The significance of the Röszke Trials in the context of the European Border Regime
It’s Monday, the 27th of June 2016 and we’re standing in front of the court in Szeged, Hungary. The sun is shining, it’s warm outside, but we’re feeling queasy. We came here as a group of five in order to attend and observe the trial. When we left the court in the evening, not only the queasy feeling stayed but it was also accompanied by rage, horror, consternation and sadness.“
(N., an activist in retrospection on the trial)
The context: Summer of Migration and the Hungarian State’s Attempt to Regain Sovereignty
A sequence of decisions taken by European Governments based on the reality that was created by people migrating over the so called „Balkanroute“ constitutes the Summer of Migration and led to the establishment of a „Humanitarian Corridor“ in the course of 2015.
On the 18th of June 2015 the Macedonian government passed a law that permitted people to legally transit the country within 72 hours. This law was copied from the Serbian authorities where it was already in practice years before. Consequentially the movement of thousands of people passing this route was given a legal frame. As an effect, the route became more accessible for people who normally would have been excluded from it – be it because of ability, financial reasons or other obstacles.
Whereas before it was mainly young able-bodied men who took the risk of leaving their homes in order to search for a better life and took their families in the course of an asylum procedure, the developments of the last summer made it possible for almost everyone to take use of their right to travel.
With the increasing numbers of people moving from Greece through Macedonia and Serbia a high number of people gathered in Budapest. From there they traveled further towards Austria, Germany, Scandinavia and other northern and western European states. As a reaction to the “irregular” migration movement, already starting in the end of 2014, the right-wing government under prime minister Victor Órban decided to erect a fence on the entire Serbian-Hungarian border (and later on the Croatian-Hungarian border as well). However, during the time the fence was under construction, it was still possible for people on the move to easily cross from Serbia to Hungary.
When the fence was completed in Autumn 2015, already hundreds of thousands of people had gone through Hungary. At the time, every day thousands of people were crossing the border, and as the Hungarian and global media were reporting, the Fidesz government was completely unable to handle the situation. This, then, was the situation in which the government decided to criminalize entering the country.”
As a background, it is important to know that the physical closure of the border by closing the last sequence of the fence went hand in hand with an enforcement of the asylum law and “illegally” entering the country was made a crime in the Hungarian state. The first changes in law came into force in August and the second on September 15th 2015 – the very same day that the entire border to Serbia was closed by a barbed-wired fence. “The way that thousands of people had crossed into Hungary by simply walking across the border or by climbing over or crawling under the fence had been alright the previous day, but was going to be illegal from the next” (Migszol 28.06.2016). From then on the basic sentence for “illegally” entering the country is 1-3 years of imprisonment, 1-5 if the crime is committed during a riot or by carrying weapons and 2-8 years if those two cases (riot and weapons) are combined.
The Horgoš Riots
However, it is important to note that most of the people who arrived at the border on the 14th of September haven’t had a chance to get to know what was decided and that the Hungarian border had been closed legally and physically. But what is even more crucial is the situation the people were facing individually: only because they have arrived some days, or even only hours too late, they have been left without opportunity to easily cross – a routine that was practiced before by thousands of people – friends and relatives. Instead those who arrived after the 14th of September faced a closed border crossing, guarded by the border police and have been sent away.
People then went to the second Röszke crossing, which was finally dramatically closed by blocking the unused railway road by driving a ‚Mad Max‘ train on the tracks. The situation became very tense, and for people waiting on the Serbian side of the fence no legal information was provided. Young and old, healthy and ill, single people as well as families, were waiting as the situation began to escalate.”
In total, the protest lasted for three days and developed during that time. In general, the people only stood in front of the fence hoping that the border will open up again. They shouted slogans, held banners and were talking to the police. Only in the very last sequence the riots escalated.
One activist from No Border Serbia, who was present in Horgoš and experienced the protest is telling in retrospective:
The protest was really peaceful, all the time. It was families, children, men who were waiting in front of the fence for hours. It was really hot that day and after two or three hours of protest the Hungarian police gave two bottles of water to the people. It was crazy what happened after that – the people gave back the bottle of water by saying ‚this is not what we need‘. […] On the second day the protest started early in the morning. About 5000 people were present in the border area but not everyone was joining the protest. It was about 3000 people who protested peacefully by speaking through a megaphone saying ‚We don’t need anything, just let us in. There is a lot of families and children. Please let us pass‘ et cetera. The protest was going on until late in the night and we just slept for two or three hours. The third day the protest continued and on the Hungarian side there was a complete militarization. There were tanks, water cannons, antiterrorist units… it was terrifying! You could really see what was going on and the people protesting were unaware of it. They really believed that the fence will open at some point because it was 5000 people waiting there. What you could also see in the videos is that at some point people started laughing and taking selfies because at some point the gate was open and people believed That’s it! They let us pass! So people started to rush towards the gates and in the same second we felt the tear gas and were completely blinded. So we started to run somewhere and tried to hide. After a moment you saw the Hungarian police everywhere and people could not hide or run anywhere because it was a huge crowd. So only the young people could run away. But the old people and the women with children could not run, they just entered somehow through the gate into the arms of the Hungarian police. And that is how they arrested a lot of people on that occasion.”
