Getting Ready for March

The Hungarian authorities brace themselves for conflict

According to modern media theory and the dictates of the attention economy, a news story usually fades from public memory after about two weeks unless it’s continually reinforced. A case in point is the shooting at the police headquarters in Budapest. After more than two weeks the story has seemingly disappeared from view. In its place is a greater preoccupation with planned demonstrations toward the end of the week commemorating the revolution of 1848.

Ever since the demonstrations which ended in police violence last October, the authorities have been planning for the invariable continuation of the protests in March. In the meantime, there have been minor disturbances, as when opposition MPs took down a cordon fence surrounding parliament.

Not only have the police been preparing for the middle of March by rearming themselves, stocking up on 3 billion HUF (12 million Euros) worth of rubber bullets, plastic shields, and tear gas, but every attempt has been made to paint those who are out on the streets on March 15th as potential terrorists.

Subsequently, the authorities have been warning the public that they are aware of about 60 groups which are set to cause mayhem during the holiday. Last week they changed this prediction slightly, announcing that they are aware of 2,500 extremists who are planning to cause trouble.

Without doubt, the shooting at the police headquarters was meant to somehow show that such threats were real. Yet most people are somewhat sceptical. Many believe that the shooting was staged, and if there really are a multitude of extremists ready to inflict harm, why haven’t the police cracked down on any of them?

This perhaps explains why news of the shooting at the police headquarters has quietly faded from view. Despite the enormous amount of time and energy spent on the case, nothing has been forthcoming. Meanwhile, as if to substantiate their claims of extremists groups and individuals, the police recently raided half a dozen homes in search of weapons. The raids turned up nothing, convincing many that such raids were a provocation more than anything else.

All this doesn’t do the image of the Hungarian police much good as news of police brutality and incompetence continue to make the headlines. The events of last year continue to haunt the authorities: so far, twenty-nine officers have been charged for their role in the violent police clampdown last October.

Yet aside from the events of last year, it has become clear that police incompetence and corruption runs much wider and deeper. This was made quite apparent when it was recently revealed that two individuals charged with the murder of eight people during a bank robbery some five years ago in the town of Mor were wrongly accused. Sentenced to life imprisonment, it has now come to light that the real culprits have just been caught. What makes this case especially damning to the police is that it has since been revealed that the apparent false accusations were based on circumstantial evidence. The witness who testified for the prosecution was a former partner in crime of the accused who cut a deal with the authorities for a reduced sentence and a share of the reward money. Not only was a smoking gun not presented at the trial, but important evidence was held back, such as a hand print which didn’t match the accused but which matches those recently caught.

This episode simply reinforces what many have felt all along: that the police in Hungary are a corruptible, incompetent lot who are more interested in their self-image and pleasing their masters than "to serve and protect" the public. As a result, the police don’t enjoy much confidence or respect from a large segment of the population.

Sensing this, the head of the national police assured the public that there won’t be many uniformed officers on the streets. He added, however, that there will be more undercover police. The head of the national police went on to warn that they will be tough on demonstrations which aren’t perceived as orderly. Furthermore, they will use rubber bullets if necessary, but he assured the public that the instructions given to officers are to shoot for the legs only.

Such assurances are of little comfort to those who may be soon finding themselves on the other side of the barricades. Rubber bullets can still cause serious injury, wherever they hit. Not only this, there’s no guarantee that an officer who aims for the legs won’t end up shooting someone’s eye out, as happened last year. Then, the police explanation was very similar to the assurances given now: they didn't shoot for the head but that the bullets missed their targets. This flimsy excuse was used to explain how scores of people suffered wounds to the face, with one person losing an eye. No doubt such an explanation will be used on March 15th as well.

Meanwhile, the government passed new laws in order to strengthen the hand of the authorities when dealing with the public. A particularly controversial one has to do with treating passive resistance as an offence. Naturally, the definition of what exactly is considered “passive resistance” is left undefined. For instance, if a person puts his hands over his head to protect himself from being beaten by the police, would this be considered passive resistance? This law, coupled with one past shortly after the demonstrations last year, in where peaceful protesters or innocent bystanders can be charged with providing psychological support to a riot if they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, makes it clear that the Hungarian authorities don’t care to distinguish between innocent bystanders, peaceful protesters, civil disobedience, and rioters. In other words, anyone who walks down a street in Budapest on March 15th will be considered a potential terrorist. (John Horvath)