On 15 September 2015, the Hungarian government closed its border with Serbia and made crossing into Hungary illegal under criminal law. Hundreds of people got stuck at the Röszke–Horgos border crossing without legal information or support. The situation got increasingly tense until a protest started and escalated into police excessively using tear gas and protesters throwing stones.
Ahmad H. reached the border while accompanying his parents along the Balkan route towards Western Europe. He participated in the protest against the border closure by acting, along with several others and with the aid of a megaphone, as a channel of communication between the police and the crowd. Together with ten other people he was randomly singled out and arrested in the police operation. The ten others were found guilty in a previous trial for “participation in a mass riot” and “border violation” and sentenced to 1-3 years of imprisonment, although the material showed that they were not actively participating in the protest.
Ahmad H. is accused of “terrorism and other crimes” and faces potentially life long imprisonment. The previous trial hearings have shown that the biased questions and selection of testimonies by the court aim at establishing Ahmad H. as a leader of the protest, although the court lacks the evidence.
Report from the trial, September 23rd
Here we are once again in front of the Szeged court with a lot more police presence than last time, thanks to the fact that in front of the building a small group are holding a solidarity demonstration. But inside we receive the same welcome as before, nobody asks to see any ID but we enter through a security gate and put our bags through an X-ray. We head up to the now familiar corridor where once again we’re directed to a side-corridor, during which from behind the locked iron door the stocky masked guards lead out Ahmed, cuffed at ankles and wrists. Upon looking at him it’s almost unbelievable that only three months have passed since we saw him last. Perhaps I’m just imagining that he seems much older than before. Later in the courtroom I notice that his voice also seems to have changed, it’s now hoarser and more timid.
On the basis of the statements it’s difficult to decide what Ahmed’s role was, as in the majority of the statements there is no mention of him. Most of the police officers recall another individual with a red rucksack. According to their unanimous statements this second person was one of the chief leaders of the crowd, several police officers said that his words always affected the mood of the crowd. According to one of the police officers he also directed the crossing of the fence. Allegedly he called on the first row of the crowd to hold one another’s hands so as to make a human chain, stopping the crowd from getting too close to the line of police. According to the police officers’ claims at times this man calmed the crowd and at times he stirred them up, in Arabic supposedly. At times he attempted to make contact with the police through the megaphone, speaking English to them, but when asked the officers didn’t know what he’d said, as only one of them spoke English. All together the words “open” and “please” stuck in their memory. Several officers mentioned that the TEK officers removed him from the crowd while dispersing the crowd – it’s not known what happened to him since. There was also word of a man in a green T-shirt who according to the officers unanimous claims stood apart from the crowd and stirred up the crowd, climbing on the fence at one point, then during the so-called dispersal of the crowd he ran back to the Serbian side, furthermore several men including a young man in a striped shirt, who was also a leader, allegedly brandishing sticks, the young man was stirring up the crowd, and later he too disappeared. In this first part, Ahmed – who everybody recalls as merely “the bearded man” – is mentioned all together twice. According to one of the officers, he saw him inspecting the fence, then grabbing it “to show how tough he was,” he spoke in Arabic to the crowd, shouted to open the gate, then spoke to the interpreter. According to this officer Ahmed gave the two-hour ultimatum to the police, that after two hours come hell or high water they would cross. According to the statement, following this the crowd began to chant “two hours”. Another police officer – the only one among those questioned who spoke English – in contrast claimed that he too had seen Ahmed, but saw him to be calming the crowd. According to him the man in the green T-shirt gave the ultimatum, and he stirred up the crowd while Ahmed was trying to calm them down, which was temporarily successful. Until the man in the green T-shirt began stirring them up once again, at which point Ahmed gave up and disappeared.
In the following section of the proceedings we hear the statements given by the other eight already convicted defendants of the Röszke trial. All together two of them are relevant to the matter at hand – the statements of Ahmed’s also detained and convicted parents -, and it makes for interesting listening, as they cast a somewhat different light over the events. These pieces of material featured in the previous Röszke trial too, and supposedly one of them was intentionally falsified by the Szituációs Nyelviskola Kft. translation agency. From these texts it becomes quite clear that news quickly spread among the people that the gate would be opened and that they’d be allowed through. Although in the police officers’ statements we heard that the leaders of the crowd opened the gate, those at the back – among them these eight people – understood that it had been the police officers, most hadn’t seen who’d opened the gate, they’d only heard it was open and so set off to pass through. In several statements we hear that the journalists began to spread the news that the border was open. The leaders called on everyone to stand in two lines – families to the right, others to the left – and to calmly pass in an orderly fashion, because the police were letting them through. The information spread through the crowd by word of mouth. We know the rest of the story – the crowd began to calmly file through, and the police and the TEK officers suddenly attacked them. Those who could, fled, those who couldn’t – fell to the ground, were beaten by police, the defendant in a wheelchair fell from his chair – they stayed. As for how these eleven people in particular ended up in front of the court, that’s still a mystery, because according to the statements the police arrested many more that day.
None of them recall Ahmed – beyond his own parents. Yet from his parents’ statements we can gather some interesting information. For the first part the parents, who were questioned individually, unanimously claim that one of the police officers told their son that the border would be opened after two hours. That’s to say, they didn’t believe the same had happened as was stated in the charge, that their son was threatening the police with a two hour ultimatum, but vice versa, that their son received this information from the police. In the father’s statement it’s stated that a Syrian man did say something to the police, to be precise “if we aren’t allowed to pass, the crowd will push forward,” but it wasn’t his son. According to his statement his son was trying to calm the crowd, he told them not to throw things, because if the Hungarians do want to open the gate, it’ll not happen if they keep throwing objects. From the parents’ statements the whole tragic turn of events unravels as to how Ahmed ended up on the defendants’ bench. He and his wife actually live in Cyprus, and he didn’t set off for the Hungarian border because he wanted to reach western Europe but because he wanted to help his family on their journey. In Turkey he joined the family and they set out from there together. When the crowd began to get restless his father suggested to his son to go over and speak to the police because Ahmed speaks four languages. This is how he ended up among the leaders.
