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Syrian faces life sentence in Hungary after border riot

The man stands accused of using a megaphone to threaten Hungarian border police. The charge of terrorism has drawn concern from human rights groups.

Citing concerns that Hungary's terrorism laws have been applied too loosely, human rights groups will monitor the November 30 conclusion of the trial of Ahmed H.

If convicted, the defendant could receive a life sentence for his role in a September 2015 standoff between border police and refugees who were trying to cross into Hungary from Serbia.

The 40-year-old Cyprus resident of Syrian background is accused of harming and threatening to harm police officers "in order to force a state organ to action," which the court has defined as an "act of terrorism." Ahmed H. has already been in prison for over a year, awaiting the verdict that is to be delivered in a Szeged court on Wednesday.

Battle of Roszke

Ahmed H. was one of several hundred people who gathered at the Roszke border crossing on Sept. 16, 2015, a day after Hungary completed the lockdown of its border in order to deter refugees.

Flüchtlinge am Grenzübergang Röszke zwischen Serbien und Ungarn (imago/M. Fejer)

More than 100 people were injured during the clash with police at the Hungarian border on September 16, 2015, provoking criticism from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

Most of those who had amassed at Roszke that day were fleeing war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Demanding passage into Hungary, the crowd pushed through the fence and was violently repelled by armored police. In the ensuing tumult, which came to be known as the Battle of Roszke, more than 100 people were wounded by tear gas and police batons, including women and children. About 15 to 20 police officers also suffered injuries from stones and debris thrown by protesters.

The Hungarian police's violent reaction triggered an initial condemnation from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said he "was shocked to see how these refugees and migrants were treated. It’s not acceptable."

The terrorism charge

Ahmed H., who is a resident of Cyprus and could have legally crossed the border, claims he was in Roszke on the day of the riot to help members of his family get across the border.

Ungarn Röszke Grenze Polizeieinsatz gegen Flüchtlinge (Reuters/D. Ruvic)

Hungarian police in riot gear lined up at the Roszke border crossing in anticipation of unrest on September 16, 2015

He was one of 11 people arrested by police in connection with the riot. The other 10 were found guilty in July of illegal border crossing and were sentenced to one to three years in prison.

Ahmed H. received the additional charge of terrorism for using a megaphone and allegedly throwing rocks at police. One of the definitions of terrorism in the Hungarian criminal code is "a violent crime" that attempts to "coerce a government agency ... into doing, not doing or countenancing something".

The defense counters that Ahmed H. was using the megaphone to communicate between the police and the protesters and ultimately de-escalate the riot.

The prosecution has presented character evidence linking Ahmed H. to radical Islam. An Interpol statement labeled him as a "dangerous religious fanatic". As evidence it claimed that he has traveled to Mecca and has ties to the fundamentalist Muslim group Tablighi Jamaat, which is not considered a terrorist organization by the EU.

An 'alarming' charge

The terrorism charge against Ahmed H. has caught the attention of rights groups. Aron Demeter, campaign coordinator for Amnesty International's Hungarian office, calls the charge "alarming".

"During the trials, we haven't seen evidence that the terrorism charge stands," Demeter told DW. He added that the definition of terrorism that the prosecution is using against Ahmed H. is "surprisingly quite vague."

Demeter said, however, that court proceedings had so far been "in line with the Hungarian penal code." Two observers from Amnesty plan to attend the final day of the trial.

The UN also has its eye on the case. "We have been paying attention to this," Ferhan Haq, a spokesman for Ban, told DW. He said it was not UN policy to comment on trials that are still underway.

Hungary under scrutiny

Since refugees began arriving to Europe in increasingly larger numbers in 2015, Hungary's right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been at the forefront of an effort to close Europe's borders.

Ungarn Grenze Türkei Besuch Orban Borisow (picture-alliance/dpa/V. Donev)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (center) visits the border between Bulgaria and Turkey in September 2016

Orban has argued that the arrival of refugees has exposed Europe to terrorist threats. "There is a clear link between illegal migrants coming to Europe and the spread of terrorism," Orban declared in a 2015 speech in which he outlined his political vision for Hungary. "It is obvious that we simply cannot filter out hostile terrorists from this enormous crowd."

Observers critical of Orban's politics are anxious to see if his effort to link terrorism and immigration will be supported by the results of Ahmed H.'s trial.

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