The trials of Ahmed H.
During an electoral campaign dominated by anti-migrant rhetoric, a Hungarian court has upheld a verdict of terrorism against a Syrian citizen — and the symbolism is lost on no one.
“For Hungary to achieve anything in the next four years, we must not let in a single migrant” began Viktor Orbán in a speech earlier this month. In Hungary in 2018, such words are remarkable in how normal they have truly become.
For Budapest, migration means terrorism — a commonsensical link reinforced daily by pro-government media and initiatives such as the state’s Public Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism. Leaflets for the May 2015 referendum on acceptance of refugees featured maps of “no go areas” across western Europe and shocking statistics about “murder by migrant.”
And now, the government has its very own case study. Last Wednesday, a Hungarian court upheld a verdict against a Syrian citizen accused of a terrorist act carried out at the Serbian border in 2015. After already spending two and a half years behind bars, Ahmed H. has been sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and a ten year ban on entering Hungary.
Ahmed H. is to date the only migrant to have been sentenced on charges of terrorism in Hungary. In trials widely slated by NGOs and human rights defenders as politicised, these proceedings have dragged on through a long first-instance ruling and appeals hearing.
The story of how Ahmed ended up being led on a leash into a courtroom last week is also one of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, of its demonisation of migrants, extended states of emergency, and in a trend shared with more and more European states, strikingly unaccountable counter-terrorist police forces, and staggeringly vague counter-terrorism laws.
A spark at the border
On September 15th 2015, Hungary’s border fence — the fifth of its kind in the European Union — was completed and police began enforcing new laws against illegal crossings. Yet the following day, several hundred migrants arrived outside the village of Röszke, hoping to cross a disused railway line into Hungary as many had done over the summer. They were unaware and perplexed at the new obstacle before them and violent scenes erupted between the new arrivals and Hungarian police, who promptly fired tear gas and water cannon into the crowd on Serbian territory.
Among that crowd was the Syrian citizen, Ahmed H., who was helping his two elderly parents and six relatives from the war-torn country enter the EU via the Balkan route. Well after the chaos had began, Ahmed too threw a few objects at the police, an act he does not deny. As the crowd chanted at Hungarian police to open the gate, video footage also shows how he, as one of the few English-speakers in the crowd, took up a megaphone and tried to mediate between the Hungarian police and crowd of migrants. The act would cost him dearly.
Following the clashes at Röszke, some 35 people were charged at Szeged’s courthouse on September 17th with illegal border crossing. Viktor Orbán decried “liberal blah-blah” about migration, and declared the refugee crisis the making of liberal ideology. Meanwhile, the Balkan route began to redirect towards Croatia and Slovenia.
After another attempt to enter Hungary with his family, Ahmed was apprehended on the Croatian frontier several weeks later and promptly detained. On November 30th 2016, the first-instance court sentenced him to ten years’ imprisonment for an act of terrorism and illegal entry into Hungary as part of a mass riot.
Wanted: a charge that sticks
Hungarian officials were quickly incensed at criticism over the verdict. When the European Parliament and US Department of State passed resolutions that the first-instance trial had been unfair, Orbán hit back during a speech before parliament, arguing that Brussels “put the patently absurd lies of Ahmed H. above the safety of the Hungarian people.”
June 2017 brought a rude shock when the court of appeals ordered a retrial by a new panel of judges, arguing that the evidence against Ahmed had been improperly assessed and that his testimony had been altered by a court interpreter. The Kúria, Hungary’s supreme court, rebuked the ruling as unlawful, though it had no consequences for the retrial.
The evidence to be reassessed included video footage from Rӧszke and the testimonies of around 20 police officers, though none from the activists and aid workers present at the border that day.
From the outset, it appeared that state officials were keenly invested in the message sent by the first-instance ruling.
“I guess the government was very happy about the verdict” says Kata Janecskó, a journalist for Hungarian portal Index.Hu who was present at the first hearings in Szeged. “They had the opportunity to say they protected the Hungarian people. Most people didn’t know or care about the details. It was enough for them to hear the authorities ‘caught a terrorist at the border’ and that’s all they needed to know.”
The prosecution tried its best to make the terrorist charge float. Ahmed was accused of membership in the Islamist organisation Tablighi Jamaat and questioned about trips he had taken on religious retreats to India and Pakistan.
Ahmed’s wide Nadia was dismayed by the verdict. “His good name has been damaged by these accusations”, she said in an interview. “Ahmed has been part of our society and our lives for nine years – our children go to a Greek Orthodox school! How can they call him a fundamentalist?”
Hungarian authorities also appear to have requested that Interpol investigate Ahmed. The international law enforcement agency did not comment on the case, a read-out of its findings before the first-instance court confirmed that Ahmed had no criminal record in Cyprus, nor was he under prior suspicion of aiding or preparing terrorist acts.
Curiously, none of these attempts to prove Ahmed’s alleged Islamist leanings could stand for long. No references to Tablighi Jamaat nor to radical Islamist extremism ended up in the first instance court’s verdict of “terrorism” – yet the charge stuck.
