A test case for Orbán’s “illiberal democracy”

By Áron Demeter

This afternoon I watched as masked officers led a tall, thin man out of a Hungarian courtroom on a leash. His hands and feet were shackled and his demeanour was calm and determined. The man - who can only be identified as Ahmed H – had just been convicted on trumped up terrorism-related charges and sentenced to 7 years in prison.

In his closing statement Ahmed, a resident of Cyprus and father of two young daughters, had explained to the court how his elderly parents and six other family members were escaping from the war in Syria. “They faced death many times along the journey. I just wanted to help them get to Germany.”

This afternoon I watched as masked officers led a tall, thin man out of a Hungarian courtroom on a leash. His hands and feet were shackled and his demeanour was calm and determined
Aron Demeter, Amnesty International

In August 2015, Ahmed left his home in Cyprus to help his family cross into the European Union. It was an act of selflessness which went horribly wrong. In September 2015, Ahmed and his family found themselves trapped at the Serbia-Hungary border after police erected a razor wire fence at the crossing.

When clashes broke out between asylum-seekers trying to cross into Hungary and the Hungarian police, the police used tear gas and water cannon against them. Many were injured and required medical care. In the ensuing melee, some people, including Ahmed, threw stones at the police. Ahmed also used a megaphone to call for calm between the two sides. Under Hungary’s extremely vague counter-terrorism laws, the court held that Ahmed’s actions constituted “complicity in an act of terror”.

That is the basic explanation of how Ahmed H ended up on a leash in a courtroom far from his home. But it is not the whole story.

Today’s verdict – which Ahmed will appeal - reflects the dangerous confluence of Hungary’s draconian counter-terrorism laws and its merciless crackdown on refugees and migrants.

The dehumanising treatment of Ahmed H, and the farcical justice meted out to him, are the inevitable result of a steady process by the Hungarian authorities to demonize refugees. Many other countries in Europe have adopted this model, though there are few where it has been achieved with quite such ruthless efficiency. As well as closing its borders, Hungary has not taken in a single refugee under a 2015 EU Relocation Scheme.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has boasted about his desire to create an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary. He has called refugees “Muslim invaders”. He has described migration as a “poison” and said that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk”.

Today’s verdict reflects the dangerous confluence of Hungary’s draconian counter-terrorism laws and its merciless crackdown on refugees and migrants
Aron Demeter

For Mr Orbán, it is not enough to close borders. He also wants to consolidate an “us vs them” narrative that will win him votes in the upcoming elections next month. It is a cheap trick, but as we have seen across the globe in recent years, scapegoating can prove electorally effective in the short term.

In addition to targeting refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants themselves, a new set of bills was tabled last month to the Parliament aimed at penalising NGOs that “support migration”. The so-called Stop Soros legislative package purports to "protect national security" and borders, but will actually do neither of these things. Instead the bill would muzzle those who work to assist people in need and who dare to raise their voices. The message is a simple one: migration is a bad thing. And, by extension, anyone working on it will be punished.

Ahmed’s public shaming is intended to send out another message: refugees and migrants attempting to enter Hungary are not welcome and do not deserve dignity or justice.

The substance of the charges against Ahmed H do not stand up to any scrutiny. At the hearing in January, the courtroom in the town of Szeged watched hours of videos showing the events at the border.

The videos showed an increasingly distressed and confused crowd attempting to cross a newly erected gate and police using tear gas and water cannon to disperse them. Stones were thrown and police shields were hit. Ahmed too threw a few objects, but he was also clearly shown trying to mediate between the crowd and the police. “We want only peace” we heard him say in English. To the crowd, he said in Arabic “please do not throw anything”. Ahmed explained that, as one of the only English speakers among the crowd, he took it upon himself to communicate with the Hungarian police – an act for which he is now paying a heavy price.

In 2016, Hungary’s government passed a constitutional amendment and related laws, giving the Prime Minister sweeping and virtually unfettered power to declare a “terror threat situation”.  Later that year, the Hungarian government invoked mass migration as the reason for declaring a state of emergency. On 16 February 2018, that state of emergency was extended for a further six months.

I would like to go back to home to be with my daughters. I ask the court to deliver a fair verdict
Ahmed H

Ahmed’s case shows how “counter terrorism” measures are being used as a pretext for targeting Muslims to reinforce the message of the government - that migration is bad and undesired. Throwing stones and using a megaphone are not “acts of terror” and as Ahmed’s wife explained last year: “Our children miss him so much. Ahmed is such a good father and such a good husband. He is not a terrorist.” 

Speaking from the dock Ahmed H made a final impassioned plea to the judge. “I would like to go back to home to be with my daughters,” he said. “I ask the court to deliver a fair verdict.” But in Hungary today, it seems like justice is in short supply.

This article was first published by Thomson Reuters here.

Áron Demeter, is Media Manager for Amnesty International Hungary.