How a family man in Cyprus ended up in a Hungarian jail cell accused of ‘terrorism’

By Kartik Raj, 29 November 2016, 16:51 UTC

One summer’s evening last year Ahmed was at home in Cyprus with his wife Nadia and their young children when he received the call that would turn his life upside down.

“It was his mother calling from Syria,” Nadia recalls. “She told him there was a lull in the bombing of their town and that they were leaving. They needed help.” The call set in motion a chain of events that would land Ahmed where he is today: locked in a Hungarian jail charged with an “act of terror”.

Tomorrow he will know his fate. If found guilty, he faces life imprisonment.

Whilst his elderly parents set off on the perilous journey to Turkey with his brother, sister-in-law and his nieces and nephews, Ahmed prepared to put his life on hold and help them all reach safety in Europe. His command of English and Greek and his status as an EU resident would, he believed, help smooth their difficult journey.

A week after the phone call, Ahmed had sold his car and pick-up to raise money and travelled to Istanbul, where he had an emotional reunion with his family.

They found a people smuggler who would take them to the Greek islands on a rubber boat. Ahmed could have made his own way to the islands via regular routes but, since he was the only member of the family who could swim, he joined them on the dangerous crossing. From there, the family travelled up through (the former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia and Serbia, and caught sight of Hungary just as the border crossing was being closed.

On 16 September 2015 they were among hundreds of refugees stranded at the Röszke/Horgoš border crossing when clashes broke out with the Hungarian police. People attempted to break through the gate and border fence erected by Hungarian authorities. Hungary’s police force responded with tear gas and water cannon, injuring dozens. News footage taken at the time captured Ahmed using a megaphone to call on both the refugees and the police to remain calm but as the clashes intensified Ahmed admitted in court that he was involved in stone throwing.

Dozens were arrested that day, including Ahmed’s father and mother, who is partially sighted. Ahmed’s parents, along with eight others, were charged with “illegal entry” while participating in a “mass riot”. They spent the next eight months in a Hungarian jail and were only released in July.

After their release, Ahmed and the rest of the family managed to make their way to Budapest. At a train station there Ahmed was singled out, violently arrested and dragged away despite his relatives pleading with police to say he had their passports. Ironically it was the discovery of their passports in Ahmed’s bag that Hungarian police used as part of the evidence to paint him as a “terrorist”. He was charged with an “act of terror” along with the same charges that had been levelled against his parents.

Ahmed’s case arises from a perfect storm of the Hungarian government’s appalling assault on the rights of migrants and refugees and its turbo-charged draconian new counter-terrorism measures

Last July, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán labelled the arrival of refugees to Europe a “poison”, claiming outlandishly that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk”. In the subsequent weeks, other ministers and ministerial staff echoed these ill-founded claims. One suggested that immigration and terrorism “go hand in hand”. Another claimed a “demonstrable connection” between the two without offering any evidence.

Earlier this year, Hungary’s government passed a constitutional amendment and related laws, giving the Prime Minister sweeping and virtually unfettered power to declare a “terror threat situation”. In short, the changes allow Hungarian authorities to declare a state of emergency and take advantage of it to implement exceptional measures in breach of its human rights obligations.

The use of anti-terror powers to target someone involved in clashes on the border is an absurd and chilling demonstration of Hungary’s sledgehammer response to the refugee crisis.

Ahmed remains locked up in Hungary. His wife and children await his return to their home in Cyprus. If previous hearings are anything to go by, tomorrow morning, Ahmed will be led into the courtroom in Szeged cuffed and chained to balaclava-wearing prison guards. Those guards will flank him throughout the hearing, as he struggles to understand the impenetrable court process through an Arabic-language interpreter. A potentially life-altering verdict will likely be delivered by the afternoon.

“I feel like I’ve been in a parallel reality this last year with Ahmed in prison in another country. It feels completely unreal,” Nadia told me on Monday. “Our children miss him so much. Ahmed is such a good father and such a good husband. He is not a terrorist.” 

Kartik Raj is Amnesty International’s Europe Campaigner. He will be present for the verdict and has attended previous trial hearings of Ahmed H.

This article was first published here by the International Business Times.