(N. from No Border Serbia)
In the course of the riot it escalated and finally led to some people throwing stones. A good documentation of the riot in proportion to the border police measurements can be seen in youtube videos. The police amplified and responded to the escalation with tear gas and water cannons. A practice that was used contrary to official professional guidelines in the Hungarian state, I.e. not using such measures against a crowd including children. In the retrospective this ignorance towards juridical principles against a crowd of migrants can be seen as a symbolic starter of an attitude that draws a continuous line in the whole case of the Röszke Eleven.
After some time, the fence was broken by the crowd, and the situation became even more tensed. The first front rows of the crowd were men, one of whom was trying to communicate with a megaphone with the police as well as with the crowd. His role was to communicate news and recent developments: when to negotiate with the police, when to withdraw etc. This continued for 1,5 hours until things calmed down. A message was then spread from the side of the police that the people could now enter Hungary. This was celebrated as a victory, followed by chanting of thank you- slogans for Hungary as people organized in two different queues, one for young men, another one for families and vulnerable people […]. [T]hey started walking, and made it for 150 meters, and the riot police allowed them to go onwards. The problems began when the unmarked, unidentifiable unit of the counterterrorist police attacked the crowd not only with police batons, which are regular and legal weapons, but also with special telescopic metal batons. […] The unit was trying to catch people, but of course the young and more healthy people were able to escape, and the vulnerable people could not escape and were seized by the authorities.”
And this is how the Hungarian state picked the eleven accused people: Those who were unable to escape fast enough. Who exactly apprehended them, at what time and where is not documented. This modus operandi is also the main reason why an extraordinary high number of the accused people have physical disabilities: one is sitting in a wheelchair, another is missing the articulation from his hip and a third one is an old half-blinded 64-year old woman with diabetes. Furthermore, many other people have been arrested by Hungarian police, but were not put to pre-trial detention and left the country immediately. Why the “Röszke Eleven” were figured out for pre-trial detention is still unclear.
The Defendants: The Röszke Eleven
These are three out of the eleven. All of them were picked arbitrarily from the crowd and were facing these grotesque circumstances. Randomly twisted, at least the three persons mentioned above did not even join the crowd in the beginning of the situation but waited until the queues were being formed. After being picked, ten of them have been accused of the laws hot off the press. The eleventh, Ahmad H. is facing accusations even more preposterous to common sense: he, only because he was communicating through the megaphone, is accused of terrorism; a crime that is sentenced with up to 20 years in prison. For him it’s even more miserable: Ahmad H. is the son of the 64 years old half-blind woman and holds a Cyprian passport. He decided to walk the route in order support his family by walking with them.
The three mentioned above were taken under “house arrest” in so called “asylum detention” since then. The other eight were held in pre-trial detention in Szeged and Kecskemét, actual “normal prisons” with extremely limited access to information and interpretation. There, being surrounded by Hungarian citizens who themselves convicted crimes or are accused of doing so and do not speak foreign languages, the situation for them is even more serious and unbearable. Their only “crime” was to seek for safety, which is a fundamental human right and legal under international law, and the Hungarian state responded with closing them up in extremely bad conditions.
For a long time there was no information available where the accused people were kept and what has happened to them even though different political groups from Serbia and Hungary tried to find them. Only when an investigative documentary by Channel Four was published, information about their conditions was accessible to people not involved in the legal process.
The investigations on the cases drew on the exact same line. For instance, there have been allegedly manipulated translations on paper with changed meanings and added paragraphs.
E.g. where the original written testimony said that ‚we will go towards the border to cross it‘ it was translated as ‚we will go to the border to violently break through no matter what‘ to make them look like they confessed a crime they did not actually do.”
Also the indictment for the 11 people is more than dubious: “for all the 11 people, the whole paper is only 1,5 pages with absolutely no information of the context and the circumstances in which everything happened” (Migszol 28.06.2016). Also the actions of the Hungarian counter-terrorist unit and their attack on the crowd has been missing from the whole case description. The cross-examined police officers (who form the only witnesses in the whole trial) could not remember any details of the cases, the absolute majority could not even identify the people. There have been six court hearings until the final decision was taken on the 1st of July, and even until then it has been already clear to many observers: This is a show trial.
