As I was looking through my old posts to see my coverage of Ahmed H.’s trial for terrorism, which took place in 2016, I found to my astonishment that I hadn’t even mentioned the name of this Syrian man who received ten years for allegedly committing terrorism at the Serbian-Hungarian border. I have often been told that over the years the posts of Hungarian Spectrum can more or less serve as a timeline of Hungarian politics. I’m trying to cover all the important events, but, as is clear from this example, I don’t always succeed.
The omission is especially egregious because Ahmed’s alleged terrorism case was one of the pretexts for the government’s attempt to introduce a new category of emergencies that could be declared in the event of a “situation created by a terrorist threat.” Ahmed’s arrest and the subsequent charge of terrorism against him were followed by an unprecedented hate campaign against migrants. This Syrian man from Cyprus, where he has been living legally for the last ten years, became a symbol for all those vicious terrorists who want to overrun Hungary. The only problem with the Hungarian government’s plan was that the terrorism case against Ahmed H. was mighty weak.
Even if I missed covering the original trial, I can now make up for it, at least in part, by reporting on the ruling of the appellate court on June 15 and by recalling some of the events that led to the news that Ahmed has a second chance to receive a fair trial. The appellate court found the work of the court of first instance so flawed that the whole case must be retried–and not, as the judge made clear, by the same panel of judges.
Representatives of such civic organizations as Amnesty International and Migszol, a group formed at the time of the refugee crisis in Hungary in the summer of 2015, have been calling Ahmed H.’s trial a “conceptual show trial.” Looking through the available documents, one thing is sure. The Orbán government very much wanted to find someone guilty of terrorism. It needed such a verdict for its anti-migrant drive. Ahmed seemed to fit the bill. He had a bullhorn and was talking to the crowd in several languages, including English. He allegedly incited the crowd to violence, repeatedly threatened the security forces, and then joined the disturbances that took place on September 16, 2015. He was also charged with illegally crossing the border. On November 30 Ahmed H. was sentenced to a 10-year prison term.
The trial was a mockery of judicial fairness. The judge refused to hear the testimony of more than 20 defense witnesses and ignored the fact that the prosecution’s main witness, a police officer, was not certain of the accused’s identity. It was true that Ahmed threw a couple of items during the melee, but there was no proof that he hit anyone. He claimed that he tried to calm the people. But even if he was guilty of all the crimes he was accused of, did Ahmed H. deserve 10 years? Gauri van Gulik, deputy director of Amnesty International for Europe, said that “to sentence Ahmed to 10 years in prison for a terrorist act is absurd.”
The spokesman for Fidesz expressed the party’s delight after the initial verdict was announced. He repeated the slogan on the billboards: “every migrant must learn that, once in the country, he must honor the laws of Hungary.” But those outside the circle of Fidesz and its followers were stunned. The United States asked the Hungarian government to conduct a transparent investigation of the incidents at the border that would include an independent civic organization. The government should review Ahmed’s case. As far as the United States is concerned, it will follow the case’s future handling, the statement promised. It didn’t take long for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to respond, telling the United States that criticizing the work of the court may be allowed in the United States but not in Hungary. Moreover, in Hungary it is not the civic organizations that decide on the guilt or innocence of people but the courts. The ministry spokesman ended his harangue by saying that “we can promise one thing: Hungary will never demand an explanation of U.S. court decisions on terrorists attacking American policemen.”
A week before Ahmed H.’s case was to be continued at the Szeged Appellate Court, the Hungarian media reported that Péter Bárándy, one of the best lawyers in Hungary who was minister of justice between 2002 and 2004 in the Medgyessy government, was going to be Ahmed’s defense lawyer. (There is some indirect evidence that Bárándy had been working on the case since at least March.)
Ahmed H. has had four lawyers, including Bárándy. First, he had a court-appointed lawyer. Then a local Szeged lawyer took over who, according to a member of Migszol, “during the trial sat quietly and wasted not one word in defense of his client.” Two weeks before the end of the trial he quit. The accused got another court-appointed lawyer who apparently did at least try to defend his client, unfortunately without much success.
The news of Péter Bárándy’s appearance as the lawyer for the defense was not exactly welcome news in government circles, but it did give Fidesz leaders an opportunity to connect “terrorism” with its alleged supporters, the Hungarian liberals and socialists. In fact, Gyula Budai, the man who in 2010 was entrusted by Viktor Orbán to bring all socialist and liberal “criminals” to justice, gave a press conference in which he charged that the Soros organizations, Brussels, and the socialists are working hand in hand to free Ahmed H. and therefore “they support terrorism.” He used strong words like “while Europe is terrified of terrorism, Brussels is openly supporting it.” He wanted to know “who is paying the lawyer” and called on MSZP to give an account.
At the trial the prosecutor mostly praised the excellent decision that had been reached in the lower court. But he found the sentence of 10 years, the minimum for those accused of terrorism, insufficient and asked the court for 17.5 years instead. It was then Bárándy’s turn, who pointed out that he found 205 serious mistakes in the proceedings of the lower court. Here, of course, I cannot recount all of them. But I think a couple of examples will give a good idea of the kind of justice that was meted out to Ahmed H. A key charge against him was that he was the leader of the crowd that was throwing rocks against the police. A video, however, showed that the rock throwing had been going on for at least 45 minutes before Ahmed got hold of the bullhorn. In addition, the judge ignored the existence of a video taken by a policewoman which, as opposed to other videos, also contained sound and it doesn’t support Ahmed’s alleged incitement of the crowd. On the contrary, he can be heard saying to the fellow refugees “please, wait, stay here,” “please advise,” “we speak English, we don’t want an Arabic interpreter, we are asking for someone who speaks English.” And finally he told the refugees in Arabic, “no, wait, go back, please go back.” The verdict also claimed that Ahmed gave the police two hours to open the border. How did the police know this? He held up two fingers. But this can also mean “victory.” Finally, he was found guilty of illegally crossing the border, but even that judgment was wrong because Ahmed had free access to all EU countries, including Hungary. At the most, Ahmed was guilty of a misdemeanor (szabálysértés).
After the appellate court sent the case back to the lower court for a retrial, Zsolt Bayer wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Idők titled “H. Bárándy and Ahmed Péter.” Bayer may seem to have gotten a little mixed up. I assume you get the gist of what he wants to tell us. It was a relief to read close to the end of the article that “we are not going to incarcerate the judge [of the appellate court] or H. Bárándy.” That’s awfully charitable.
Let’s end this post on a lighter note. The management of state television M1 channel most likely was certain that the Ahmed H.’s verdict would not be reversed or annulled. Perhaps he will even get 17.5 years as the prosecution demanded. They decided to send a camera crew to the trial along with their legal experts who were supposed to give live commentary. For three solid hours one could watch the trial. Once the decision was handed down, however, M1 ended the live broadcast in a great hurry. No further commentary necessary.
The reaction of the top Fidesz leadership has been as expected–a complete denial of any possibility that the original verdict could be flawed and a charge that the socialists, the civic organizations, Brussels, and everybody else under the sun are working together to open the borders and let in all those migrants who are in Bayer’s words members of “the terrible mob of Mordor, the Third World.”