Analysis: Hungarian court verdict upholding life sentences for racist murders has taken effect
In Budapest on 12 January, Hungary's Supreme Court rejected an appeal from three men accused of having committed a series of racist attacks as members of an organized group from 2008-2009 in nine locations around the country resulting in six deaths and five seriously injured victims. Árpád Kiss, his brother István Kiss, and Zsolt Pető were convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, while their accomplice István Csontos will go to prison for 13 years.
The men shot a total of 78 rounds of ammunition during the attacks and threw 11 Molotov cocktails. Their attacks endangered the lives of a total of 55 people.
The group perpetrated its attacks by throwing Molotov cocktails into homes where Romani people lived. When the buildings began to burn and the people ran out of them, the attackers shot them.
They even shot at a man carrying a child in his arms. Both he and the child died as a result.
Hungarian Supreme Court Justice Róza Mészár rejected the arguments of the three defendants' appeal, which alleged formal misconduct by the detectives during their investigation and errors made by the first-instance court. The main deficiencies of the first-instance verdict were eliminated by the High Court in Budapest, and it is that decision that the Supreme Court has now upheld.
After announcing the verdict, Justice Mészár emphasized: "It is fortunate that more people did not die as a consequence of these attacks." She also called the actions of the defendants "repugnant".
The fourth defendant did not appeal the High Court verdict. He significantly contributed to solving the crimes and was therefore sentenced to just 13 years in prison for, among other things, driving the other defendants to the scene of at least one attack.
That defendant, István Csontos, will soon have a chance to leave prison early provided he behaves himself. Unlike the previous hearings in this case, the announcement of the Supreme Court verdict was attended by dozens of people, mainly journalists, as well as sympathizers of the defendants.
Some sympathizers wore t-shirts that read "Gun Club" and depicted weapons. Sitting in the courtroom with them was György Budaházy, co-founder of the neo-Nazi organization Hunnia ("Arrows of the Hungarian Liberation Army").
For six years, Budaházy has faced charges of participating in terrorist attacks perpetrated against Socialist MPs and the Hungarian Minister of Education and Culture. According to police, the incidents, performed in various ways, have aimed at disseminating fear in society about LGBT and Romani people, among others.
After his arrest, Budaházy spent two years in custody during the investigation, before being placed under house arrest; his trial has yet to begin. When asked by journalists whether his attendance for the announcement of the verdict was an expression of support for the convicted murderers, he responded that he is just interested in the case.
The nightmare is over
There was only one Romani person at the court on 12 January, who said he was there as a private citizen, not as a representative of the minority. He explained to the Austrian daily Der Standard that he wanted to be there in person when the court announced the perpetrators "will sit in jail until the end of their lives".
In that Romani man's view, the murder victims' survivors were not present for the final verdict because they do not want to recall the loss of their loved ones again. Moreover, some who were witnesses during the first-instance proceedings were scolded loudly by the judge more than once.
One such survivor was even given a high penalty for inappropriate behavior in the courtroom. Because of this, for a certain period of time, the court earned the trust of the defendants and aroused their hopes of more lenient sentences.
The perpetrators chose Romani-inhabited dwellings located on the outskirts of cities, the very last houses situated in places where escape routes were blocked by forests or on streets that could not be seen from the rest of the town. They conducted the executions using the same insidious brutality and tactics as those recounted in the the novel The Turner Diaries by the American neo-Nazi William Pierce.
A copy of this so-called "neo-Nazi Bible" was also found, incidentally, in the home of one of the young neo-Nazis who carried out the arson attack in the Czech town of Vítkov in April of 2009. The central character of that novel amuses himself by shooting at randomly-selected African Americans on the streets of the USA; his main objective is to get white-skinned people to remove people of other skin colors from the USA or to segregate them.
