Former commander says Hungarian police escalated events at Röszke

September 20, 2015

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Translation of Brigitta Csikász’s article “The police escalated the events–a former police commander on the battle of Röszke” (“A rendőrség eszkalálta az eseményeket” – egy volt rendőrparancsnok a röszkei csatáról”) published by investigative news portal Átlatszó.hu on September 20, 2015.

Not only asylum seekers, among them children and women, and reporters, but dozens of police suffered injuries as a result of numerous police mistakes, says a former police officer.  He said a thorough assessment of the actions of the police is important because numerous police ended up being indicted as a result of demonstrators and policemen injured during the disturbances of 2006.

According to Hungary’s Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, had the Serbian police prevented the attack on Hungarian officials, the violence on on September 16 would not have taken place.  Nevertheless, a former police commander who worked in the field of law enforcement and has experience dispersing crowds cites numerous mistakes made by police at the Röszke border crossing that day, as a result of which 14 policemen and between 100 and 150 refugees were wounded, some seriously.

Both the government and the political opposition are evaluating the situation.  Even as one side speaks of a violent attack by refugees on heroic police who defended the border with their bodies, the other side speaks of police brutality, stressing the disproportionate nature and illegality of what happened.  Sources wishing not to be identified say the situation is even more complicated than that. The former police commander emphasized to Átlátszó that the police deserve credit and thanks for their work, but their actions confronting crowds left much to be desired, and there are many bad examples to be seen from a subsequent examination.

Nobody was delegated to coordinate with the Serbian police

“When people are given the task of planning a structure, in this case the protection of a border crossing, then obviously the first task is to evaluate the given area: how far it extends, its size, its physical properties,” the ex-commander said.  “It can be seen in video footage that the defense of the border crossing was concentrated on the gate and its immediate environment, so that only a relatively small cross-section required defending, which is an ideal situation for police.  Contributing to the uniqueness of the situation was the fact that the police could not cross the border to the Serbian side.  Nobody was assigned to coordinate with the Serbian police.

“When the far side of a gate to be protected legally impacts another country, it is necessary to send a policeman there in order to help communicate with the crowd and the foreign authorities.

“He is the so-called peace commissioner that can be found at every organized event, who keeps contact with the organizers and those running things, even with informal leaders setting the tone.   He is not a member of the police.  He does not wear a badge or carry a weapon.  He is either dressed as a civilian or in this case it would have been practical for him to wear a uniform, which does not mean full police regalia but a blue shirt with a tie, dress pants and a policeman’s hat.”

Considering that the demonstrators were situated on the Serbian side, preparations should have included assigning a liaison officer to the Hungarian embassy in Belgrade and to the Serbian police, who, from that time on, would have lawfully been present in Serbian territory and would have maintained contact with both the Hungarian and Serbian police, and who could have spoken with the refugees either in English or with the help of an interpreter.

The former commander believes police experienced in crowd control in Kosovo or Bosnia could have helped with maintaining the international contacts.

“From that point on, when the crowd had no communication, the police escalated the events.  Disturbances never develop from one moment to the next, and the signs are always easy to see.  They could have intervened when the chanting strengthened, or when the refugees started throwing objects that do not cause injury—cigarette boxes, empty plastic water bottles.  At that point they should have communicated with the Serb police and the crowd that “We see what you are doing, we know what you are preparing to do, and we will not permit it!”  If this did not happen, then the inaction and passivity of the police emboldened those who were setting the tone, just as it happened here.”

Instead of mobile cordons, the police defended the border with their bodies

The expert believes it was a large mistake to order riot police to stand in front of the crowd for hours.

“As György Bakoni, domestic security adviser to the prime minister, and government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács said, the police protected the border with their bodies.  While heroic, it was pointless and unnecessary.”  Since 2007 the standby police (KR) have in their possession portable fences that can be attached to trucks, as the French police do for precisely this kind of situation, and detailed plans for which were brought to Hungary on a pen-drive after the 2006 disturbances.