The entrance to the court is guarded by police in bulletproof vests, a couple of journalists and ten men with meticulous haircuts. Later we learned that those ten men were policemen who will testify against Ahmad. All of a sudden we should step aside and make a gate. Ahmad is entering the court, guarded like a felon. Two tall men with completely mummered faces, Ahmad hand- and foot-cuffed. He’s visibly branded by the months he spent in prison and is led into the court room where six hours of torture were waiting for all of us.“
(N., an activist in retrospection on the trial)
After already having some hearings, the final hearings were between the 27th of June until the 1st of July 2016. Some activists from Hungary and Serbia attended the trial. Ahmad’s case has been on the 27th of June, the trial of the others on the 30th of June and 1st of July 2016.
Basically, there are/were two separate trials – one of them for Ahmad who is accused of terrorism, and one for the other ten people accused of illegally entering Hungary and participating in a mass riot. There are/were two different judges and the procedural manner was slightly different if one compares the trial on Ahmad with the other ones. However, the general procedural manner that was already drawn in the previous hearings was perpetuated.
As already said, the only witnesses that were cross-examined were policemen. Many of them couldn’t even remember what was happening during the riot – totally reasonable as during the protests they have been fogged in their own teargas. But during the protest there have been other people than migrants at the place. “On almost every trial it is only policemen or members of the antiterrorist units who are invited as witnesses. This is crazy, how could they identify anybody? And what about testimonies of doctors, NGO people, journalists? Are they not trustworthy for the trial?” (N. from No Border Serbia) All the lawyers tried to stress the circumstances of the protests, tried to appeal to humanity, to logic, to reasonable arguments.
In contrary to that, the behavior of the judge in the trial of Ahmad H. was gruesome and against all principles of the rule of law as somebody who attended the trial stated afterwards. “The judge seemed as if in her head the case was already sentenced. She knew all the details, was directing everything in that direction. The state prosecutor and the lawyer remained almost completely silent during the entire hearing” (N., an activist in retrospection on the protest). The second and third part of Ahmad’s hearing was full of video records that were reviewed as testimonies. While every explanatory proof was ignored, the smallest scenes that could possibly be seen as evidence have been disproportionately examined, and many scenes premeditatedly misinterpreted. For instance, in one part of the video one could see Ahmad showing two fingers (as a victory sign) –. This, again, was interpreted as a threat: In two hours we will come and cross the border. In the videos that had sound he said sentences like We love the police. We love Hungary. We want a translation to English. No word on that. The only scene that was taken into consideration was a sequence where Ahmad throws a stone. Like dozens of other people. After other videos without considerable content, the hearing was closed. Ahmad was hauled off the audience room by the masked men.
Such an injustice may not remain hidden behind closed doors in a small court room in Hungary. There was a man standing in a court that sentenced the verdict long before the process started and that aimed at making an example.“
(N., an activist in retrospection on the trial)
Everyone apart from Ahmad (his trial is still going on) has been sentenced. Punishment: 1 to 3 years without probation. The prosecutor already announced to go into revision: he considers the sentences as too weak and demands harder punishment. The case of Ahmad will be continued on the 23rd of September. He will be kept in prison until then.
Protests and International Solidarity
It’s important to show solidarity as a form of direct action. You have to go on the local ground because it’s happening in our countries. So it’s important to know what’s going on and to know how we can show solidarity. For the people who are in prison, for the first time in one year there was some reaction on their case. And they saw this reaction just for two minutes, just on the way from the police car to the court. But I believe this was enough for them, for the first time to see people (except lawyers) who are there for them. That they are not forgotten.”
(N. from No Border Serbia)
The court hearings were accompanied by ongoing demonstrations with protesters who chanted English and Arabic slogans such as “You are not alone”.
Even though it was just two minutes when the people entered the court and two minutes when they left, these moments were given extraordinarily high attention and significance.
Also on Monday after the trials, the 4th of June, there was a demonstration with over 120 participants in Budapest, Hungary. “The trials criminalize the right of people on the move to protest against border restrictions on the one hand, on the other hand they try to deter people from coming to Hungary. Nevertheless, hundreds of people continue to cross Hungary every day.” (moving europe 5.07.2016) This trials can be seen as a precedence case – and it will either be won by the side of the Hungarian state or by the people who are in solidarity with the accused and sentenced people.
During the protests we met so many great guys from Syria, Iran, from Afghanistan, from everywhere who also joined the protest in such a peaceful manner hoping that they could cross the border after so many months of traveling. Well, and after all, we know the eleven people from the Röszke Trial, and they will have this monstrous trial – but I am wondering all the time how many more people are detained in jails and we don’t know them and we don’t know how to support them.“
(N. from No Border Serbia)
This report can be seen as a starting point of more international support. This international support is the only glimpse of hope on a horizon of cruelty. Therefore we ask everyone of you to step into action and start solidarity campaigns in your places, too. Let’s support the Röszke Eleven and show solidarity!