This was due to the elastic definition of terrorist acts in the Hungarian criminal code. Article 314A defines terrorism as, among other things, “coercing a government agency, state, or international body to do or not to do something”.
Consequently, Ahmed’s alleged demand by megaphone that the Hungarian border police open the gates was enough to convict him of an act of terrorism.
The confusion and imprecision of video footage taken at Roszke has bedevilled the case since it began. Some police testimonies appeared confused, specifying simply “a Middle Eastern guy behaving aggressively”, while others misidentified Ahmed entirely. This January, conservative daily Magyar Nemzet finally acquired over four hours of silent surveillance camera footage of the events of September 15th. On the basis of a 40-page transcript they produced, the journalists of the paper state that Ahmed H.’s earlier statement was true, in which he says he appeared in front of the riot police only to try and calm the crowd, and negotiate with police personnel.
“Let me put it diplomatically: the first instance court was wrong on many levels — the prosecution’s indictment was even copy-pasted into the verdict with the same grammatical mistakes”, begins Daniel Tran, a lawyer working alongside Ahmed’s current legal counsel.
Tran and lead defender Dr. Péter Bárándy had hoped to overturn the charge of terrorism entirely. They stress that there is no evidence that Ahmed intended to commit a terrorist act. “Nevertheless, somebody well-versed in Islamic tradition and customs was called to give an assessment of Ahmed’s religious beliefs — which was left in the final verdict without an assessment as to why it might be there”, adds Tran.
Ahmed was also charged with illegal entry into Hungary as part of a mass riot, an administrative violation which carries a minimum sentence of five years. He did not contest the charge that he threw objects at the police, which alone cannot constitute a terrorist threat even in the most elastic of interpretations.
Some months after the first-instance ruling, I met Sebők Balázs, Ahmed’s second lawyer who represented him back in 2016. Over coffee, he told me that his major success in the first-instance trial was in reducing the initial sentence from 17 to 10 years (the minimum required for a sentence of terrorism), due to his client’s poor health and responsibility for three small children back in Cyprus.
Sebők finds the definition of terrorism in the Ahmed H. case curious – “by the same logic, a group of football hooligans who tries to break through the fence at a stadium, shouting at the police to let them in, are also committing a terrorist act” he explains. The lawyer is eager to point out that his advocacy in Ahmed’s case was not about migration, but about the primacy of the law and ensuring that it is fairly and consistently applied.
“Today it may be Ahmed,” concludes Sebők, “tomorrow it could be you.”
There is a subtle distinction between the terrorism verdicts of the first and second-instance courts. In 2016, Ahmed was found guilty of committing a terrorist act – this year’s verdict calls him “complicit” or a “co-conspirator” in the same.
Although the judge acknowledged last week that Ahmed did not give any ultimatum to the police as the first-instance court believed, his verdict rested on an entirely different interpretation of proving intent to commit a terrorist act.
A key piece of evidence mentioned in the latest verdict features a phone call between Ahmed and an unknown man. On the night before his arrival at the border, this man allegedly told Ahmed that the fence had been installed and that the border was closed. The prosecution argued that this, along with Ahmed’s crossing into Hungary after the events in Röszke, shows his long-standing intent to cross the Hungary border by any means necessary – including using violence (i.e throwing objects at the police) and obstructing state officials in the course of their duty.
“This time, we were 90 per cent in agreement with the judge about the course of events themselves, even if we disagreed with his reasoning” reflects Tran. “But if the verdict stands, it will now be very, very easy to commit an act of terrorism in Hungary.”
Tran adds that the “complicity” charge adds another worrying element – might it not imply, he wonders, that everybody else present at Röszke was committing a terrorist act, too? The legal construct used in the final verdict, he adds, implies that there were many more unknown perpetrators.
“In short, the legal outcome for us is almost like the operation is successful – but the patient is dead.”
A favourable fixation
“The migration crisis has become putty in Viktor Orbán’s hands, the better to create an image of the enemy” writes veteran scholar of Hungarian politics Paul Lendvai. Ahead of parliamentary elections on April 8th, that tactic seems to have played off — Hungary is a fortress, Orbán its daring defender and civil society the trojan horse.
After a shock by-election defeat in the small town of Hódmezövásárhely earlier this month, the ruling Fidesz party is on the offensive. In one notorious example from recent weeks, Orbán’s chief-of-staff János Lázár posted a Facebook video of himself walking through Vienna, claiming that as a result of migration, “the streets are dirtier, evidently the area is poorer, and there’s a lot more crime.” The Austrian government was not amused and Orbán dug in his heels to defend his colleague.
The messaging is crude but effective — if the “national government” loses the election, Hungary will be inundated with immigrants. Islamic radicalism will follow.
