Our Human Rights Legal Counselling Program has been operating since 1994. The number of our clients has been rising constantly: while in the beginning we received a few dozen complaints per year, over 2,000 people approached us in 2015. It is an important result of the program that we have not only theoretical knowledge about the operation of the state and the status of human rights, but a wide range of practical experiences as well.
Our critical report from 1995 resulted in the closure of the closed “alien policing camp” in Kistarcsa, where hundreds of migrants were detained unlawfully and in inhuman conditions. This was a milestone in Hungary’s history in defending human rights. For the first time, a human rights organisation was allowed to carry out systematic monitoring in a closed institution run by government authorities. Furthermore, this experience created an important precedent for the cooperation between law enforcement bodies and civilian organisations.
As an official implementing partner, we have been working together with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) since 1998 to ensure that Hungary effectively protects refugees. We provide high-quality and free-of-charge legal assistance at all open and close facilities where asylum-seekers are accommodated or detained in Hungary.
Our lawyers successfully represent asylum-seekers before the immigration authority and courts.
Since 2004, we have been managing the Refugee Law Reader, the world’s only regularly updated on-line curriculum for the teaching in refugee law, in four languages. In 2013, we embarked on an initiative to promote refugee law education in Latin America, the countries of the former Soviet Union and North Africa, in cooperation with the UNHCR.
For several semesters, we operated legal clinics specialised in criminal law, refugee law and equal treatment. This helped hundreds of law students complete their academic knowledge by gaining real-life experience in defending human rights in practice. We have been actively contributing to legal education in various other forms for several years.
After several years of attempts, it was due to our intervention with the Hungarian government that in 2004, after 13 to 14 years of stay with a limited temporary status, several ethnic Hungarian forced migrants from Vojvodina (Northern Serbia) were allowed to obtain a permanent residence permit, even if not being able to fulfil the strict material conditions.
We examine continuously whether Roma are discriminated against in the course of police procedures and by the criminal justice system. In a case from 2012, we proved it through statistical methods that the local police launched procedures for committing traffic misdemeanours of low gravity almost exclusively against Roma persons. The case was closed by an agreement concluded with the affected police department.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee provided representation before the European Court of Human Rights in the first successful Hungarian case regarding police ill-treatment. We won the Kmetty v. Hungary case in 2003. Since then, the European Court of Human Rights decided in favour of our clients in nearly 30 cases.
In the autumn of 2006, Hungarian police officers committed ill-treatment on a mass scale. This was the point when most members of the Hungarian society became aware of the existence of police brutality and the many factors impeding that the truth may come to light and the perpetrators may be punished. In the course of several years the Hungarian Helsinki Committee has represented successfully dozens of civilian victims of ill-treatment and people charged with violence against an official person both in criminal and civil law procedures.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s efforts also played a role in the reform of the police complaints system and in establishing the Independent Police Complaints Board in 2008. As a result of that, investigating complaints of rights violations by the police is not the “private matter” of the police any more.
One of our achievements was when the European Court of Human Rights obliged Hungary to decrease prison overcrowding, which was deemed a mass and structural problem in the country on 10 March 2015.
We achieved for detainees to be able to turn to the court against their placement in a “special security regime” (i.e. a kind of high security regime), thereby ensuring that it cannot depend only on the prison warden’s decision under which circumstances the convict will spend his/her even decades-long sentence.
We regularly carry out human rights monitoring visits to the Hungarian penitentiary institutions. In our monitoring reports, we share with the public both the structural and individual problems revealed. Thereby, we aid masses of detainees in achieving that they are only affected by their sentences imposed on them and they are not deprived of their rights fully.
Since 1996, we regularly pay monitoring visits to police cells and other places of detention operated by the police, and we share our findings in public reports. We contributed to the fact that nowadays pre-trial detention is executed in a police cell only occasionally.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee strives to achieve that only those are taken into pre-trial detention in the case of whom the success of the criminal procedure cannot be achieved in any other way. In the past years the number of pre-trial detainees decreased noticeably.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee raised the awareness to the deficiencies of the ex officio defence counsel system, e.g. that if someone is not in the position to retain a lawyer the police will choose a lawyer for him/her, and supported its concerns with statistical data. Partly as a result of our work, the Ministry of Justice also acknowledged that it is necessary to alter the way ex officio defence counsels are chosen.
We are involved in the training of judges in Hungary as well as abroad, especially in the field of asylum.
We continuously cooperate with international civil society. Our work is widely acknowledged and appreciated for its professionalism among our international partners. We are regularly requested to train lawyers, state officers and judges both in Hungary and abroad.
Due to our pioneering efforts the Hungarian legal provisions concerning stateless persons have improved and the long forgotten issue of statelessness has been put on the international agenda. We played an important role in the creation of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) and we provide the president of the Network.
We submitted a complaint to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on behalf of our blind clients, claiming that the Hungarian state did not do everything in its power to ensure that visually impaired and blind persons may use ATMs and sites necessary for online banking also without external help. This was the CRPD’s first complaint case. In 2013, the CRPD ruled in favour of our clients and called upon the Hungarian government to pay damages and to establish the minimum level of financial services to be provided to persons with disabilities.
Refugees face often insurmountable bureaucratic difficulties when trying to exercise their right to reunite with their families in Hungary, even if this could significantly support their social integration. We offer legal assistance in these cases. As a result, 10 to 12 refugee families can successfully reunite every year and start a new life together in Hungary
The victims of hate crimes are not only the aggrieved parties attacked, but also the various communities, and even the whole Hungarian society itself. That is why it is important to reveal these cases and punish the perpetrators. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee is the member of the Working Group against Hate Crimes, operated by six NGOs, which provides representation to victims in individual cases, advocated effectively towards the modifications of the Criminal Code, and organizes research and training programs.
With communication work and community activities, we step up against the xenophobic and anti-refugee campaigns of the Hungarian government often representing the voice of professionalism and reason in heated debates. We support the cooperation of non-governmental organisations and initiatives in the field of asylum with our professional experience.
In the course of the “reform” of the Hungarian constitutional system, we took steps together with the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Eötvös Károly Public Policy Institute against the violation of fundamental rights and the undermining of the system of checks and balances. A significant part of our concerns voiced in relation to the new public law regime were confirmed by the reports of international organisations, while the legislator was compelled to revise some of the measures criticized also by us (such as the forced retirement of judges, the right of the National Judicial Office’s President to transfer cases, and acknowledging the status of religious communities as a church). We continue to deem it our task of primary importance to reveal and present the domestic events and processes related to the rule of law – also to the international community.
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