The Röszke 11 Show Trials in Hungary
In March 2018, a Hungarian court convicted Ahmed H of ‘terrorism’, sentencing him to seven years in prison for his role in 2015 protests against the closing of the Hungarian/Serbian border. Ten other people were also brought to court to face highly politicised show trials.
Ahmed H. has already served more than two and half years of a seven year sentence in a high security prison in Budapest, Hungary. Ahmed is a Syrian national who was travelling with his parents along the Balkan route in September 2015. On 15 September, 2015, the Hungarian government forcefully closed the last fragment of the border fence to Serbia at the Röszke-Horgos crossing.
Ahmed was among eleven people arrested during and after spontaneous protests against the border closing. Together with Yamen A., Kamel J., Farouk A., Mohamad S., Mohamad Q., Mahmoud A., Aziz M., Fatoum H., Hamed H., and Fahdawy H.—known as the Röszke 11—Ahmed was imprisoned and brought to court to face trial by the Hungarian state shortly after.
The trials were highly politicised show trials—their outcome was already determined. This was visible in all aspects of the cases, particularly in the conduct of the arrests, the nature of the accusations, and in the way the trials were conducted. Ten of the arrested were accused of participating in a mass riot and illegally crossing the border. Most were arrested due to the fact that they were unable to leave the protest scene fast enough when the counter-terrorist police force attacked, due to their age and physical abilities.
The accusations towards Ahmed were constructed differently. For using a megaphone and acting as both mediator and translator, he was portrayed as the leader of the protest, and a threat to national security. He was convicted of an “act of terror” on 30 November, 2016, based on the Hungarian Court’s interpretation of extremely broad and hazy counter-terrorism laws, although video evidence clearly shows he was acting as a mediator, and attempting to diffuse the situation and calm the protesters.
In all eleven cases, the trial was extremely unjust. Evidence was mostly constructed via police testimonies. How the police acted and behaved in the moment was not taken into consideration; translations were falsified; and independent testimonies were rejected by the court. The eleven were already unlawfully imprisoned before the court decision. Additionally, the prison conditions were and continue to be inadequate. The prisoners’ access to health care and visiting rights were contravened (including denial of a wheelchair, and of medication for chronic disease). Solidarity movements around the trials were criminalised and targeted by the police.
The trials illustrate how, on many levels, the Hungarian government is entangled in and influences how the juridical system operates; it used 11 people’s lives to construct a political enemy, and to internally justify stringent and heartless politics towards migrants.
As of June 2018, the ten who were not portrayed as active leaders of the protest have all been released from prison. They spent between several months to two years in prison. They have all left Hungary: some are awaiting responses for asylum applications in Austria, Germany or France; some have received protection status; others have been forced into undergoing return procedures, and have subsequently been deported back to their countries of origin.
Ahmed’s trial is still ongoing. In December 2016, the Court of First Instance ruled he be sentenced to ten years in prison. In June 2017, the case proceeded to a Court of Appeal, and was sent back to the Court of First Instance. It ruled that while the sentence of terrorism was condoned, the case needed to be retried due to mistakes in the decision making process. After another series of hearings, the court reconvicted Ahmed on 14 March, 2018, of “terrorism”, with a slightly lower sentence of seven years in prison.
It is important to understand the Röszke trials in the context of wider political developments in Hungary. Since September 2015’s closure of the border, the Hungarian state has drastically tightened its migration policy and its approach towards civil society.
At the time of the arrest of the Röszke 11, open camps for people in the asylum system still existed. There was also some financial support for people with recognised international protection status.
This changed in 2017, when the government implemented a system that indefinitely keeps people who have pending asylum cases detained in container prisons at the border. The two fences (a second fence with high tech equipment was added) are guarded by a special police unit called the border hunters, who are known for their violent push-backs and systematic beatings of people trying to cross the fence. New laws restrict freedom within civil society and media, and make solidarity increasingly difficult.
The case of the Röszke 11 can be seen as an allegory of the development of the whole country: the criminalisation of migration; the crackdown on protest, civil society solidarity and support groups; the twisting and falsification of information; blatant racism in how the 11 were targeted; and the subsequent rhetoric around the reporting and enaction of the trial.
The Röszke trials encapsulate how the government, the police and the juridical system work together to enact a system of violence against migrants and other marginalised groups. This is why it is especially important to stand up for Ahmed and the others, and take a clear stand against state repression.
In the Free the Röszke 11 Campaign, various groups and individuals—mostly from Hungary, Serbia and Germany—have worked together with the accused and their families to create visibility around the cases, build up political pressure, and support them directly with legal costs and other needs.
As an informal network, we continue to support the Röszke 11 individuals in their respective country of residence at the moment. Despite increasing political repression in Hungary (such as the new law criminalising actions of solidarity with migrants and refugees), we try to especially support Ahmed, who is still imprisoned.
THE HUNGARIAN HELSINKI COMMITTEE