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European Times: Budapest: Battle to save gypsies from the forces of law and order

WHEN GYPSIES are attacked by skinheads, denied service in cafes and restaurants or beaten up by the police because of their ethnic origin - all regular occurrences in Hungary - they call one man.

Imre Furmann, a lawyer, is executive director of Hungary's Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities (Neki), the country's first civil rights legal office.

While Hungary makes the difficult transition from a former communist dictatorship to a Western-style civil society, Neki is at the forefront of the campaign to eradicate the endemic prejudice across all levels of society against Roma, as gypsies prefer to be known.

The group's recent annual report is a depressing catalogue of institutionalised prejudice directed against Roma people, particularly by the police.

Supported by the foundation set up by the philanthropist George Soros, as well as by several Western embassies, Neki has taken on the might of the judiciary and police forces to stand up for oppressed Roma, as well as other minorities who encounter prejudice or physical attacks, such as Jews.

Mr Furmann, 46, works out of an office in Budapest's dilapidated ninth district, another world from that inhabited by lawyers working for high- paying corporations in the air-conditioned office blocks of central Budapest.

The problem is not so much the senior police officers, who accept the need to change racist attitudes, but the policemen on the ground who have to implement new rules.

"People's living standards have gone down and they need someone to blame. Roma are the classic scapegoat. The government has been forced to think about this because Hungary will join the European Union. They have set up initiatives against anti-Roma discrimination, and they accept the problem exists," said Mr Furmann. "But they are too general and are not properly implemented."

There are between 500,000 and 800,000 Roma in Hungary, a country of 10 million. While the move from communism to capitalism has proved difficult for many, Hungary's Roma have found it the hardest.

Many live well below the poverty line, and in some areas the unemployment rate runs as high as 90 per cent. Growing up speaking their own tongue, many do badly at school. Poorly educated, Roma are usually the first to be sacked from any workplace.

Under communism Roma, like the rest of the population, had work and housing guaranteed. Now they must fend for themselves in an often hostile environment.

Part of the problem is that the West's great social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, of anti-racism, feminism and gay liberation passed the former Soviet bloc by.

So once the lid of repression was lifted in 1989, societies such as Hungary, and the Czech Republic, where anti-Roma racism is often far more violent, reverted to their pre-war collection of prejudices.

Organisations such as Mr Furmann's are fighting the same battles for civil rights that campaigning lawyers in Britain and the United States fought decades ago.

For all their efforts, which are often successful, casual anti-Roma prejudice is still widespread, often even among the educated young. Mr Furmann quotes the case of a Roma boy who was refused service in a cafe in Pecs. "He wanted a coffee but the owner would not serve him, as he was a gypsy. We took this case on 1995 and won it in 1997. The owner was fined 150,000 forints (pounds 430) and was forced to print an apology in the newspapers. Now cafe owners know they cannot be openly racist."

More serious is a case Neki has taken to the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In December 1995, Hungarian police took four Roma into custody in Salgotarjan as witnesses in a murder investigation. The four, says Neki, were forced to submit to being tested with Benzidine, a substance used to detect the presence of blood on inanimate objects. On human tissue it has a corrosive, burning effect. One man claimed police applied Benzidine to his genitals.

Since Neki took up the case, the police chief has banned the use of Benzidine on people. "This is torture, but even though the police admit they shouldn't have used Benzidine on people there was no disciplinary action taken against the policemen involved. But now the government realises we can turn to Strasbourg, and will have to pay compensation," Mr Furmann says.

As I leave the telephone rings again. It is a group of Roma women. They say they have been beaten up by an off-duty policeman. "The most important thing is that we exist," Mr Furmann says. "People know there is somewhere they can turn with their problems."