“We provide legal advice to communities living in complete isolation, who suffer from the lack of legal access,” reads the HCLU (Hungarian Civil Liberties Union) website. Today, 15 so-called TASZPOINTs (HCLU legal support stations) operate throughout the country. The goal of this new series of articles is to show how these TASZPOINTs operate.
We spoke to Béla Váradi from the TASZPOINT in the town of Sáta.
How did you become a TASZ Point leader?
I was invited to a meeting in Ozd, where I met Péter Juhász (fieldworker of HCLU) and Ádám Földes (Head of 'Make your voice heard' project), who gave a presentation about HCLU and its programs. I told them that I would be happy to participate. That is how the TASZPOINT in Sáta started.
Who was invited to this meeting?
The informational meeting was held at a cultural center in Sajóvárkony. They invited people from the Roma Minority Local Government, civil society organizations, and other people who work in this field. We are open to other such initiatives, and we always attend these types of meetings.
Had you already heard about HCLU before?
Only once, and that was before the elections. It was in the middle of the campaign period when Péter Juhász showed up. He said that they were from HCLU. We didn’t know what to think of them. I later heard about this night club case in Borsodnádasd, and that the HCLU had stepped up and offered legal protection. A few weeks later, I coincidentally ran into Péter Juhász at a gas station, just at about the time when the local government was planning to shut down schools in Sáta. I recognized his face as the person from the HCLU, who had already helped in Borsod. We arranged a meeting. Meanwhile, they held the HCLU informational meeting, which I already mentioned, so by that time we had already somewhat come to know each other.
How did your work with the HCLU begin? What did you agree that the role of TASZPOINT would be?
We spoke about citizenship rights, ways in which citizens can exercise these rights and that you don’t need to be specially trained to do so, you just need to be aware of them, ask about them, look into them. They said that they want to create a network for the area - the TASZPOINTs. The only question was, who would take charge of running them? At the time, I had no clear idea of what this would look like in practice. I knew that we would receive help: HCLU lawyers would be reachable through the internet. In case of a problem, we could log onto Skype and they would tell us what could be done. So now when people visit a TASZPOINT, they can actually see a lawyer.
Why did you accept the position?
I have been the president of the minority local government for a long time. I have always worked with people to find solutions to their problems. Of course, not in such depth, when you with your silly brain feel that something is unjust, or if you don’t agree, you just argue. With TASZPOINT, it is so much easier. We know more, we hear a lot, and there is a stream of information.
What do you mean by “stream of information”?
The lawyers have skills that we regular citizens don’t, and this helps us a lot. And the cases repeat themselves, because the same things happen to people over and over again. I know when I have already seen a case, and so I too, can offer some advice. Of course, people still sit in and listen to what the lawyer has to say.
How much has your life changed since you joined TASZPOINT?
It became much busier, and I have come to know a lot of people. I hear about lots of different types of programs, and we are informed about countless opportunities. Through the HCLU, the world opened up.
What did the people say when you started working with TASZPOINT?
At first, they didn’t know what would make of it. Then suddenly, interest soared. People flooded our offices to tell us of their problems, their cases. It is important that the lawyers are working for free. Seeking legal advice from a local lawyer always costs money, even for small cases, such as the sale of an apartment, an issue involving the local police, or a workplace-related problem. Apart from the HCLU, people have no other sources of professional help. When the news spread that there is one place where lawyers can tell you what to do, people started coming.
Did people trust the lawyers? Or was it your person that served as a form of guarantee?
That is why the work we had previously carried out was so important. People needed to know that we are on their side. In addition, lots of people knew Péter Juhász and Ádám Földes, who had visited earlier. And I don’t need to tell you what a trustworthy person Péter Juhász is. He talks to people, and immediately starts thinking of solutions to their problems.
How many people visit TASZPOINT?
We started working over a year and a half ago, and in the beginning, there were lots of people. Then there were some ups and downs, but we now have a regular stream of people coming in. If I had to provide numbers, I would say that on average 20 people come to TASZPOINT for help. 1,500 people live in the town, and they all have problems, and the cases repeat themselves, so finding solutions tends to get easier.
When can people visit the TASZPOINT? Do you have opening hours?
Yes, our lawyers are available Monday through Thursday in the afternoon, from 2PM to 4 PM. In case of a genuine emergency, even if it strikes in the middle of the night, the HCLU lawyers are immediately there to help. I have all of their mobile numbers, and we can reach them at any time.
Which are the recurrent cases?
Usually police measures: checking of IDs, fines for bicycles, cases concerning the wheelbarrowing of wood...
What specifically happens during these cases?
If the police see a Roma person riding a bicycle, very often the officer will issue fines, say, for worn tires, missing reflective gears or name tags. If someone is caught transporting an inch-thick piece of wood in a plastic Tesco bag to be used as firewood, the police will issue the person a 10,000 forint fine.
Is it obvious that the police don’t fine everyone?
When two people out of 30 are ID checked, and their bicycles are in much better shape that the majority, who meanwhile pass by on their bikes, and they don’t pay attention to anyone else, that I think is enough proof. Because 28 of them have white skin, and two have brown. White people can ride 1000 year old bicycles, rusty, with loose chains, no lights or brakes... and no one blinks an eye.
Which case do you believe represents the greatest injustice over the past year and a half?
There are several. Once, with the Ádám Földes’ help, we submitted a request for information from the police station in the town of Ozd, concerning one particular incident. The police had shown up at the door of one family, kicked in the gate, and screamed that they would ID everyone. Next, the officers seized the wood that had been laying out in the yard. There were about one and a half cubic meters of wood outside. It turned out that the family had all the papers as evidence of having purchased the wood. It took over three months for the family to get the wood back through the forest authorities, but only 0, 2 cubic meters of it were returned, and of much lower quality.
Then Ádám Földes had the idea that we should ask about the seized wood, questions such as: where it is being stored? On what right it is being held? How much is being held? We submitted a request for information to the police in Ozd. The police officer in his response said that 337 cubic meters of seized wood was being stored on the police station grounds, and not with the forest authorities, because there was no other storage space. Meanwhile, the family had been sent to the forest authorities for compensation. We also found out that in 360 cases, legal suits had been filed for theft and truculence involving wood. In 174 of these cases, a verdict had been issued as well. The people involved were mainly Roma. The thermal power station of Kazincbarcika doesn’t consume this much wood in 10 years! The yard of the police station also doesn’t extend beyond 10 by 15 meters, and it is used for parking, not just for storing wood. In the end, the lawyers managed to get the remaining one and a half cubic meters of wood returned to the family.
Has anything changed for people in their everyday lives since TASZPOINT started?
They are much more informed, and they respond to police measures with greater awareness. Those days are over when people would quietly give in, upon hearing the following during an ID check: if you shut up, 5,000 forints, if you talk, it’s 10,000, but it can go as far as 50,000! Before, they would rather stay quiet, to get away with only 5,000. Today, they stand up for themselves, they don’t admit to any wrongdoing they didn’t commit. Instead, they call immediately and ask for advice. All those discussions, forums, and the flyers - they have all had an impact. More and more people are aware of their rights. Earlier, as the president of the minority local government, I had tried to help them. But it’s completely different when you have such a strong foundation as the HCLU there to support you, with lawyers and truly intelligent people. There is always someone we can ask, when we are unsure of something.