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Inside the Hungarian Court Prosecuting Refugees

In the two weeks since new laws came into force in Hungary criminalizing improper border crossings, hundreds of asylum seekers have been prosecuted. VICE News spent a morning at court.

by Philip Kleinfeld
Oct 1 2015, 2:50pm

Un solicitante de asilo fuera de un tribunal húngaro con las manos esposadas. Imagen por Philip Kleinfeld

On first inspection there's nothing unusual about the district court building in the centre of Szeged, the third largest city in Hungary. Judges in simple black robes sweep through long, bright corridors and lawyers sit in the hallways offering last minute advice to anxious clients. 

But this court, just six miles from the border with Serbia, is no ordinary place, at least not any more. It now prosecutes asylum seekers and migrants under new Hungarian laws that came into force on September 15. In the face of heavy criticism from the international community, earlier this month the government criminalized all improper border crossings, in an attempt to stop the flow of refugees trying to reach western Europe from passing through Hungary.

On top of a four-meter-high razor-wire fence along the border with Serbia, those caught trying to cross the fence illegally now face prosecution with a minimum punishment of expulsion and a maximum of three years in prison. If they damage the fence the sentence can rise to five years. Here — on the ground-floor of a county court more used to the affairs of local Hungarians — is where they wait for their fate to be decided.

Last Tuesday — the cold, rainy day VICE News arrived — 14 cases involving refugees and migrants had been scheduled for the morning period. Sitting inside a small, bright courtroom in a checked shirt, gray jeans, and shoes without laces, Eva Xhebexhia, 28, from Albania, was the first case to be heard. She was caught on September 26 trying to break through the newly built fence near the Tompa crossing on the border with Serbia. Her husband, she told the court, is living in England and she had hoped to eventually join him.

Szeged district court from the outside. Photo by Philip Kleinfeld

After ten minutes of questioning and witness reports read out by the judge, and brief cases from the prosecution and defense, a verdict was passed half an hour after the trial began. No witnesses were called and Xhebexhia, quiet and softly spoken, pleaded guilty. The verdict: deportation to Serbia and a two-year ban from Hungary and the wider EU Schengen Zone.

"I am sad," she told VICE News through a translator outside the courtroom, her arms glued to her sides. "It's no good."

Related: Hungary Is Building a Wall Along the Serbian Border to Keep Migrants Out

The Hungarian government, lead by Orban's right-wing Fidesz party, has been keen to blame the refugees crisis on "economic migrants" like Xhebexhia travelling to escape poverty rather than war. But even the state prosecutor, a servant of the court for 20 years who asked not to be named seemed to sympathize with her case.

"They are poor," he told VICE News in patchy English as the court withdrew, shrugging his broad shoulders. "In Albania there are no opportunities. But there are too many people here [in Hungary]. It's a very big problem."

The first refugee to be tried in Szeged's district court was Ahmed Suadi Talib, an Iraqi man in his early 20s that had fled the so-called Islamic State (IS) with his brother before crossing through a hole in the fence in Hungary just a few hours after the new law had been passed. His case took place on September 16 and he was sentenced to one year's expulsion, breaking down in tears during the trial.

According to a spokesperson, as of September 30 the court had dealt with 265 cases of which 243 have been found guilty. Of those convicted, 242 have been sentenced to expulsion, 112 for one year, 118 for two years, one for three years and one for five years. 

The length of the expulsion — in offenses involving both illegal border crossing and vandalism against the fence — depends on the individual circumstances of the case and the defendant, such as how old they are, and whether they confess to the crime and express regret. One juvenile defendant was given "reprehension" — avoiding a formal punishment — and none has been sentenced to prison.

In order to handle the extra casework, the court said a number of changes have been made. Cases not related to border offenses have been put to one side, extra judges have been deployed and a local police compound just down the road is being used to hold hearings.

Related: Hungary's New Migrant Crackdown Might Breach UN and EU Rules

Even with these additional measures though the court remains under pressure. As Xhebexhia left the building in police custody the ground floor hallway filled up with other refugees, all of them from war-torn Afghanistan. At Courtroom 14, 20-year-old Khalid Mohammad was led in by two police officers wearing surgical gloves and carrying batons strapped to their sides. A farmer in his home country, Mohammad told the court he came from a poor family and had travelled through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia before police caught him and ten others climbing over the fence in Hungary on September 27.

