Four Hungarian neo-Nazis have been jailed for a string of attacks that left six Roma dead and exposed the depths of racism faced by the minority group in eastern Europe.
During a 13-month reign of terror in 2008-9, the gang set fire to homes, hurled Molotov cocktails and staged other attacks in eight villages across the north-east. One of the victims – Robert Csorba Jr – was just four years old when he was shot dead alongside his father as they tried to flee their burning home, which had been set on fire by the men. Their last victim, a young woman, was shot as she slept.
Activists and victims’ relatives accuse police of being slow to investigate the killings or acknowledge a racial motive. Amnesty International called the verdicts a “wake-up call” in a nation where far-right political parties are thriving and the Roma still struggle for equality and justice.
Sentencing Arpad Kiss, Istvan Kiss and Zsolt Peto to life in prison and Istvan Csontos to 13 years, Judge Laszlo Miszori said the vigilante group was trying to stir ultra-nationalist sentiment through what they claimed was retribution for crimes committed by Roma. “To carry out their plans first they bought arms, then began to ‘reinstall order’, meaning armed attacks in places where Roma had committed crimes against Hungarians,” Judge Miszori said.
The four men pleaded not guilty but admitted involvement in the attacks, which left six people dead and dozens of Roma injured. The crimes and allegations of police inaction shocked the nation, and protesters gathered outside the Budapest courtroom with T-shirts bearing photographs of the victims.
But there are fears that little has changed since the funeral of Robert and his father brought calls for action. Robert’s grandmother, Erzsebet Csorba, told Reuters the situation for the Roma remained as desperate as ever.
“We can’t seem to get out of this racism, this poverty,” she said.
Roma make up 7 per cent of Hungary’s population of 10 million, but they suffer disproportionately high rates of unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and child mortality. The minority group faces similar discrimination and exclusion elsewhere in the continent, with a recent European Union report showing that Roma life expectancy is on average 10 years lower than that of other Europeans.
Jezerca Tigani, Amnesty’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement that the police were still failing to protect the Roma and hate crimes had not stopped.
“This horrific case should have been a wake-up call about the continuous, often violent discrimination faced by the Roma community, but the perpetrators of such acts are still not being brought to justice,” she said.
Ms Tigani also voiced concern about the rise of vigilante groups linked to the far-right Jobbik party, now Hungary’s third-biggest politcal group. Two of the men jailed had at one time been linked to Jobbik before forming a splinter vigilante group, and there are fears that racist rhetoric may worsen ahead of elections next year.
The current government has been accused of failing to quash anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment in the country as it tries to bolster its support. The World Jewish Congress held its annual meeting in Budapest this year to highlight concerns about the resurgence of the far-right. Hungary was one of the Axis powers allied with Nazi Germany in the Second World War.