police excess

Police excess in Hungary: Two recent stories

I said a couple of days ago that I had gained the impression that  members of the Hungarian police force have been emboldened in the last three years. They feel that the government believes in strict rules and often opts for punishment as an answer to social ills. Since most of the police force are Jobbik and Fidesz supporters, they believe that Sándor Pintér’s ministry of the interior as well as the cabinet as a whole are behind them. They have a free hand, and they take advantage of it.

The policemen who beat to death a most likely innocent man in Orgovány were actually admired by the townspeople because they were known as tough policemen. And policemen are supposed to be tough. Of course, this murder was an extreme case. Still, the hardening of the police toward the people they are supposed to defend is widespread and appears to be intensifying. Let me describe two recent cases to give a taste of what I mean.

A month ago two university students were heading home from Budapest to Szeged. They were planning to hitch a ride and, while waiting, decided to have a cheeseburger at a roadside fast food joint. They settled down on the grass to have a bite. They hadn’t even finished their burgers when two policemen arrived. It turned out that one of the students didn’t have his ID card with him. Both of them received fines of 50,000 forints ($228), one for the missing ID card and the other for littering. This was the highest possible fine for such offences. The so-called litterer was told to throw his bag, which still had half of his cheeseburger in it, into the trash and to pick up litter, like an empty cigarette box, that didn’t even belong to them.

The scene of the "crime." The rest stop at Budaörs

The scene of the “crime” in Budaörs

At that point the poor devil made the mistake of saying “Ne már!,” meaning “Come on!” The policemen considered this to be resistance to police orders and handcuffed him. The fellow who didn’t have his ID card received the same treatment. They were escorted to the nearest police station, where they received the papers that obliged them to pay the fine. One of the boys decided to work off the penalty. He had to work 60 hours in Szeged picking up trash from parks.

Here is another case that is even more bizarre. It happened in Zalaegerszeg. A teacher crossed the street with her seven-year-old daughter, not at the designated crossing. She was in a hurry because she had to pick up her younger child from kindergarten. Moreover, they also had to catch the long distance bus to get to the village where they live. As it happens, there are only two crossings on this one-way street, both very far from the bus stop. Daily hundreds and hundreds of people cross here illegally because the city planners neglected to mark a crossing where it should have been. Right across from the bus stop.

The infamous bus stop in Zalaegerszeg

The infamous bus stop in Zalaegerszeg

In any case, she decided to cross illegally when she heard someone shouting behind her, “Come back!” There were two policemen who then decided to ask for her ID. It was pouring rain, the little girl was crying, and the policemen kept calling her by her first name and I guess used the informal “te” although she asked them several times to use her proper name and the formal. She cooperated but asked them to hurry because she had to pick up her little boy from kindergarten. The answer was that they will detain her as long as they want. They can take her to the police station and hold her there for twelve hours. The procedure took 20 minutes and naturally she missed closing time at the kindergarten. In the end, she was fined 20,000 forints.

The woman’s colleagues encouraged her to report her treatment by the two policemen, which she did. She came to regret that decision. The policemen’s superiors sided with the policemen. But that wasn’t enough. She was informed in this official letter that because she had crossed the road illegally with a seven-year-old child and thus endangered the child’s life her case had been passed on to the public guardianship authority. Subsequently she received several threatening letters from the guardianship authority. The message was that they can take her children away and place them with relatives or foster parents or put them in a state institution.

At this point the woman consulted a lawyer. The lawyer told reporters covering this story that in his long career he hadn’t encountered anything like this case. And the saga only continued. One day officials from the guardianship office appeared at her house, where they insisted on looking around. They wanted to see the children’s bedrooms, their clothes, their toys, their report cards, their records of inoculations. In order to impress them she told them that the children receive religious instruction, take private English lessons, and attend music school. Yes, yes, said the officials, they see that the children’s situation is perfectly satisfactory, but they “have to follow instructions.”

The illegal street crossing took place sometime in May, but it was only in the second week of September that the case was at last closed. But how? She didn’t simply get a letter informing her of the verdict. She had to appear in person in city hall where she was told the final outcome of the case.

I might add here that until recently Hungarian children who were placed under guardianship usually ended up in large institutions. Hungary is now obliged as a member of the European Union to end this practice and to try to place as many children as possible in foster homes. Viktor Orbán’s state doesn’t trust the foster parents, however, and just lately took away all their rights. They cannot act on behalf of the child. For example, from here on foster parents can’t decide on the schooling of the children in their care. Even children’s medical treatment will depend on officially designated guardians, guardians who will have to oversee at least 30 children. In addition, foster parents will have to take a 500-hour course in child rearing which will cost 300-500,000 forints.

It seems that Orbán’s Hungary simply doesn’t want to hand over these children to private citizens although we know that most of the troubled 20-30-year-olds are the products of state institutions. Not only is the state not a good owner, it is not a good parent either.