Human Rights Developments
Discrimination and police violence against Roma and the ill-treatment of asylum seekers and refugees remained persistent problems in Hungary in 1999. Despite the backdrop of systematic human rights violations by state actors targeting minority groups and refugees, Hungary gained NATO membership in March and continued the process of accession with the European Union.
Relations between the Roma community and the police deteriorated in 1999 despite pressure from western governments and human rights groups urging the Hungarian government to curb rampant police abuse. In the town of Hajduhadhaz, eastern Hungary, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) reported that police routinely beat, verbally abused, and searched the apartments of Roma without cause. Of the fifteen cases opened against police officers in Hajduhadhaz in recent years, all remain either unresolved or ended in acquittals. Following the March 1999 broadcast of a nationally televised news program, Fokusz , about police brutality in Hajduhadhaz, police arrested and beat a Roma man who appeared on the program. Two other Roma men who were interviewed on the program went into hiding fearing retaliation. In response to intense public pressure by local Roma rights groups and the media, the Ministry of Interior admitted on June 18 that Hajduhadhaz had the highest reported level of police violence in Hungary and that half of the town's police force, twenty-six officers, were under investigation for alleged abusive conduct.
In June, the Budapest-based Roma Press Center reported that police beat a Roma university student named L$szlJ S$rk zi as he walked through a park in Budapest. Three police officers repeatedly kicked the Roma man and yelled racial epithets at him. When the man promised to report the officers' mistreatment, they beat him further. Mr. Sarkozi filed a lawsuit against the officers.
Though the government has publicly acknowledged maltreatment of Roma in statements to the European Union and to the press, blatant discrimination persists in education, healthcare, and employment. In a pattern that local groups said is nationwide, school officials continued to segregate Roma students in separate classrooms and even separate buildings from the general pool of students.
Prosecutors failed to pursue vigorously perpetrators accused of racially motivated crimes. Only three people were convicted under the racially motivated crimes statute of the criminal code, though none were convicted for crimes against Roma. Activist groups complained that the law is underutilized and that law enforcement officials are not trained to investigate racially motivated crimes.
The 1998 changes in Hungary's asylum laws, including the lifting of geographical reservations of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which excluded non-European asylum seekers, were followed in 1999 by uneven enforcement and continuing poor conditions for asylum seekers in designated detention centers, especially on Hungary's borders. In January 1999, citing inhuman conditions in detention facilities and the arbitrary application of asylum procedures, an Austrian court recommended that Austria cease repatriating asylum seekers who crossed into Austria from Hungary without hearing their claims. Hungary's parliamentary human rights ombudsman, Katalin Gonczol, reported to the Hungarian parliament in February 1999 that conditions in the border facilities were "uncivilized and intolerable." In response to such criticism, the government agreed to close the worst facilities, though as of this writing they remained opened. In July, dozens of asylum seekers in the Nyirbator Border Guard Community Shelter went on hunger strike demanding long awaited decisions on their asylum applications and transfer to camps with better facilities. The strikers complained that the facilities were unhygienic, overcrowded, and did not allow for freedom of movement.
In late 1998 the government lifted "temporary" asylum status for refugees from the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia Hercegovina. All such asylum seekers were forced to return to their home countries or apply for regular asylum despite credible evidence that conditions in their home countries were often not conducive to safe return.
Hungary signed the International Criminal Court treaty on December 15, 1998, but its parliament has yet to ratify it.
Defending Human Rights
Hungary's NGO community continued representing the rights of Roma and exposing human rights violations. The European Roma Rights Center conducted advocacy and research campaigns throughout 1999, focusing on police abuse and discrimination against Roma and offering training for local activists. The Legal Defense Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities (Nemzeti 6s Etnikai Kisebbs6gi Jogv6dN Iroda, NEKI) provided legal representation to Roma victims of racist attacks and again published its "White Notebook," detailing dozens of specific cases of abuse against Roma.
The Role of the International Community
Council of Europe
Hungary held the chairmanship of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers in the first half of 1999, during which period important developments included the decision to establish the post of European Commissioner for Human Rights. In July, Hungary ratified the Council of Europe Social Charter, providing an important new basis for combating discrimination against Roma with regards to economic and social rights.
As accession talks between Hungary and the European Union (E.U.) progressed, Hungary continued to fall short of human rights benchmarks set for in its accession framework document. In its December 1998 interim report on accession, the E.U. cited continuing abuses against Roma-especially in the area of educational discrimination and conditions in police detention centers-as key points of improvement required for Hungary to obtain full E.U. membership.
The United Nations Committee against Torture, in its concluding observations on Hungary's third periodic report to the committee, expressed concern about police torture of criminal suspects and abusive conditions of detention in prisons, detention facilities, and refugee holding centers. Stephan Berghund, the Budapest representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, visited Hungary's refugee detention centers in February and expressed serious concerns about overcrowding, especially in light of the influx of refugees from the Kosovo conflict.
The U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998 criticized Hungary's failure to protect the Roma population from police abuse and to make progress combating discrimination against Roma in education, housing, and access to public services. The report also highlighted the ill-treatment of criminal suspects in pre-trial detention-especially Roma and foreigners-and law enforcement authorities' lax attitude toward spousal abuse against women. Hungary received an estimated U.S. $5 million from the U.S. to finance military upgrades required for NATO membership. Concern emerged that as Hungary purchased new military equipment, its old weaponry-especially small arms-would be sold to human rights abusers worldwide ( see Arms Division Chapter).