The third part of the statements are mostly those of the standby police ordered in from Budapest, Győr and Lenti, those directed to the Röszke II crossing after the disturbances began. You can sense that these texts were recorded on a separate occasion from those recited in the first parts of the hearing, and that the direction of the questioning is entirely different. Firstly most of the police officers questioned got injured during the disturbances, which receives a lot of emphasis in each statement, we hear detailed and expressive accounts of each. The better part of the police received injury from the objects thrown by the migrants, while a smaller part were injured by their own instruments: tear gas, water cannons, smoke grenades. From this perspective the police were clearly the victims of the events: on one side there were the police, fulfilling their service, following orders, while on the other side was the crowd whose behaviour – as they answer in response to the pointed one-sided questioning – was aggressive. The other point of emphasis, which turned up now and again in the first parts of the hearing also, was the fact that the helmets, the gasmasks, the shields, the noise, as well as standing in a cordon and continuously carrying out orders, all of this significantly obstructed their ability to see and hear the events. It’d seem that, similar to the far side of the fence, information or orders were spread by word of mouth. They had no idea who was throwing objects at them from the far side, just as they had no idea who had opened the gate.
Among them many of them hadn’t seen Ahmed, while the men in the red rucksack and the green T-shirt do pop up in one or two of these statements. A few of them couldn’t see at all what was happening among the crowd, others remember that there were a few leaders with a megaphone, but couldn’t give a description. One of the police officers says he wouldn’t recognise the leader because the “migrants all look alike, they all have beards and black hair.” The questioner showed them photos, at which point three of them believed they could recognise Ahmed. One of the officers says perhaps it was a bearded man who spoke to one of the high-ranking officers and gave an ultimatum, that if they didn’t open the gate within five minutes, they’d cross themselves. After looking at the photo he says he remembers this man, this man was talking with his superiors in English, he was calm, he wasn’t stirring anything up but he was “gesturing” at them, perhaps he was just explaining something. He says the crowd’s mood changed after he spoke with the police, perhaps because he told them what the police had said. The “attack” of the gate began after this. The other police officer says that he remembers the bearded one, he spoke English to the police and the migrants too, but the officer couldn’t understand what he said because he doesn’t speak English. The man had asked for an interpreter and had mentioned ‘five minutes’, then in the end he didn’t want to speak to the interpreter after all. He recognises him from the picture. He says his voice was threatening, although he couldn’t understand what he was saying. He recognises most of the leaders, he says, there were many of them, he remembers the man in the rucksack and the man in the green T-shirt. The third police officer who remembers him says, although he couldn’t understand what he was saying, he thinks his tone of voice was calming. He hushed the crowd with his hands, and brought a child up to the police. He also remembers that the man in the green T-shirt gave the ultimatum, and as far as he knows, he said that if they didn’t open the border within two hours, then they’d arm themselves.
During the last phase of the proceedings the judge asks the opinion of the prosecutor and the as yet unqualified lawyer as to whether Ahmed should remain in preliminary detention, that is, in prison, until the next hearing on 28 October, or whether the circumstances of his detention should be mitigated, or whether he should even be released. Naturally the prosecutor says that they would uphold that the defendant remain in detention. The young lawyer says that in their opinion the suspicion has lessened as regards to any serious crime, which also reduces the danger of the defendant fleeing or going into hiding, and therefore releasing him would be the best solution, or if possible, house arrest. He notes that an offer has been received, so although Ahmed has no permanent residence in Hungary, it would be possible to place him in an acquaintance’s home, and with the help of a tracking device one could ensure that the defendant doesn’t leave the residence. Finally the judge asks the defendant also. With the help of an interpreter Ahmed says that he doesn’t want to flee, and that he will respect the decision of the court. His one sin was that he would have liked to travel further with his family. Never before in his life has he had an issue with either the police or the court. He hasn´t committed any crime, and he is being confused with another. The judge decides to uphold the detention of the defendant. She states that given the severity of the crime with which the defendant is being charged the penalty could even be a life sentence. This may be pose a great threat to him, and thus were the defendant to be released, the risk may be that he would make any effort to thwart the proceedings, therefore the danger of his flight or going into hiding still stands. As a counter to mitigating the circumstances of his detention the judge mentions that the defendant has no family connections in Hungary, and has no place of dwelling here in Hungary granted his intention to pass through the country. And so the judge sees it justified to uphold preliminary detention. Ahmed and the lawyer appeal against the decision.
In summary we could say the only piece of truly new information which we could gather from the proceedings was that Ahmed might be given a life sentence, even though the reason remains a mystery. It’s a fact that Ahmed was among the first rows of the crowd, and – similar to many others with him – using a megaphone to attempt to speak with the police or to the crowd. His role and his significance are shrouded in doubt, likewise whether or not he stirred up or calmed down the crowd, whether this ultimatum was given or not, and if it was, whether he gave it or someone else. Whatever did happen, Ahmed is now sitting on the defendants’ bench, while the other participants in the disturbances, including the leaders, have disappeared. Even though every single one of the lawyers of those charged in the previous Röszke trial proved that not one of the defendants had been an active party to the disturbances, but were merely present in the crowd, the court found each of them guilty and sentenced them. It’s impossible to know what form of penalty is awaiting Ahmed who is now being forced to carry the full weight of the incidents on behalf of all the leaders. As for us, we still can’t understand why the charge is terrorism, when in the statements presented there’s not one point referring to any such thing.