Hungary: "We Don't Explain"


After 40 years of Communist rule, Hungary wants to be embraced by Europe's family of liberal, rule-of-law democracies. The government wants everyone to believe that the days when people were jailed capriciously, denied due process, and brutalized are over. This may be why it now keeps the press out of the alien detention camp at Kerepestarcsa.

Since the camp—a political prison for "bourgeois nationalists" and other pariahs in the 1950s—reopened last year, it has held over 7,000 deportees who are not under arrest, formally charged, or given a hearing. Most of the detainees are ex-Soviet, Romanian, Arab, African, or Asian economic refugees caught entering, staying in, or passing through the country without proper papers.

Amnesty International reports that inmates are kept in squalid barracks where they are tear-gassed in closed spaces and often beaten. Some ex-inmates told me they had been held incommunicado. Between January and April, opposition members of Parliament brought to light nine cases in which foreigners with all their papers in order were imprisoned for between 10 and 26 days.

After being picked up at the borders, on the street, at open-air markets, or in occasional raids, the foreigners are held indefinitely by authorities who choose which laws to observe and which to ignore. The Interior Ministry regularly invokes what critics call "the rubber paragraph"—a clause from a 1982 Communist decree that allows the ministry to expel any foreigner whose presence "endangers the state, economic or social interests of the Hungarian Republic." But ministry officials don't obey the decree's six-day limit on deportee detention. An inmate's average stay is three weeks, says the ministry's Col. Julianna Czegény, while some are held "several months." Major Gen. Karoly Nagy, the Interior Ministry official who overseas the head of the national police, says the six-day limit doesn't mesh with the "present national interest."

Critics concede that controlling the flow of aliens is a legitimate aim but decry what they see as lingering police-state practices. "We have lived for too long under circumstances where the question of legality could be reduced to a formality in the interests of public security, of the state, or of the party," Ferenc Köszeg, a former samizdat journalist, told fellow Parliament members in April.

György Faludy, an 81-year-old poet and journalist who did time in Kerepestarcsa in the '50s on charges of "Trotskyism" (for fighting in the U.S. Army during World War II) says the authorities' fears "are understandable, but the methods they use are just awful." He was "scandalized" to learn in April that since last fall a wall at Kerepestarcsa has carried one of his poems on a memorial plaque to the camp's victims of Stalinism.

I first noticed the plaque on a ministry-led tour through selected parts of the camp in January. Our escorts insisted we were visiting not a prison but a "foreigners' temporary accommodation." Yet the people living there were not free to leave. The brick walls were topped by barbed wire and the windows had bars. Truncheon-wielding guards led dogs with steel muzzles.

The housing we saw was a crowded sty. About 35 men, women, and children were crammed into a room furnished only with metal bunks. Personal items could only be hung on nails or bars. The bathroom, which lacked hot water and flushing toilets, was flooded, splattered, and putrid. Bread crusts and other leftovers were everywhere: on beds, piled on window sills, or in bins mixed with water, orange peels, and unidentifiable slop. Denied utensils, inmates used bowls cut from plastic bottles.

"The conditions," says opposition M.P. László Körösfói, "don't match the average human norms, even though according to the head of the camp, there was the normal quarterly cleanup before I went there. There was dirt, disorder, and smell."

We had about 15 minutes with the inmates, who said their diet consisted of tea, bread with cold lard, bean soup, hard-boiled egg halves, an occasional tomato, and a twice-weekly slice of pork. A Chinese boy handed me a note in cramped strokes and broken English. It said that on December 27 police had asked him for his passport near Moscow Square, and that instead he had produced receipt from the South African consulate stating (in English) that his passport was there for visa processing. His residence permit was still valid. "Please," the note closed, "help tell police to clear up soon this problem."

As the return bus was readied, I asked ministry spokeswoman Ester Szábo about the complaints and the note, both of which she dismissed. I asked why inmates would lie. "They want you to feel sorry for them," she said. "Have you ever been to prison before? Everybody says they are innocent." So now the camp was a prison.

On January 22, a week after the tour, Köszeg, a lawyer, a translator, and I met police Vice Col. Jozsef Lukács in the camp. The Chinese boy's story turned out to be true. And to our surprise, he'd entered the prison with seven other Chinese in similar circumstances: Their residence permits were valid, and when stopped by police they also produced receipts from the South African consulate. Köszeg said he saw a letter from camp officials asking that the matter be investigated. It was dated January 20—the day our meeting was arranged.

