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Hungary gang convicted for Roma killing spree

Four Hungarian far-right extremists were sentenced to jail Tuesday over the killings of six members of the Roma minority, including a child.


Four Hungarian far-right extremists were sentenced to jail Tuesday over the killings of six members of the Roma minority, including a child, in a wave of racist attacks using guns, grenades and Molotov cocktails.

A Budapest court sentenced brothers Arpad Kiss and Istvan Kiss and Zsolt Peto to life for the murderous spree between 2008 and 2009, while their driver Istvan Csontos received 13 years as an accomplice.

The four men, who hatched their plans in a pub in Debrecen in northeast Hungary, are hard-core football fans with neo-Nazi links.

They showed no emotion as the verdicts were handed down.

In a case that has shocked Hungary, the gang killed six people and left another five seriously injured, all ethnic Roma, in a spree of violence lasting 14 months.

"Nazi killers!" shouted some people gathered outside the court for the verdict.

Starting in July 2008, the Kiss brothers and Peto, driven by Csontos, carried out nine brazen night-time assaults on Roma living in villages in northeastern and central Hungary.

In one of the most gruesome attacks, a Roma father and his five-year-old son were gunned down as they tried to flee their house, which the gang had set on fire.

In another incident, a woman was shot in her sleep.

The gang's motive was to provoke a violent reaction from the Roma and spark inter-ethnic conflict, prosecutors said.

The Hungarian police have been accused by the victims' relatives of being slow to investigate the killings, refusing for a long time to see any link or racial motive.

After one of the attacks officers failed to cordon off the crime scene for 12 hours, attorneys for the relatives say.

Police security was heavy inside and outside the court building for the verdict, which ends a two-and-a-half year trial and comes a few days after the anniversary of the last attack on August 2, 2009.

All four admitted involvement in the attacks but pleaded not guilty to murder.

Hundreds of people gathered to hear the verdict, including several relatives of the victims, some wearing T-shirts bearing pictures of the victims. One T-shirt read: "Their skin-colour was their crime".

Plagued by poverty and high unemployment and often shunned by the rest of society, Hungary's Roma are often subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

The community makes up between five and eight percent of Hungary's 10-million population.

The Roma have also been physically targeted by vigilantes, and are regularly vilified as criminals by the far-right Jobbik party.

In January, Zsolt Bayer, a prominent journalist close to centre-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban, equated Roma to "animals" who "shouldn't be tolerated" and "should not exist". His newspaper was later fined by the country's media regulator.

Orban, a controversial figure whose detractors say he is eroding democracy in the EU member state, has been accused of presiding over a rise in anti-Roma feeling and anti-Semitism.

Zoltan Balog, minister for human resources, said Tuesday the case was "not a question of minority or majority" but of "human dignity".

"No perpetrators of racist crimes can escape the law in Hungary, and especially savage murderers pay a worthy penalty for their deeds," he said in a statement.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) had warned Monday that the verdict would be crucial in determining how Hungary tackled racism in the future.

A clear judgement "would go a long way toward preventing similar crimes in the future," Eszter Jovanovics, head of the HCLU's Roma Programme, said in a statement.

"The prejudice against Roma and the resulting crimes remain the most serious human rights issue in Hungary."