The former police officer believes that it was completely unnecessary for several hundred  policemen to stand on the border, blocking the path with their bodies, when two trucks and a water cannon would have sufficed.  Judging from the markings on their helmets, units from Szabolcs and Zala companies were attached to the standby police.

“Numerous riot police were lined up in a narrow border area, eight to a row, thereby obstructing one another and making movement impossible,” he says based on his viewing of the video footage.

“The situation looked as though the demonstrators were throwing objects at police from the territory of another country, where (the latter) were forbidden from going.  There was no liaison, since Szijjártó should have telephoned the Serbian minister of the interior who, in turn, would have notified interior officials, who certainly does not telephone the border directly, but passes the information along five people, resulting in a loss of time. Meanwhile, Hungarian police started using water cannons and shooting smoke grenades.   Following this, they should have occupied the territory, but this was not possible because they cannot cross the border.  For this reason the whole thing was pointless.  Furthemore, the wind was blowing the wrong way, as a result of which the gas spray wafted back onto them.”

Counter-terror units acted like a loose cannon

That was when a unit of the Hungarian counter-terror center (TEK) arrived consisting of commandoes without identifying badges or insignia trained to liquidate disturbances,  and this further aggravated the situation.   Over the course of the police action the Standy Police was in charge.  Every police asset was under its command.  Except for TEK, that is, who, in general, do not execute anyone else’s orders and are not directed by other police centers.  Relying entirely on its own resources, counter-terror units operate independently.

The former police commander believes that the TEK units in question do not possess the requisite experience in crowd control required at Horgos.

“I don’t know if they have any commanders experienced in this field, but counter-terrorist units are not intended to perform such tasks.  And I believe for this reason they did not even know how to go about dealing with the crowd.  On the other hand, they have no right to give orders to the standby police.”

This resulted in TEK, having been sent forward, starting to “do its thing” and take troublemakers into custody.

“While most police sprayed teargas for want of anything better to do, and protected the border with water cannon and their bodies, the French cordons rested in the warehouse.”

The counter-terror units did not wear identifying markings

We contacted TEK to find out who directed the group but they did not respond prior to publishing our article.  Nor did they answer why the commandos did not wear identifying marking.  We were also curious to know who asked them to go to that location, and how they evaluate the steps taken at the border.

We posed the same question to national police chief Károly Papp, who told Átlátszó to turn to the press office.  We did so but received no answer by the requested deadline.

Still, it would be good to learn the national police chief’s opinion, as Károly Papp was the one who, while Fejér county police chief, led the committee responsible for investigating what happened in the fall of 2006.  The report can be reached even to this day via the internet.

Among other things it appears in the document that no police reports were prepared with regard to the use of means of compulsion—rubber bullets, smoke grenades, rubber batons, teargas, handcuffs.

In addition to “failing to give appropriate warning before dispersing crowds” and “disperse crowds in a lawful manner at the beginning”, the report concludes that “on the basis of habits formed earlier, police serving in police uniform did not wear identification badges per internal norms and prescriptions.”

“It would be important to examine the events and the police actions because, as a result of demonstrators and police injured over the course of disturbances in 2006, numerous heads of police were indicted, including the former Budapest and national chiefs of police, Péter Gergényi and László Bene.”

Prosecutors don’t know anything about terrorists

Szijjártó also stated that over the course of the border crossing disturbance, 29 asylum seekers were arrested, including at least one identified as a terrorist.  We asked the two southern county chief prosecutors’ offices whether they had opened an investigation into suspected terrorists, and whether they had any knowledge of other terror-related matters.

They responded by saying that neither the Csongrad County chief prosecutor nor the Bács-Kiskun County chief prosecutors had opened an investigation into terrorism, or conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, and nobody had been reported to them on such a charge.

We did not receive an answer to our question about the terrorist or terrorists from the National Police Magistrate’s Office.