Crime & Justice, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-HUNGARY: Activists Seek to Reverse Draconian Law

Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Dec 1 2008 (IPS) - A Hungarian rights organisation is seeking to return the country to the days when all life prisoners had a right to a review of their sentences, giving hope to eight who have been sentenced to imprisonment until they die.

In 2001, Hungary passed a special law for the gravest of crimes. This removed for these the right of conditional release after 30 years in jail. Judges were allowed to send these convicted killers to prison for the rest of their natural lives.

The prime minister at the time was Viktor Orban, a conservative populist who advocated tougher sentencing policies. In 2002, as outgoing prime minister, he called on Europe to consider the reintroduction of the death penalty following a meeting with relatives of the eight victims who died in a violent bank robbery.

“This law is against both our constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights,” Balazs Toth, project coordinator of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a rights organisation campaigning for the law on whole of life sentences to be repealed, told IPS.

“There is no reasonable argument for claiming that after 30 or 40 years, these people cannot return to society. A judge would need to be sure at the time of sentencing that no matter how much time passes, he would not review his decision, something that goes against the fundamental rights of human dignity.”

The organisation had taken up the matter with the Hungarian Ministry of Justice with a view to getting the law repealed so as to bring the country “in line with European standards.”

So far, eight among Hungary’s 72 life prisoners have been sentenced under this 2001 law.

Five of the eight are held in a unit built in 2005 in the century-old high-security prison in Szeged, 170 km south of the capital Budapest.

“Rules and conditions for them there are so severe that they amount to inhuman treatment. This is a violation of their human rights if you consider these conditions will apply until the day they die,” Toth said.

Cell windows were specially barred allowing in insufficient light.

“The prisoners are in almost complete isolation and cannot meet with other inmates. If they receive a visitor they are not allowed to touch them. If they leave their cells, even for a shower or a phone call, they are handcuffed.

“They are isolated because the officers fear they’ll attack other prisoners. But what motivation do these people have to behave well when they don’t stand a second chance and have nothing to lose as no more severe sanction can be imposed on them?”

In 2007, the Szeged prison was criticised by the European Council’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture for the unjustified isolation in which these prisoners were held.

While theoretically allowed to leave their cells for an hour twice a week for sports, there was often a gap between theory and practice, and group activities were also completely off limits, Toth said.

“If they do physical exercise it is by themselves and in a space you could hardly call ‘outdoors’.”

Their exercise yard was 16 sq metres with a roof consisting of bars.

There were no programmes for their reintegration into society. Opportunities for work in prison were “very limited”, such as making matches for which they received a third of the average salary for the job. They were also permitted to borrow library books for self-education.

Toth also criticised the restrictions on religious practice.

“They are not allowed to take part in collective religious services.”

In an agreement with the National Prison Administration, the Helsinki Committee is permitted to monitor conditions of the prisoners by receiving uncensored letters, “something rare, even for Europe”.

The organisation is also able to meet the prisoners without guards being present. It has the right to call in medical doctors to investigate any reports of physical abuse.

The organisation’s criticisms of the prisoners’ treatment were “not always welcomed” by the authorities.

“We are repeating ourselves without seeing real change. They say we are right, but blame it on the lack of money,” Toth said.

Many Hungarians would probably be unsympathetic to any improvement in conditions for lifers. In a 2007 survey, 60 percent said they would like tougher criminal sanctions. Sixty-three percent of those polled wanted the reinstatement of the death penalty which was abolished after the collapse of state socialism in eastern Europe.

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