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The Hungarian Government Must Step Up Its Efforts to Stop Hate Crimes Against Roma

A few days ago, on August 2, 2009, a Roma woman, 45, was shot dead and her daughter, 13, seriously injured in an overnight attack of their home in Kisleta, Hungary. The woman's daughter is suffering life-threatening injuries. This tragedy does not appear to be an isolated incident, but rather one more in a long string of violent attacks against the Roma community in Hungary.

Human Rights First has called on the Hungarian authorities to undertake a thorough investigation into this latest murder and to consider the possibility that it may have been a hate crime. We deplore that in Hungary over the last two years, there has been an apparent rise in the incidence of violent acts against Roma -- including murders, shootings, arson attacks, and other forms of violence -- that in many cases appear to be motivated by bias against the victim's ethnicity.

To name but a few other incidents: on April 22, 54-year-old Jeno Koka was shot in the chest outside his home in Tiszalök. On February 23, the home of a Romani family was firebombed in Tatárszentgyörgy, resulting in the tragic death of Robert Csorba and his 5-year-old son -- both shot as they tried to escape the burning house.

Although the most serious crimes are reported by the media, many cases of such violent attacks often go unreported and/or undocumented. Instances of police ill-treatment and discrimination -- recognized by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) as problematic in Hungary -- contribute to the high levels of distrust of authorities among Roma communities, and thus to the severe underreporting of racist and other violent acts. The feeling of distrust is all the more confirmed in a recent survey published in 2009 by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency across 27 EU countries where 18% of all the Roma surveyed considered that they were a victim of a racially-motivated assault, threat or serious harassment in the previous 12 months. The Survey suggests that given that the overwhelming majority of Roma respondents indicated they did not report their victimization, one can assume that the level of officially recorded racist crime significantly undercounts the real extent of the problem.

Violence against Roma in Hungary is occurring against a backdrop of widespread marginalization of Roma communities, discrimination, and anti-Roma rhetoric expressed by some public officials. The rise of right-wing groups that espouse racist, antisemitic, and xenophobic views is another major concern because their rhetoric and actions have contributed to a climate of animosity toward certain minority groups, the Roma principal among them.

Hungarian authorities have taken some very important steps. Among other actions, senior political leaders have publicly spoken out against the most serious cases of anti-Roma violence, and the government has committed significant law enforcement resources to investigations of some of these cases and has sought out expertise from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation in these cases. Hungarian law enforcement personnel have also taken part in training in combating violent hate crimes provided by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

But efforts need to be increased. If hate crimes are on the rise, then governments must make more efforts. Here are three things the Hungarian government should do now:

1. End the general climate of impunity for these attacks. The importance of a thorough investigation and prosecution of violent attacks against Roma -- particularly where racism may have been a motivating factor -- has been highlighted in several cases of the European Court for Human Rights. We call on the law enforcement authorities to ensure the swift identification and prosecution of the perpetrators. They should also ensure that racist and other bias motivations are duly identified and registered and that prosecutors press charges accordingly.

2. Improve monitoring systems. Programs should be set up to train law enforcement officials to respond promptly to suspected hate crimes and record evidence of bias motivations, in order to bring evidence before the courts. At present there is no effective system for collecting data on violent hate crimes, or that permits even the identification of the ethnicity of the victim of a crime. This impedes policymakers from seeing and understanding the full scope of the problem. In fact, according to the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, which assesses the criminal justice data collection systems among EU member states, Hungary is in a lower tier of countries that collect and makes available only limited data on racist violence and crime.

3. Enhance the legislative framework. Article 174(B) of the Hungarian criminal code, which does allow for certain violent crimes committed with a bias motivation to be prosecuted as a separate offense, is rarely used. Furthermore, the Hungarian criminal code does not expressly allow for bias motivations to be considered as an aggravating factor in sentencing in other crimes of violence such as murder, contrary to the requirements of the recently adopted EU Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia and to longstanding Council of Europe recommendations.

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