"I want to be free," he told the room, a television camera from a Hungarian national news channel trained on his slight body.

After 15 minutes of questioning, two short statements from the prosecutor and defense, and just three minutes of deliberation from the judge, Muhammad's dream of freedom, it turned out, would have to wait. Like Xhebexhia, and most of the other refugees tried since prosecutions began, his sentence was deportation to Serbia, this time with a one year re-entry ban.

On top of the punitive sentences — handed out to refugees like Mohammad fleeing war — the speed of the hearings, most of which are over within an hour and scheduled just days after the alleged offense has been committed, is raising major concerns with some of those involved.

From his small, well-kept office not far from the district court Tamas Balazs, a local lawyer representing a 21-year-old refugee from Puli Khumri in Afghanistan, told VICE News serious miscarriages of justice are taking place.

"The actual legislation was introduced on September 15 and I had only three days to prepare," he said referring to his own case. "Getting evidence that would have supported my clients claims would have time taken time to investigate but they want to get to the end of the ruling as quickly as possible. There was no time to contact witnesses and I didn't have a chance to develop or discuss a defense strategy in private because only one translator was assigned for everybody to use: the police, courts and the different defendants."

Related: Through Hell and Hungary: Riding the Rails With Refugees in Budapest

Defending the court's criminal procedure, a spokesperson from Szeged Court said: "The presiding judge always guarantees the procedural rights of the defendant. The length of the evidentiary procedure always depends on the special characteristics of each and every case. In these type of cases (illegal crossing of the border) the court has to decide whether the defendant climbed over or under the border fence, therefore the adjudication of the case naturally takes less time than that of a more subtle case. The court always strives to deliver a well-established verdict, and to ensure that the right to fair trial is not infringed."

Last week Balazs's client became the first refugee at Szeged Court to launch an official appeal in a case he said he will take to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if he has to. According to Balazs expelling refugees to Serbia — a country Hungary considers to be "safe" after amending its asylum laws back in August — breaches Article Three of the European Convention On Human Rights, which forbids refoulement: the expulsion of people who have the right to be recognized as refugees back to their home country or any other country where they may be subject to persecution.

"Serbia is considered a safe country but they cannot fulfill their duties to place my client in safety," he said. "They may well dismiss him to the country he came from and he may find himself back in a war territory. Serbia offers no special treatment for underage refugees, there's a lack of infrastructure for proper accommodation and asylum cases often aren't accepted."

Related: Cutting Through Hungary's Razor Wire Fence: Breaking Borders (Dispatch 6)

Back at the court, other refugees are now following this approach. After the verdict was delivered in Courtroom 14, Mohammed told the room he intended to appeal, repeating the same line — "I want to be free" — to those present. Just outside, on a wooden bench, his fellow countryman, 21-year-old Sahar Alinoor from Paktia province in Afghanistan, said he would do the same.

"I don't want to go back to Serbia," he said with teary eyes and a look of confusion across his face. "I will try again to go to Germany."

Sahar Alinoor waits for his verdict outside courtroom 12. Photo by Philip Kleinfeld

According to a court spokesperson ten appeals have now been made. If they succeed it's not clear what will happen to the trials, most of which result in expulsion sentences. Even if they fail it's uncertain whether the bans will do anything to hold back the refugees and migrants from trying to reach Western Europe through other routes.

Outside Courtroom 10, 21-year-old Khaled Jabarkhil from Afghanistan told VICE News he didn't even mind being sent back to Serbia. Like many others Jabarkhil, who sat in handcuffs, found himself separated from his family while trying to cross the border. His sister, her husband and their young children remain in Serbia and now all he wants is to be reunited, even if he does so as a criminal in the eyes of Hungarian law.

"I want to find my sister and her children in Serbia," he said smiling. "And then I want to go to Finland."

Follow Philip Kleinfeld on Twitter: @PKleinfeld