrecen Regional Court of Appeal will correct the serious errors in the judgment of the first instance court and will properly judge the actions of the case.