In a trial that has been condemned as “shameful” by human rights organizations, a Hungarian court sentenced a man to 10 years in prison Wednesday. Ahmed Hamed was involved in clashes between Hungarian border guards and migrants last year. Hamed, though, was not sentenced as a rioter but as a terrorist, according to the court decision.
Images of the September 2015 clashes at the Serbian-Hungarian border were broadcast around the world. The use of tear gas by authorities against refugees trying to cross the border into Hungary on their way to Western Europe prompted international outrage, with Serbia's prime minister calling Hungarian authorities' treatment of refugees “brutal,” and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressing shock. About 100 civilians and as many as 20 Hungarian police officers were injured as a result. Hamed was among the men arrested.
In court, Hamed argued that he wanted to de-escalate the tense situation. According to his account, he had been at the scene to help his elderly Syrian parents cross the Hungarian-Serbian border. As a resident of Cyprus, Hamed would have been able to cross the border legally.
Hungarian prosecutors, though, said Hamed should be sentenced on terrorism charges for throwing stones at officers and threatening them. The terrorism charges would have enabled the court to sentence Hamed to life in prison. Legal experts have argued that the charges are in line with Hungary's penal code. But the case has drawn strong criticism.
“This verdict is based on a blatant misuse of anti-terror laws,” Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s deputy Europe director, said in a statement released Wednesday. “A father who was trying to help his elderly Syrian parents reach safety now faces 10 years in prison.”
On social media, activists described the proceedings as a “show trial,” as armored police led Hamed into the courtroom on a leash. Observers criticized such measures, which are common at terrorism-related trials, as “staging” and as an exaggeration of the threat Hamed posed to officers last year.
The trial follows the passage of new terrorism laws in Hungary this summer. On its website, the party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban notes that the new laws specify that “the government may rule by decree, suspend certain laws at its discretion, expand the force of others, and may adopt extraordinary measures,” including curfews, as well as Internet surveillance.
Wednesday's trial is likely to heighten scrutiny of those new laws. Observers say that if courts define as terrorism what elsewhere would be considered rioting, abuse of the security laws may only be one step away.
Orban's government has frequently been accused of using the threat of militant attacks to further its political gains and to spread fear of migrants. On its website, his party refers to data that 1,010 attack plots were foiled in the European Union between 2009 and 2013.
According to documents by Europol, the European law enforcement agency, Hungary had comparatively few terrorism-related arrests in 2015, though. Other countries along the migrant influx route, including Greece, Italy, Austria and Germany, made far more arrests, potentially indicating a higher threat level.