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New investigations, compensation for Roma murders in Hungary

The investigations into a series of murders against members of Hungary's Roma community in 2008 and 2009 have been re-opened, with a focus on investigators' failures and potential wrongdoing in the case.

Pressure put on Hungary's government by human rights activists and lawyers has apparently worked. Hungary's National Bureau of Investigation (NNI), the country's central police investigation office primarily dealing with terrorism and other national security threats, is reopening its investigation into a series of Roma killings that took place in 2008 and 2009. One or more suspected conspirators remain free.

During the two-year murder spree, right-wing extremists undertook nine arson attacks and other crimes, resulting in six deaths. In addition, 55 people, nearly all of whom were Roma, suffered life-threatening and other injuries. A handful of suspected murderers were apprehended in August 2009, and their trial began in early 2011. Recently, in early August, they were sentenced. Three received life in prison, and an accomplice was sent to prison for 13 years. Each of them has since appealed the rulings.

A gesture for the victims

Hungarian public prosecutors have demanded investigations into the military due to suspicions that Hungary's military intelligence service helped facilitate the Roma murders. Hungarian Roma activist Aladar Horvath and others say these announcements represent "late, but welcome gestures" from the government to the victims.

A Roma man looks on during a rally of the Hungarian Parliament of the radical nationalist party For A Better Hungary (AP Photo/MTI, Zsolt Szigetvary)

Sinti and Roma in Hungary face heavy discrimination

Hungary's minister in charge of human resources, Zoltan Balog, had already announced his government intended to compensate survivors of the attacks and the families of the victims, explaining that the Hungarian state bore part of the responsibility for the series of murders. Balog also said government offices neglected their duties during the investigations. That marks a severe reprimand for the former Socialist-Liberal governing coalition.

Balog's announcement is significant: It represents the first time that a minister has admitted the Hungarian state's complicity in a crime while concluding that such missteps demand some sort of restitution program.

Police failures

During and just after the conclusion of the series of murders, it became clear that the Hungarian government was responsible for many scandalous misdeeds during its follow-up on the crimes. For example, the investigation wasn't centralized until four Roma, including a four-year-old boy, had already been murdered. For months, authorities neglected to consider seriously that right-wing extremists could be behind the attacks, and police officers had a hand in intentionally destroying evidence at crime scenes. DNA analysis also went on to show that there were likely further culprits in addition to the four arrested suspects. If that's true, they continue to roam free today. The investigation has brought up further signals that there are numerous other confidantes and supporters involved in the murders.

Right-wing members of the Hungarian Guard Movement march through Tatarszentgyörgy EPA/ATTILA KOVACS HUNGARY OUT +++(c) dpa - Report+++

Right-wing members of the Hungarian Guard Movement march through Tatarszentgyörgy

What's more, Hungary's domestic intelligence agency had surveilled two of the right-wing extremists later convicted of the murders, but ceased surveillance activities just before the series of murders began. It remains unclear how much the intelligence agency knew about the perpetrators thereafter, and whether its members intentionally withheld information from those investigating the crimes against the Roma. A case officer from the country's military intelligence service, on the other hand, even had contact with one of the accomplices during the crime. Just recently, it became known that the case officer in question was pressured by his superiors to give false testimony during the Roma trial.

Moved by an open letter

Liberal politician Jozsef Gulyas, who led parliament's 2009-2010 investigative committee into the string of murders, welcomed the reopening of the case and hopes "the authorities' misdeeds can finally be uncovered." Gulyas also expressed approval for the decision to compensate victims, noting that it "is not popular in Hungary" to show support for the Roma victims.

Roma activists, wearing t-shirts with photographs of murdered Roma people, stand in front of a court building during the announcement of the verdict on the serial killings of Roma families in Budapest REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Roma activists waited outside of the courthouse for the verdict in early August

The government announced its plans to compensate victims after human rights activists and attorneys repeatedly drew attention to the devastating living conditions faced by survivors and victims' families in recent months. Lawyer Laszlo Helmeczy, who represented the widow of a victim killed in 2009, Jenö Koka, wrote a moving open letter to Hungarian head of state Viktor Orban. Helmeczy described the anguish of several surviving victims and called upon Orban to quickly provide better support for those affected.

"It seems like an honest gesture from the government to now provide compensation to the victims," said Roma activist Aladar Horvath. "In light of the election next year, it could offer a clear signal that this government wants to set itself apart from the right wing's discrimination toward Roma people."

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