Huffpost Homepage
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Human Rights First Headshot

Roma Citizens Remain At Risk In Hungary, Reforms Needed

Posted: Updated:

By Joelle Fiss
Pennoyer Fellow - Combating Hate Crimes

A year ago today, on February 23, 2009, Robert Csorba, a 27-year-old man of Roma origin, and his almost-5-year-old son were shot dead as they ran from their burning home in Tatárszentgyörgy, Hungary. The violence struck shortly after midnight. The family tried to flee from their house in flames but while trying to escape in the dark, Robert Csorba and his son were shot and died from the bullet wounds. Csorba's wife and two children suffered from severe burns, and needless to say, emotional trauma.

One year later, when Human Rights First visited the family, there was a sense that these deaths could have been averted. Errors were unquestionably made: the ambulance arrived much later than expected after the crime was committed. Police and medical personnel were slow to recognize the motive of the incident that led to their death. Also, the police concluded initially that the fire was caused by an electrical accident. They may have missed important clues that would have led them more quickly to the suspects.

This double murder was not an isolated incident. Similar violence struck the nation in 2009, targeting Hungary's Romani - or Gypsy - community of 600,000 members. Dozens of grave hate crimes were registered, involving the use of guns, the throwing of Molotov cocktail explosives or severe beatings.

Progress has been made to tackle the backlash of violence and the Hungarian authorities have taken important steps. Four suspects involved in what are referred to as "serial" killings were arrested last August. Hundreds of investigators were entangled in cracking these high-profile cases. Human Rights First hopes that the trial of the suspects will start swiftly and be public, so that it will help to bring a sense of justice to the victims. An open, national trial would propel the question of racist violence against Roma to the forefront of the public debate. Conversations could be initiated between policy-makers, human rights experts and Roma communities on measures to take to avoid such violence in the future. Journalists could discuss how to avoid stepping onto editorial booby traps that tend to stereotype all involved, when incidents that involve Roma are reported.

Paradoxically, it is also encouraging that the Hungarian police have recently admitted that some mistakes were made. When slip-ups are openly disclosed, there's a better chance that those responsible are open to discuss sorely-needed police reforms to avoid a repeat. A few days ago - almost one year after the murders - the Hungarian national police recognized that there had been police misconduct in the response to the double murder in Tatárszentgyörgy. As a result, internal disciplinary procedures have been initiated against two police officers to ensure accountability for their failings. This goes some way toward upholding the Hungarian government's claim that adequate mechanisms are in place to respond to police abuses.

That said, much more needs to be done.

First, police training lies at the heart of preventing more racially-motivated violence. If racist violence is committed, police must benefit from good training to collect evidence, so that the prosecution can correctly define the nature of the crime committed. Indeed, if the investigation at the crime scene is incomplete and racial motives not uncovered, the justice system cannot ensure full accountability.

Those who tracked down the serial killers in these cases are experienced national investigators. But are local police adequately trained to cope with lower-level, day-to-day incidents of harassment and violence that may not hit the headlines as hard? Police need to adapt conflict resolution mechanisms to their local contexts. It would be helpful if they could brainstorm with their counterparts from other countries to come up with creative solutions. In that respect, the United States could prove to be very helpful. In the same manner that FBI investigators flew to Budapest last summer to assist Hungarian police in identifying the serial killers, other forms of technical cooperation and mutual projects could be rooted in the future too, with the support of the US Department of Justice or the State Department.

Secondly, the Hungarian law enforcement authorities should consider making concerted efforts to include more Hungarians of Roma origin into police units, in order to break down the cognitive sentiment of "us against them" that feeds into social tensions.

Thirdly, when the police do make errors, investigations must be systematically carried out - as in the mishandling of the case in the Csorba murders, so that there is a genuine sense of accountability for those who feel that their rights have been violated.

Even tougher, yet no less important a challenge, is to transform the deeply entrenched anti-Roma stereotypes that are stomached at many levels within Hungarian society - whether in private circles, in the political arena or in the media. Istvan Serto-Radics, a Mayor of the town Uszka largely populated by Roma residents, co-wrote a research paper with a US Professor John Strong from Long Island, comparing the plight of the Roma in present day Hungary to those of African Americans in Mississippi in the mid-1960s and 1970s. Describing prejudiced psychological patterns, he says: "There are several important similarities between the Roma and the African Americans...similar stereotypes are frequently used to describe them. They are both viewed as lazy, crime prone, intellectually inferior, emotionally immature, albeit gifted in music". In addition, the structural problems of high unemployment rates, ghettoised housing areas, discrimination in healthcare and education, as well as tense relations with the police, are all other factors that bring about historical resemblances. Despite that, there are significant differences; for example the Roma community never struggled to acquire voting rights - they even participate actively in elections.

How does this turbulent social context fit into Hungary's upcoming national elections to be held in April? The neo-fascist political party Jobbik is well positioned to win a generous chunk of votes. Its political agenda is simple: it's militaristic. Aside from crude hate speech against Jews, it has also called for the use of the army to take action against Roma to "restore order" and to combat "Gypsy crime". "Gypsy criminality" is a problematic notion that has sadly seeped into the public discourse as a mainstream concept. It is one, however, that people seem to grasp intuitively, whereas understanding the impact of racist violence is less widespread and not always accepted. There is indeed a problem of petty crime that strikes a sensitive chord to many Hungarians. However, public outrage is far stronger if a Roma is caught stealing than if he is brutally shot at. The response of the police can reflect this, as racist attacks against Roma can take a back burner to crimes in which they are the perpetrator.

Members of the Hungarian Guard, Jobbik's paramilitary wing, exploit legitimate fears of crime. They are known to roam around villages populated by Roma, intimidating them with violent threats or being at the source of the aggression. In fact, Tatárszentgyörgy is one of the first places where they started parading since their creation in August 2007.

Here's a suggestion to all democrats in Hungary who are serious about fighting the rise of extremism in their country as the national election campaign kicks off. If Hungarian citizens feel equally protected by the State, there's a better chance to curb extremism. Alienated Jobbik voters who fear being robbed, are turning to neo-Nazi bullies for more security. In the meanwhile, members of the Romani community fear being insulted, threatened or assaulted on the streets: it's time for responsible politicians -and opinion shapers of all kind- to speak out as loudly against racism, as they do on fighting crime. It's time to make sure that there is never another crime like the one that stole the lives of Robert Csorba and his young son.