Ahmed H., 40, jailed for 10 years over a riot at a border crossing in Hungary in September 2015
Video footage appears to show Ahmed H., originally from Syria, trying to make peace between crowd and guards
But authorities say he threw rocks at the police, and he was this week convicted of an "act of terror"
Thousands of refugees and migrants, most fleeing violence in the Middle East, mass at the sealed-off border, chanting “Open! Open!” They are desperate to cross into Hungary, but a razor-wire fence, temporary blockade and a line of riot police stand in their way.
As tensions escalate, one voice rises above the fray: A balding, bearded man, wearing a black and white tracksuit top, attempts to negotiate with the officers. “Nobody will make any problem to your country,” he tells the officers at Horgos, near the town of Roszke, using a loudspeaker. “Nobody will make any problem to any policeman. You must understand this – we come here for peace, just to pass.”
As he makes his appeal, the man points into the distance, appearing to indicate that the migrants hope only to pass through the Hungary-Serbia border on their way to other countries in the European Union.
Footage of the incident, recorded by the Hungarian news site Index.hu in September 2015, shows the man stepping back from the temporary barrier before clashes break out. Migrants can be seen hurling objects at the police and forcing open the border gate. In response, riot police fire tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd.
The man, identified in court as “Ahmed H.,” was sentenced to 10 years in prison Wednesday for taking part in the riot.
‘Act of terror’
A court in Szeged, Hungary, this week found him guilty of using violence – throwing rocks – to force police into opening the border, deemed an “act of terror” under Hungarian law.
It also convicted Ahmed H., a Syrian who lives in Cyprus with his wife and children, of entering Hungary illegally. The 40-year-old is an EU resident and so could have crossed the Hungarian border legally.
He says he was there that day to help his elderly Syrian parents and other relatives, as they navigated their way along the Balkans route from Turkey to Germany. His parents were among a group arrested for allegedly taking part in the rioting.
“It was heartbreaking to see a man stand and face the wrath of the state,” says Kartik Raj, Amnesty International’s Europe Campaigner. “It’s unthinkable that he deserves 10 years in prison for effectively coming to the aid of his elderly parents and family fleeing Syria.”
“It’s a sadly predictable result in the context of the Hungarian government’s appalling crackdown on the rights of migrants, twinned with this escalated, ramped up approach to terrorism law,” Raj added.
Amnesty International has called the verdict an “alarming” application of the country’s anti-terrorism laws, which have tightened in recent months.
The case is emblematic of the Hungarian government’s hardline stance on refugees, which has fueled xenophobic sentiment in the nation.
Tough immigration rules
Anna Winogradowna, an activist with the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary (Migszol), was among a small group of protesters who demonstrated against Wednesday’s verdict in Szeged.
“All the accusations against Ahmed were trying to conflate his being a Muslim with him being a terrorist,” Winogradowna said. “This connection that they’re making – Islam equates terrorism – that’s very symptomatic of the whole rhetoric in the country.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has previously said that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk.”
Hungary has been heavily criticized for its tough immigration measures since shuttering its border last September.
In addition to erecting an anti-refugee fence, the country has also criminalized the act of entering Hungary illegally – a law that breaches international asylum treaties and under which Ahmed H. was convicted. Hungary has also started recruiting for 3,000 new “border hunters” to patrol the frontier with the police and army.
Orban championed a campaign asking Hungarians to reject EU migrant quotas for the country in a controversial referendum in October.
A government-financed booklet distributed to Hungarian households as part of the campaign reportedly linked migration to increased terrorism. Orban ultimately hailed the country’s referendum as a victory, despite a low voter turnout that rendered its result invalid.
Appeal for harsher sentence
The Prime Minister’s communications office told CNN in an email: “We do not wish to comment on ongoing cases, only after a final judgment was made,” adding “please remember that it was not the Government but the independent Hungarian judiciary that made this decision based on sound and video recordings as well as testimonies.”
Ahmed H. was captured in photographs and footage by a number of other news agencies on September 16, 2015 – one day after the Hungary-Serbia border was closed. Dozens of police officers, migrants and some journalists were injured in the violence on the same day.
A video filmed by the Kremlin-backed broadcaster Russia Today shows Ahmed H. shaking his finger at riot police, saying, “No, no,” before violence broke out.
Other footage, broadcast by Spain’s TVE, shows him standing between police and a crowd of women and children. He can be heard telling reporters: “We want only peace.”
Both the prosecution and defense intend to appeal the verdict. The defense is seeking an acquittal, while the prosecution is hoping for a harsher sentence.
Speaking at the Hungarian Permanent Conference in Budapest on Thursday, Orban welcomed the conviction.
Referring to a government-sponsored advertising campaign featuring anti-immigrant sentiments, Orban said the message was on the billboard: If you come to Hungary you have to respect our laws, Hungarian news website 444.hu reported.