One of those civil society campaigners is Barbara Hegedűs, a student and activist with Migszol, a Budapest-based group campaigning for migrants’ rights. In a Budapest cafe, she tells me she and her colleagues followed the case closely – and notes that pro-government Hungarian media did exactly the same. “Ahmed’s case is well-known to the Hungarian press, perfect examples of a ‘migrant behaving badly’. Things reached absurd proportions”, she adds: “As Ahmed was carrying the passports of family members he was accompanying, some articles even inferred that he was involved in shady business with the documents, calling him ‘the man with eight passports’.”
Such statements have continued; Hungarian officials even saw fit to weigh in on the case long after the second instance court begun its proceedings.
On January 8th the Fidesz MP and former lawyer Pal Volner gave a press conference on behalf of Hungary’s Ministry of Justice in which he made several statements seemingly in support of upholding the charge of terrorism against Ahmed H. On the same day, an album of photos from Roszke appeared on the Hungarian government’s official Facebook page entitled “Ahmed H. – a terrorist”.
There are no laws against Hungary’s officials making such statements. Yet the precedent of the executive arm of government assessing an ongoing criminal case could be seen as violating basic judicial principles of the presumption of innocence.
When approached for comment, the Hungarian government’s international press office responded that “Ahmed H. perpetrated an act of terrorism on the Hungarian-Serbian border, attacked the border police with his associates and was convicted by the Hungarian court.”
When the author reiterated that the charge of terrorism against Ahmed H. had been overturned at the time these statements were made, the press office responded simply “the government is a political body – it makes political statements.”
Ahmed’s choice of Bárándy as his current legal counsel has only emboldened those with an axe to grind. Between 2002 and 2004, Bárándy served as minister of justice under the socialist MSZP government of Péter Medgyessy — Tran tells me that pro-government media have seized on this fact. “They’re painting the picture of an opposition figure, an ‘old communist’, defending a terrorist. You can see the resonance of that” he sighs.
Budapest has already used human rights campaigners’ concern over the Ahmed H. case as an example of the “danger” which civil society can pose. In October 2017, the Hungarian launched a “National Consultation on the Soros Plan”, inviting Hungarians to reject an alleged conspiracy by the Hungarian-born financier to facilitate mass migration.
The document, mailed to some eight million Hungarians, referred to Ahmed as a criminal convicted for attacking the police at the border, whose sentence NGOs and human rights defenders were trying to lighten.
By all accounts, the high and mighty still bear a grudge — last week, Orban declared on Budapest’s Kossuth Square that he would enact “vengeance” after a Fidesz victory.
The courts called it
For some observers, the Ahmed H. case is a landmark in the slow erosion of judicial independence in Hungary — in a recent interview for the Budapest Beacon on threats to judicial independence, an anonymous Hungarian judge cited the Ahmed H. case as an example of one where, even while there is no direct interference in judicial rulings, government-friendly media “makes the desired outcome of the trial all too clear.”
It is a tendency that Amnesty International’s human rights expert Áron Demeter believes amounts to soft political pressure, though he had no procedural complaints about the first-instance court. Demeter added in an interview taken before its final verdict that the second-instance court was also “operating independently and professionally.”
Zselyke Csaky, a Central Europe analyst for Freedom House, tells me that the behaviour of the court of appeals still shows that the Hungarian judiciary is free to disagree with the government. In an interview taken before its verdict, she added that “whatever the second-instance court rules, it could be a victory for the Hungarian government”.
Fidesz, adds Csaky, could theoretically portray any overturning of the verdict as an example of “courts not defending Hungarians.”
Over time, the details of this case and the story of the man implicated in it may ebb away, the verdict against Ahmed becoming a hollow vindication of an increasingly anti-migration rhetoric.
“The government will go as far as possible. They’re very invested in this case, and will take every step to preserve the verdict of terrorism”, concludes Tran, who adds that he and Bárándy intend to appeal the latest ruling.
Before that final verdict, Ahmed urged the judge to rule fairly, stressing that he would like to return home to be with his wife and children.
In a final twist to this story, Ahmed’s other relatives made it to an EU country, where they now live in safety. Ahmed H., probably one of the only people in the crowd at Röszke who could legally enter Hungary, had succeeded in his errand — at the cost of over ten years of his life.
Since the verdict of the second-instance court, Fidesz politicians such as MP Róbert Zsigó and Secretary of the State for Justice Pál Völner have joined pro-government media in smearing Peter Bárándy’s role as an example of the opposition “defending terrorism” with supposed financial support from George Soros. Angered by his intention to appeal the decision of the second-instance court, they now demand that Hungarian opposition leaders “pull Bárándy out from politics”, despite the fact that Bárándy does not hold any role nor membership in a political party. President of the Hungarian bar association János Bánáti responded that such statements challenge the constitutionally-guaranteed independence of defence lawyers. “Hungary in 2018 is not the time or the place to question the role and importance of lawyers” — concluded Bánáti. On 26 March, Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs stated that the international attempt to “excuse” Ahmed H. for his actions testified to the fact that the Soros network helped organised the “Roszke attack” in 2015.
Maxim Edwards is a journalist writing on Central and Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space, and a former editor at openDemocracy Russia (oDR). He is currently assistant editor at OCCRP in Sarajevo.