Dirty Laundry

A month after the police crackdown in Budapest, the Hungarian authorities continue their attempt to whitewash the incident

Fifty years ago, the Hungarian revolution came to an end in the first week of November. While November 4th, 1956 (the date Soviet troops re-entered Hungary), is generally regarded as the end of the revolution, the fight for freedom actually carried on for months, with pockets of resistance here and there, along with street protests throughout the country. Indeed, the Soviet-installed Kadar regime had become so aggravated by the stubborn resistance that a new policy was adopted: starting from December, no form of protest - peaceful or otherwise - was tolerated. Thus, peaceful protesters were routinely met by police lines that opened fire with live ammunition. These massacres of unarmed protesters carried on until mid-January, when the last such incident occurred in Csepel, a worker's district in south Budapest.

In many ways, a similar process can be seen at work vis-a-vis the police crackdown in Budapest on October 23, 2006. Although the police had expected trouble during the November 4th anniversary, with huge reinforcements brought in from the countryside as a precaution, the day actually passed off peacefully -- despite the fact that huge crowds took the streets in separate marches throughout the day.

Nevertheless, fallout from the police crackdown on October 23rd persists, with the authorities still trying their best to whitewash the ignominious and brutal incident. So far, cases have been brought against over 60 police officers, and the national police have launched their own proceedings against an additional eight more.

The problem is, however, that despite eye-witness accounts and video footage, it will be very difficult (if not impossible) to actually charge anyone since none of the officers can be positively identified. This is because most of the officers wore face masks and none had worn their badges.

This in itself has caused great controversy. According to Hungarian law and international agreements, police officers must be identifiable in case of abuse. The use of face masks is therefore illegal. Not only this, badges or some sort of identification, such as a number painted on a helmet, is likewise required.

Budapest Chief of Police explaining

When questioned about this, the reply from the Budapest Chief of Police, Peter Gergely, was not only comical but also totally absurd. He maintained that the police badges had fallen off during the police crackdown. Considering that there were thousands of unidentifiable police involved, this means the streets of Budapest would have been littered with thousands of badges. Oddly enough, not one of these badges were ever found or even seen to be lying in the streets.

Such an absurdity is only proof of what many have suspected: that Gergely has more hair on his head than brains. Sadly, this was reinforced by similar silly answers to serious questions. For instance, he explained that police officers didn't kick protesters who were on the ground and handcuffed, but simply tripped over them; the police didn't use viper sticks because they don't call those weapons by that name; the police didn't shoot protesters in the head, rather the bullets found their way that high. The list of such absurd replies goes on.

Questionable audio recordings

Perhaps one of the most absurd attempts at whitewashing the events of October 23, 1956, was when the police released two audio recordings: one of a mobile phone conversation between two supposed activists, where one had urged the other to draw the police toward the peaceful protesters; the other was a police officer urging his colleagues to not allow the violent protesters to mix with the peaceful ones.

Even to the casual observer, both the content and the format of the recordings were such that their authenticity is highly questionable. For instance, every second sentence of the mobile phone recording was repetitive, as if to emphasize and reinforce the position of the police that they were drawn to the peaceful protesters by a few the violent individuals which, in turn, led to the massive crackdown. Of course, this still doesn't explain why the police had used excessive force in the first place.

As for the second recording, audio experts point out that it was so clear and concise that it had to be scripted, this considering that the speaker was supposedly giving instructions during a stressful and tumultuous period on the scene. Indeed, what was noticeably absent was any sort of background noise. Furthermore, the speaker seemed to pause appropriately at areas where a comma would appear, and at one point even repeated a word in stride, as if there was a typo in a text that was being read.

Aside from a lack of credibility, these recordings ended up raising more questions than answers. In particular, if the mobile phone recording was genuine, then how were the police able to obtain a warrant so quickly in order to tap the conversation? Moreover, if the troublemakers were known in advance, why didn't the authorities simply go after these few individuals and apprehend them right away? One common tactic of the police during protests is to have a few undercover officers mingle with the crowd in order to identify potential leaders and troublemakers and then apprehend them at the appropriate time.

The farce surrounding the so-called evidence and explanations which supposedly absolved the police from charges of brutality and the excessive use of force was topped off by the fact that Gergely was later honoured with an award by the mayor of Budapest, Gabor Demszky. This came shortly after Gergely and several other leading officers had initially requested early retirement, which was subsequently refused by the Interior Ministry.

Meanwhile, an investigation into the riots of September found organisational and co-ordination errors on the part of the Budapest Police. To this Gergely simply replied that the task force investigating the events of September was biased. Furthermore, he noted that the head of the task force was a police officer that was obviously after his job.

Yet, considering the almost impossible task of maintaining law and order within Hungary in a manner that corresponds to European norms, and with a police force that is unable to shake the legacy of its brutal and dictatorial past, one wonders what kind of honest person would want to be the chief of police in Budapest. (John Horvath)