For about three weeks, the eight had failed to convince Hungarian authorities to see for themselves that their papers, some 10 miles away, were in perfect legal order. They were told everything would be settled on their first Monday in the camp. But Monday came and went, and "nobody spoke to us and told us what would happen," one said. "We tried to make things as clear as possible so we will get free."

The Chinese detainees walked out with us after 26 days' detention. Col. Lukács said the delay was "an administrative error due to linguistic and communications difficulties." He asked that the case not get "any extra publicity."

It did—in our local Budapest Week, in Köszeg's political weekly (the organ of the Free Democrats, the largest parliamentary opposition party), and in The Guardian of London. Soon afterward, national police spokesman György Suha criticized my piece in The Guardian for calling the detention illegal. It wasn't, he said, since police didn't know what the receipts from the South African consulate were. When I mentioned Col. Lukács's admission of "administrative error," Suha said: "I don't know what to do about Mr. Lukács. The police made a mistake by allowing Mr. Lukács to comment."

The Chinese and some other ex-inmates contacted Amnesty International, which in March publicly urged the government to probe what Amnesty researcher Paul Miller called "our most serious concerns since the change of government": "the pattern of ill treatment in the camp on regular occasions." According to Amnesty's statement, "beatings are reported to have occurred often in the camp," such as when "inmates demonstrated against what they considered to be unacceptable hygiene and other conditions" last December. The statement also cited a report that a Chinese inmate was "hit about the face and head and as a result lost consciousness, after which he was kicked. Following pressure from other inmates, he was taken to a hospital."

The ministry's first response was brusque, the second dubious. "There's no need for an investigation," responded Interior Minister Peter Boross. "You know the sort of people who make these reports—they're the oversensitive liberal philanthropists you find in every country."

Two weeks later, though, ministry spokeswoman Szábo said that the alleged incidents had indeed been probed—before Amnesty's request. The guards were cleared. The Chinese man was hospitalized after an escape attempt, "which the guards prevented," she said. "After he was taken back, he complained he didn't feel well. He claimed that he was being hurt." A camp doctor found no injuries, and the next day, "as his state did not improve, he was taken to a hospital," where he escaped.

Suha shed some light on the nature of internal probes by the Hungarian police. Eight Chinese claimed that guards demanded bribes of $10 to $20 to use the phone. "We would have sacked the person on the spot," Suha said, but the investigation came up dry. Asked how it was carried out, he said, "Normally, we talk to the accusers." Did that mean the Chinese were questioned? "Definitely not," he said, apparently unfazed.

Hungary does not have a strong tradition of liberal democracy. From invading Mongols to Turkish, Austrian, and Soviet occupiers, its historical legacy is ingrained xenophobia and authoritarianism, which taint the two-year-old democratic government. Backed by a three-party parliamentary coalition that can reliably muster 57 percent of delegates' votes, and with Communist holdovers like Col. Czegény and Major Gen. Nagy in its top ranks, the Interior Ministry proceeds largely unchecked.

Thus Nagy didn't seem troubled when telling me that police lack "the practical knowledge which would ensure legal and correct procedures." Interior Minister Boross responded to press questions about police treatment of Chinese by claiming that several have committed "brutal murders." (Neither the Justice Ministry nor the national or Budapest Police have any record of Chinese being convicted or even charged with murders.) Defending a controversial border-tightening decree, Boross said: "Many have debated whether or not there are legal grounds for it, but we don't have time to analyze."

In March the British Independent correspondent Adam LeBor asked Suha for permission to enter the camp at Kerepestarcsa. He was refused, Suha said, because the press "has not interpreted the situation in the camp as the interior minister would have liked." LeBor ran the quote. Suha then retracted the statement in the Hungarian press.

I saw an opening and asked if I could get into the camp. "You cannot go, because we banned all foreign journalists and domestic journalists from the camp categorically," he said. "This is due to different interior decisions." Asked the basis for the decisions, he said: "We don't explain. Don't bring me into an unpleasant situation. It's none of your business."

Ken Kasriel writes for Budapest Week. He has covered Hungarian politics for The Guardian and The Christian Science Monitor.