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Life sentences for Hungarian Roma killers

Three right-wing radicals have been given "real" life sentences for killing six Roma. The trial has raised questions about the competence of the investigating and intelligence agencies.

Jenö Koka knew about the Roma who'd been killed in 2008. He'd said to his wife that it could have had something to do with debts, or scores being settled between criminals and their victims. Koka had worked for 28 years in a pharmaceutical factory, never been warned, never been off sick. One day, as he was on his way to a night shift, he was shot in the heart. He died almost immediately. The killer, who used a gun with a telescopic sight, had been hiding in a bush about 20 meters away.

Jenö Koka died on the evening of April 22, 2009, in Tiszalök, a village in eastern Hungary, the fifth victim of far-right murderers who, in 2008 and 2009, killed six Roma, one of them a four-year-old boy, and injured 55 people, almost all Roma.

In August 2009 the four alleged murderers were arrested after a series of errors in the investigation. The trial began in spring 2011. After 180 days in court, the judges issued their verdict on Tuesday (06.08.2013). Three of the four, Zsolt Petö and the brothers Arpad and Istvan Kiss, were handed "real" life sentences, which means that, if the verdicts are upheld, they will stay in prison for the rest of their lives. Their lawyers said they would appeal. The fourth accused, Istvan Csontos, was given 13 years in prison for acting as their accomplice.

Not isolated

The accused denied their involvement to the end, but there was little doubt as to their guilt. The judge pointed out in his summing-up, DNA tests showed they had been present at the scenes and had fired shots.

A general view of the main hall of Budapest court on August 6, 2013 during the Roma killing spree trial. Four Hungarian far-right extremists were sentenced to jail Tuesday over the killings of six members of the Roma minority, including a child, in a wave of racist attacks using guns, grenades and Molotov cocktails. AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK (Photo credit should read ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)

The court in Budapest handed down three life sentences

"The severity of the verdict absolutely fits the crimes," says the Roma rights activist Aladar Horvath, who has been observing the trial. "What isn't fitting is the categorization of the crimes as simple murder without ulterior motives." According to the prosecution's charge-sheet, the four men had wanted to start a civil war. "They should have been charged with crimes against humanity and terrorism with genocidal intentions."

The four were by no means lone law-breakers. They were involved with far right and neo-Nazi networks in the eastern Hungarian town of Debrecen where they were arrested. After their arrest, they said in interviews that they saw themselves as the vanguard of a movement which was aiming at finding a "solution for the gypsy problem."

In the village of Tatarszentgyörgy, where they killed a father and his 4-year-old son in February 2009 as they tried to flee from their burning house, there had been a march by hundreds of supporters of the paramilitary "Hungarian Guard" only a few weeks before, aimed at intimidating the local Roma.

If the investigating authorities had taken early signs seriously that the killing spree had a far-right background, they might have prevented some of the later attacks. And indeed, the parallels to the case of the German National Socialist Underground (NSU) are remarkable: two of the four accused were under observation until 2008 because of their far-right activities - but the observation ceased shortly before the killings began. Another of the accused was an informant for the intelligence services even while the killings were under way. The agencies refuse to say anything about their involvement in the murders.

'Massive incompetence'

The various investigating authorities failed to communicate their findings to each other; crime scenes were not secured; DNA evidence shows that at least one killer and one accomplice are still on the loose. The former liberal member of parliament, Jozsef Gulyas, who served on a parliamentary investigative committee dealing with the killings, accuses the investigative authorities of "massive incompetence," although he doesn't believe that officials were trying deliberately to hide anything. "The state and the authorities would now like to close the whole thing as quickly as possible," he says.

Media and relatives wait for the sentence in the Roma killing spree trial, outside the Budapest court, on August 6, 2013. Four Hungarian far-right extremists were sentenced to jail Tuesday over the killings of six members of the Roma minority, including a child, in a wave of racist attacks using guns, grenades and Molotov cocktails. AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK (Photo credit should read ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)

Relatives and friends were satisfied with the verdicts, but missed a reference to crimes against humanity

Following the verdicts, the government for the first time made a cautious admission. In an official statement, the minister for human resources, Zoltan Balog, wrote that they had "unfortunately not succeeded in uncovering the whole truth." He said most of the blame for that lay with the socialist/liberal government of 2008 and 2009. In fact, the conservative government under Viktor Orban has also done nothing to find out the truth. But Balog did promise that the government would now take a hard line against racism.

Koka's widow Eva hopes that her husband's killers will indeed remain in prison for the rest of their lives. But the verdict provides little comfort. After the murder she had a nervous breakdown, was unable to work, and lost her factory job after 22 years. No representative of the state has ever shaken her hand or offered a few words of sympathy and she's had no financial help from the state. She lives with her daughter and receives a monthly pension of about 100 euros ($133).

Her lawyer, Laszlo Helmeczy, supports her financially and helped pay for her trip to Budapest to hear the verdict. "The murderers have not just killed my husband," says Eva Koka. "They've also destroyed me."

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