I’m not exaggerating. I had to read about 150 articles before I managed to get a more or less accurate picture of what happened in Izsák, where on April 8 two policemen during an ordinary interrogation regarding the possible theft of a chainsaw beat a suspect to death.
The news hit the national media only late afternoon on April 10. The Izsák police force was not too eager to release the news. But such a sensational case cannot be “localized.” So, they first fired and eventually arrested the two policemen suspected of the murder and for good measure got rid of two of their superiors. But these were low-level officers. Higher up in the hierarchy no one was ready to take responsibility, although by that time it became clear that police brutality was fairly widespread in the County of Bács-Kiskun.
That a man is beaten to death by policemen is not an everyday occurrence in Hungary. In fact, Ferenc Krémer, who for years taught sociology at the Police Academy, can’t remember a single case in his lifetime.
According to critics of the government, it is no coincidence that the first shocking instance of police brutality took place in 2013 and not, let’s say, in 2009. Commentators called attention to the fact that the government majority in parliament passed legislation that allows the police to interrogate suspects without legal representation in the first twenty-four hours. Also, the current government’s approach to law and order is based on strict enforcement. “Let’s be tough on crime” is the slogan. Thus, members of the police force feel empowered to behave aggressively in the war against crime. The government set up a “Complaint Committee” (Panaszbizottság) to investigate unfair treatment by the police and almost 2,000 complaints reached the committee last year. Fewer than thirty were actually investigated.
So, what happened in this case? The victim’s name is József Bara (47). He lived with his partner of fifteen years, Andrea, in a well-kept but secluded house (tanya) at the end of a dirt road in the town next to Izsák, Orgovány. Bara was one of the many Romanian-Hungarians who settled in the area. So was his neighbor, who calls himself a proud Szekler. The two were on good terms a few years back but lately they had a lot of arguments. Moreover, Bara had a run-in with the police a few years back because he got into an argument with somebody that ended in a brawl.
It was about a year ago that the proud Szekler’s chainsaw was stolen. After months of investigation the police couldn’t come up with a suspect. At this point the Szekler neighbor started investigating the case himself . He came to the conclusion that his neighbor, József Bara, was the one who stole his chainsaw. How did he figure that out? His chainsaw had a faulty part, and he claimed that only he knew how to start the machine. He found out that Bara had gone to have a chainsaw repaired because he had difficulty starting it. The neighbor was sure that he had found the culprit. He went to the police.
Two young police officers arrived at Bara’s house to investigate. Bara and his partner were on their way home, walking on the dirt road leading to their house, when the police car caught up with them. In no time the two officers pushed him to the ground and buried his head in the sand. Andrea was worried that he might suffocate and asked him not to struggle. The policemen wanted to search the house, but it turned out that they didn’t have a warrant. Because the house was in Andrea’s name, she refused to let them in. She claimed that Bara had nothing to do with the chainsaw and that there was no chainsaw in their house.
So the two policemen put Bara into their car and drove him to the Izsák police station. By 11 p.m. Bara was dead.
Two policeman arrived at Andrea’s house at 1 a.m. and drove her to the police station. Without telling her that her partner was dead, they interrogated her, mostly about what kinds of medication Bara was taking. They were also interested in drug use. Clearly, the idea was to find some reason other than the beating for Bara’s death.
Eventually, around three o’clock in the morning, Andrea was told that Bara was no longer alive. The story she heard was that Bara just fell off the chair and to their surprise they found that he was dead! Luckily Andrea was no fool and called József’s brother to join her. He took a look at the body and reported that the man was so severely beaten from the waist up that he was practically unrecognizable. His face was described as “smashed flat.”
One of the two policemen has since testified that they acted in self-defense. It’s hard to believe that a 47-year -old man could beat up two armed policemen in their twenties! Four days after the event the policemen’s superiors charged the dead man with assaulting the interrogating policeman. Can one charge a dead man? Sure, I guess one can, but what’s the use?
What kind of men were these two policemen? Viktor B. had a reputation as a “tough guy” who was known to beat suspects before. He promised that he “would clean up the place” and behaved accordingly. The mayor of Izsák, however, expressed his surprise about stories allegingViktor B.’s cruel behavior because up to this point there was no complaint about him. The 24-member force was a good group of people. In fact, one of the suspects in the Bara murder case was already accepted into TEK (Terrorelhárítási Központ), which is often described as Viktor Orbán’s personal army. Naturally, the defense lawyer of Viktor B., Zsuzsanna Kiszely, also finds it impossible to imagine that this upright man who was such a devoted policeman would have acted against the rules and regulations of the Hungarian police. His whole adult life has been devoted to serving his country and its police force.
The latest turn of events might shed some light on what happened during the night of April 8 in the Izsák police station. A third policeman came forth and broke the old rule that a policeman doesn’t rat out a colleague. He felt that he had to tell the truth. He was an eyewitness. Apparently he tried to stop the beating but without success. But whether his man’s testimony will make any difference only time will tell. According to police regulations, a witness must come forth immediately, not four days later.
Opposition critics rightly point out that the new law introduced by the Orbán government that can deprive the accused of having a lawyer present in the first twenty-four hours gives an undue advantage to the investigators who can pressure the accused to confess to a crime he may not have committed. The tough rhetoric used by the Orbán government in general and the Ministry of Interior in particular under the leadership of Sándor Pintér, a former police chief, may permeate the atmosphere of the police force. The motto of the Hungarian Police is “We serve and defend!” but in the last few years the emphasis has been on “punishment.” Here is the result. Moreover, according to the investigative reports of some journalists, beatings at the police stations in the County of Bács-Kiskun are quite common. People are afraid to complain or, if they do, nothing happens.
A final comment. As I mentioned earlier, József Bara was a Romanian citizen. The Romanian foreign ministry is naturally interested to what happened to one of their own. The two policemen from Izsák surely didn’t think that the case would get as far as Bucharest.