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Beaten to a pulp by police officers: the Strasbourg Court ordered Hungary to pay damages to our client

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Váltás magyarra

The state must not abandon victims of police ill-treatment, even if they are collectively expelled foreigners. Nor can it grant impunity to abusers in uniform, a Strasbourg Court judgment confirmed yesterday. Hungarian police officers had beaten up a Pakistani asylum-seeker during his push-back, but despite the clear evidence, the prosecutor’s office failed to investigate properly.

What happened?

Khurram, an asylum-seeker from Pakistan, was one of the first to be automatically pushed back to Serbia by the Hungarian police officers in August 2016, in accordance with the then new law. The Police did not ask about the 30-year-old man’s personal situation and ignored that he had applied for asylum in Hungary. Since there is no legal remedy against push-backs in Hungary, the asylum-seeker applied to the European Court of Human Rights with the help of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. He won his case in the summer of 2021.

The court ruled that by forcing people to Serbia without any procedure and without any possibility of appeal, the Hungarian state violated the prohibition of collective expulsion. This is exactly what happened to Khurram, and what is happening today: someone is expelled from a country without any individualized procedure, without any appealable decision.

However, another complaint by the Pakistani man was also upheld by the Strasbourg Court, and the judgment in that case was delivered yesterday.

The judgment

On 12 August 2016, the client of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee was assaulted by police officers who were “escorting” him and other foreign nationals to the Serbian side of the border fence. They were punched, kicked and beaten with batons and a metal rod. And even though the investigating prosecutor’s office had a lot of weighty evidence at its disposal, it failed to investigate the perpetrators.

One such evidence is a video footage, recorded by the police officers themselves, which was obtained only after Khurram’s attorney filed a criminal complaint. In this video shot before the ill-treatment, the exact same events take place that the victim described before. In the picture taken shortly after the ill-treatment, he is also seen with a bloody head. At the local hospital in Szabadka (Subotica) in Serbia, he was issued a medical certificate of his condition, including his two head injuries that required stitches. Moreover, he managed to remember the exact five-digit identification number of one of the policemen present, even recalling that he had three stars on his epaulette. But these were not enough for the prosecutor’s office: the investigation was terminated.

This is what the Strasbourg Court found to be a violation of human rights in its fresh judgment. As it ruled already in 2003 in a case brought by a former client of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, it is not only the abuse itself that violates human rights, but also when the state fails to investigate possible cases of torture and ill-treatment and to find those responsible. In the case of Khurram’s ill-treatment, the prosecutor’s office also failed to carry out the expected investigative steps.

In 2011, in a case brought by another client of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the European Court of Human Rights also made it clear that if a person is taken into police custody in good health and unharmed, but is found to be injured on release, the state has the burden of proof that the ill-treatment did not happen in the way the victim described.

The judgment of the Strasbourg Court in Khurram’s case found that there was no effective investigation and that the state failed to provide an acceptable explanation of our client’s injuries. But the European Court of Human Rights has gone even further. It also stated that the man had been ill-treated by the Hungarian police officers. From our experience, this is rare, and in ill-treatment cases, according to the Court’s practice, the state is usually held responsible only for the ineffectiveness of the investigation. But here, the evidence, the contradictory testimonies of the police officers, their video footage and the complete lack of evidence and explanation to refute the ill-treatment convinced the Court that the ill-treatment took place as alleged by our client.

The Hungarian government and the prosecutor’s office have so far vehemently denied that the push-backs were violent. This judgment clearly refutes this.

After the judgment

“Khurram’s ordeal has ended with this judgment, but our work continues. We keep on providing legal assistance to asylum seekers, victims of law enforcement violence, and those who have suffered from the destruction of the rule of law” – said András Léderer, Head of Advocacy of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee who worked on the case.

Barbara Pohárnok, Khurram’s legal representative, added: “The judgment confirms that asylum-seekers and foreigners in Hungary also have the right to access to justice, that their allegations of ill-treatment must be investigated and perpetrators be prosecuted. We trust that national investigative authorities will interpret their obligations in line with this ruling when it comes to investigating similar complaints. Unfortunately, they will have plenty of opportunities to do so: in the past week alone, there have been 4,766 push-backs.”

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Hungarian Helsinki Committee