Hungary's 'show' trials: Refugees not welcome here

Hungary's 'show' trials: Refugees not welcome here
Comment: The ongoing trial of migrant 'Ahmed H.' is evidence of xenophobia on an almost industrial scale, practiced by governments across Europe, and beyond, writes Sam Hamad
6 min read
07 Nov, 2016
Migrants on the Hungarian-Serbian border two days after it was closed in September 2015 [Getty]

On September 15 of last year, the Hungarian government decided to take the unprecedented step of closing its border with Serbia, making crossing into Hungary a criminal offence. 

This left hundreds of refugees, mostly those fleeing the genocide in Syria and the sectarian war in Iraq, in limbo, stuck at the Roszke border crossing. The people were effectively trapped without any legal information or support from the Hungarian government, in major contravention of its legal duties.

As one might expect, the trapped refugees began to react to their veritable imprisonment on the border and soon enough Hungarian riot police were called in. As is often the case, this only exacerbated tensions and soon enough the police were firing tear gas excessively, while the refugees reacted by throwing stones and bottles. 

The balaclava-clad Hungarian police advanced on the protestors with batons under the haze of tear gas. They used unprecedented force (even journalists covering the protest were not spared from their batons) and those who were left behind were those who were rounded up. 

This were obviously the most vulnerable people, including a partially blind 63 year-old housewife and a one-legged wheelchair-bound Syrian student.  

In total, 11 were arrested in Roszke, 10 of whom were successfully prosecuted and sentenced to between one and three years in prison on charges of "border violation" and "participation in mass riot". The trial was however blighted by a lack of corroborating evidence and improper practices by the Hungarian authorities. 

When it comes to the demonisation and active persecution of immigrants and refugees... the Hungarian regime is something of a vanguard in Europe

The proceedings of these 10 defendants were not just immoral but entirely unjust by the usual standards of due process. They were dubbed - with very good reason - as "show trials" by the Migrant Solidarity Network of Hungary (Migszol), and the ongoing trial of the other defendant, known as Ahmed H, is of a much more serious nature. 

Ahmed has been charged with "terrorism" and accused by the authorities of leading the protests and of being the primary instigator of the events of Roszke - charges that could see him imprisoned for life. 

The main evidence for this, as presented by the Hungarian authorities, is that on the day of the protest, Ahmed was speaking into a megaphone – something he was doing only as a means to communicate with the police amidst the chaos. 

Ahmed is a Syrian citizen of Cyprus. He was in Roszke during the protest not as a refugee but rather as a guide for his elderly parents and their grandchildren. They were making their way along the Balkan refugee route towards Germany, which had advertised itself as a safe haven for those like Ahmed's family who had been forced to flee Syria by the genocidal war unleashed by Bashar al-Assad and his allies. 

Orban's regime has been called 'post-fascist'

Ahmed's trial has been as equally farcical as those of the other 10 defendants, with scarce and flimsy evidence presented by the prosecution. He has already spent over a year in prison awaiting his trial, which has just recently been postponed until the end of November. 

The evidence of Ahmad's "terrorism" presented at the trial has been not so much of a politically charged nature, as it has been outright Islamophobic. The Hungarian authorities have attempted to link Ahmed to "extremist Islamic organisations" - the only evidence cited by the court for this is the fact that Ahmed visited Saudi Arabia, where he made the Haj pilgrimage, and India, where he was visiting friends.

But this gets to what's at the heart of these trials - it certainly isn't the will to establish truth. When it comes to the demonisation and active persecution of immigrants and refugees, particularly Muslim and non-white immigrants and refugees, the Hungarian regime is something of a vanguard in Europe. 

The prime minister, Viktor Orban, has indulged in flagrantly racist and Islamophobic rhetoric when it comes to Muslim refugees, saying last year that he doesn't want "a large number of Muslim people" in Hungary and that Muslim refugees are "threatening Europe's Christian culture". More generally, he has described immigration into Hungary as a "poison" and paints refugees as "terrorists". 

Orban's regime has been called "post-fascist" – while domestically it blurs the lines between autocracy and democracy, when it comes to policy on refugees it has been able to put Orban's brutally anti-immigrant rhetoric into action. 

We see in the UK the triumph of the most base and violent anti-immigrant politics in the guise of Brexit

This includes everything from an imposing "anti-immigrant" fence on its border with Serbia (one MEP from Orban's ruling Fidesz Party argued that the fence should have pig's heads placed along it to deter Muslims), patrolled by the military, militarised police and far-right militias, as well as a zero tolerance adopted by the Hungarian state to refugees, with over 3,000 trials this year for "border violations", with 99 percent of those leading to convictions. This is xenophobia put into practice on an almost industrial scale. 

Orban's regime has engendered a culture of dehumanisation of refugees - government billboards expounding hatred of outsiders are increasingly used in Hungary, while the overwhelmingly pro-Orban media matches his squalidly racist rhetoric. 

It's in this atmosphere that 22 year-old Syrian refugee Farhan al-Hwaish was allowed to drown in a river as Hungarian police fired tear gas at him and used dogs to prevent him getting to safety on the riverbank.

This is what lies behind the trials of Ahmed H and the others arrested at Roszke - they are, in the words of Migsoz, "show trials aimed to portray asylum seekers as dangerous", while also seeking to further engender and expound the Orban regime's "not welcome" message to refugees. 

The overwhelmingly pro-Orban media matches his squalidly racist rhetoric

Hungary might be a vanguard of the brutal, inhumane response to refugees in Europe, but its practices are by no means alien to a continent that has let almost 4,000 people fleeing genocide and extremism, drown in the Mediterranean in 2016 alone. 

Indeed, as Annastiina Kallius, an activist with Migszol, put it regarding the increasing acquiescence of the rest of Europe to Orban's policies towards refugees, "Hungary is not an exception to Europe… in the Mediterranean they drown and at the borders they are beaten up." 

We see in the UK the triumph of the most base and violent anti-immigrant politics in the guise of Brexit, while we've seen the rise of the openly anti-refugee, Islamophobic, Orban-esque demagogue Donald Trump, who might very well lose the presidential election, but whose nativist political movement will not dissipate. 

We see refugees in Calais rise up as their makeshift camps are destroyed by the increasingly anti-immigrant and Islamophobic French government, under pressure from the insurgent fascists of the Front National. 

We see even in Germany, the so-called "safe haven" for refugees that has taken in more refugees than the rest of Europe combined, a rescinding of its once welcoming posture and policies, as the far-right continues to determine and expand the brutal politics of Fortress Europe.

At the heart of this crisis is the fascism of the Assad regime and one fears that the spread and triumph of fascism and its logics will be its consequence.

As refugees continue to be made, most numerously by the genocidal war unleashed by Assad, Russia and Iran, and as they seek to make it to the stability offered by Europe and the western world, one fears that more Orbans will emerge and more martyrs like Ahmed and the Roszke 11 will be made.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.