All of us have big hopes in greater international support. Like more legal and financial help, awareness by alternative and mainstream media that are interested in the cases and criticism on a broader European level. I believe there will be future cases and it is very important to think about this. How can we coordinate? How can we communicate among us and between us? How can we organize? How can we support each other and the people who are affected? People know that something is going on and there are so many ways to participate on many different levels. They can write articles and critical analysis, they can spread campaigns, They can support people directly. This trial will be the crucial one for everything that follows in the future.”
(N. from No Border Serbia)
Significance in the European Border Regime
Seen as one piece in the kaleidoscopic ensemble of practices, regulations, institutions and acts that encircle the aim of controlling migration, the trial on the Röszke Eleven acquires crucial significance. Being held as a show trial that is performed and enacted in order to further enforce the image of “criminal asylum seekers” as a threat to the Hungarian society it can be seen as a precedence case for the Hungarian audience, as well as for the refugees still crossing the fence to Hungary.
It illustrates the incorporation of borders in the field of fundamental human rights. Even though judiciary states claim an “all men are equal before the law”, the Röszke Eleven trial depicts the unequal application of this right between the binary categories of passport holders and sans papiers. This follows the line of the deterritorialization of borders which means that borders are not only lines in the sand that separate one state territory from the other but that they are relocated into the territories of national states on the one hand and into whole societies on the other. The Hungarian state is using the trial in order to further push its racist propaganda and thereby acquire an exceeding control over its own territory. This is also reflected in the increasing number of border police and military using – being doubled up again to a number of 6.000. The Hungarian state announced an Emergency State already months ago. It becomes clear that the Hungarian state, also as part of the EU, is at war against people migrating, and the Röszke Eleven are the first who have been publicly litigated. Constitutional legality, in this case, was absolutely out of practice and juridical prosecution was replaced by political persecution. Not even to tentatively ask about justice. The whole trial was saturated by racist mindsets, xenophobia and a demonstration of power by a state that is implementing its fascist setups slowly but steadily.
Furthermore, when these eleven people are persecuted by the state – it’s directed against each and everyone of those, who are migrating themselves, seeking asylum, fighting for the freedom of movement and the right to stay, supporting people on the move just as those who want to stay. These days, showing solidarity and fighting for justice becomes more and more criminalized in and outside the EU. This is just another side of the same coin. The ten people who are sentenced are suffering from the same system that is depriving others from their basic human rights. Also activists from No Border Serbia are stressing this point by stating
We want it to be clear, we do not intend to criticize for this absurd and violent act only the Hungarian government, as the most right wing or “evil“ country in EU, like many of the so called “democratic”state institutions, NGOs, and mass media do: the “Horgoš/Röszke” trial is revealing the reality of a system in which state and police violence is never put in question, and in which money and goods can move freely but not people. They are needed only as illegalized cheap workers or consumers.”
(No Border Serbia 17.05.2016)
With the eviction of the protest camp Idomeni, also the media attention was evicted and subsequently withdrew. But what is invisible to those who aren’t present on the Balkanroute is that there’s still hundreds of people migrating everyday being faced with enormous police violence and physical threats. The closure of state borders will never halt the movement of people but only exacerbate the conditions of migration. Just like refugee hunters in Bulgaria, police violence, rising prices and drowning people, the trial on the Röszke Eleven is a picture of the European Border Regime that aims at controlling it’s outer borders spatially, socially and legally.
The European Border Regime crystallizes in the case of the Röszke Eleven, and, as a tip of an iceberg, in the case of Ahmad H. The Hungarian judiciary already made it’s decision and even the lawyers acquired a quite pessimistic view on the chances of a fair trial. The only chance that is left, especially for Ahmad, is international support and awareness. “That’s the way how whole Europe, not only Hungary, responds to anyone who shows resistance. Who demand their rights. This one trial also wants to show ‚This is what will happen to everybody who resists‘.” (N. from No Border Serbia)
The next hearing of Ahmad will be on 23rd of September. And therefore we wrote this report, in order to facilitate action for you. “We hope that there will be some publishing of critical analysis and solidarity actions. We hope that more people will get involved and motivated to support the people in prison. This will be a good platform for further action in the future, too” (N. from No Border Serbia). If there is not any outrage on an international level, the Röszke Eleven will remain forgotten. It is now up to you, as having read this report, to rise up, step into action and show solidarity.
- Refugee Support Serbia
in Cooperation with
- Migszol Csoport Budapest
- No Border Serbia
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