After the most brutal of these attacks was committed in Hungary in August 2009, then-EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Vladimír Špidla said: "Roma have become the target of the organized racist violence that is feeding the political populism, hate speech and media hype that are transforming them into scapegoats for broader social problems." In 2009, Hungary had become one of the main victims of the global economic crisis because of the wasteful budgetary policy of its previous governments and its subsequent state debt.
Those who became the victims of the people's wrath, however, were not the politicians responsible for the crisis, but members of the Romani minority. Many Romani people in Hungary lost their jobs and any chance of social advancement immediately after the changes to the political system in 1989.
Investigation errors led to more victims
The investigation of these deadly attacks in Hungary was accompanied by frequent, numerous errors and inaction by the police, similar to the errors and inaction that occurred during the investigation of the arson attacks perpetrated against Romani people in Czech Silesia from 2007-2009. It often took a long time before the police ever informed the public of the cases, and when they did eventually inform them, they obfuscated the incidents by suggesting that a likely motive for the attacks was that they were revenge killings committed by loan sharks over unpaid debts.
For months the Hungarian police rejected the notion that this was a series of racist attacks committed by one and the same group of perpetrators, even when individual attacks were perpetrated in very similar manners. For the most brutal of these attacks, an ambulance did not make it to the scene until an hour after the crime was committed.
One of the gunshot victims was still alive, but there was no doctor with the crew. The ambulance did not manage to save that victim.
Local police based their theory of the case on the supposition that the fire had occurred due to a short-circuit, even though they also found spent cartridges at the scene. Their investigation of the case did not begin until 10 hours after the crime was committed, and the officers responsible were only disciplined after the public exerted pressure on the issue for a very long time.
Police also gradually increased the amount promised as a reward for any information about the possible perpetrators.That amount ultimately reached the unprecedented amount of EUR 380 000.
That figure, which is dizzying by Central European standards, testifies to the strength of the pressure put on the police by the Hungarian Government, caused by the particularly harsh criticism from the international community over the Hungarian authorities' failure to investigate this spree of deadly violence and to stop it. Several so-called "profilers" from the American FBI even attended several investigations in Hungary to help authorities prepare profiles of the offenders for the purpose of identifying them.
That reward was ultimately never claimed. Police say they managed to track down the perpetrators by intercepting a total of 4.5 million phone calls.
According to estimates by experts, the investigation could not have cost taxpayers less than tens of millions of euro. In mid-August 2009, a team of 120 detectives detained the suspects at two nightclubs in the eastern Hungarian town of Debrecen, where they were working as bouncers.
Police reportedly discovered one of the murder weapons at one of the clubs - a hunting rifle hidden in a secret compartment behind the wall in one room. They also found a map with markings for the scenes of former attacks and three future planned attacks.
Police chose the day of their arrest so as to avoid a further planned attack. Of the six detainees, two were released after questioning, after which they were put under police protection as witnesses.
Brutal, shocking attacks were practiced according to plan
Three of the attackers, according to the media, had publicly espoused racist views, and two of them had previously been connected with the Hungarian branch of the neo-Nazi organization Blood and Honour. Until recently, that group also had a branch in the Czech Republic.
One of the men now convicted in Hungary had previously worked as a professional soldier, for example, during a foreign mission in Kosovo. At the time of the racist attacks, he was also serving the anti-extremism police as an informant.
Instead of informing the police about the neo-Nazis' attacks, however, he actively participated in one. The group carefully rehearsed its attacks using night vision equipment.
Investigators allege the group's first "live" test was an attack on a refugee camp in Debrecen in 2007. The participation of the accused in that attack, however, has never been proven in court.
Now we are waiting for the first-instance verdict in the trial of the National Socialist Underground group in Germany. According to the indictment in that case, a small cell of neo-Nazis also attacked minority members without ever taking public responsibility for their actions.
The group is charged with treacherously executing 10 people between 2000 and 2007, most of them members of the Turkish minority, as well as one German policewoman. In that case as well, police have found evidence of a link between the defendants and the international organization Blood and Honour, but it has not yet been proven that the aforementioned cells from these different countries work together on an international basis.
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