Case of man jailed for 10 years after being accused of orchestrating clashes between refugees and police called ‘affront to justice’
A Syrian builder has been jailed for 10 years on terrorism charges in Hungary in a case that has become a cornerstone of the country’s crackdown on refugees, and which Amnesty International has called “an affront to justice”.
The 42-year-old Syrian, named in court as “Ahmed H”, was arrested on the Hungarian-Serbian border in September 2015 and accused of orchestrating clashes between refugees and police.
The case has been central to the rightwing Hungarian government’s two-year campaign to stoke xenophobia and portray refugees as terrorists. It has also become a cause celebre for rights campaigners seeking to highlight the draconian character of Europe’s refugee policies.
By the time of his arrest, H was already a legal EU resident living in Cyprus with his wife and children. He says he only joined the thousands of refugees making their way from Turkey to Germany last year when his elderly parents and other family members fled Syria and asked him to accompany them for their safety.
They reached the Hungarian border just as it closed, which sparked clashes between police and migrants. In the melee H and his parents were arrested. As H had been carrying a loudspeaker as well as his family’s passports, he was accused of being the ringleader – a claim a Hungarian judge upheld on Wednesday.
The judge refused to hear the testimonies of more than 20 defence witnesses, and ignored the fact that the prosecution’s main witness, a police officer, could not be certain of H’s identity.
H admitted that he threw something during the fracas, but said that he had initially tried to calm the situation and mediate between the police and protesters, which was why he used a loudspeaker. “I ask the court not to confuse me for others,” he said on Wednesday, according to records taken by an Amnesty observer. “How can I be a terrorist if I tried to calm things down?”
Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s deputy Europe director who was present in court, said: “To sentence Ahmed to 10 years in prison for a terrorist act is absurd. Illegally crossing a border and even throwing rocks would not justify this ruling. This is a man who tried to get his elderly parents and other family members to safety, and we know he tried to negotiate between the crowd and police. On the basis of what we know, this ruling is an affront to justice.”
Van Gulik also highlighted the degrading treatment of H in court, where he was led on a leash and accompanied by two masked police officers.
Hungary has frequently been criticised for its hardline stance on refugees. In addition to its anti-refugee border fence, it has criminalised the act of entering Hungary illegally, a law that contravenes international asylum treaties, to which Hungary is a signatory.
The government has whipped up xenophobic sentiment with the country’s largest-ever advertising campaign to raise interest in a referendum on refugees in October. Less than 50% of the country participated in the poll, which asked participants whether Hungary should admit refugees, rendering the process null and void.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has said he sees his opposition to refugees as a means of wresting control of Europe away from liberal-minded leaders such as the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.