By Krisztina Than
SZEGED, Hungary (Reuters) - The court in the southern Hungarian town of Szeged has shelved other criminal cases and is handing down fast-track verdicts punishing migrants for unlawfully crossing a razor-wire fence that lines the border with Serbia.
In the ten days since Sept. 15, when tough new legislation took effect, the Szeged court ruled in 176 cases, sentencing migrants mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq to expulsion from Hungary for crossing the fence.
Nobody has been acquitted and only 10 cases have been appealed.
The new law is part of a clamp-down by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's right-wing government aimed at stopping the influx of migrants into Hungary, the first European Union member state in the Schengen zone of passport-free travel.
Orban's approach has gone down well in Hungary, a country with a small immigrant population. Hungarians say they are caught between an overly tolerant West and a negligent Greece that has failed to enforce EU rules on migrants.
Hungary's border with Serbia is fortified not only by the newly built barrier but by heavy police and army patrols. Migrants can now find themselves in court within days of crossing the fence.
Abdul, from Afghanistan, was caught with two other men as they climbed under the fence from Serbia on Sept. 21. All three have been expelled for one year.
"We don't want to go to Serbia but the ruling is saying, no you have to go to Serbia," Abdul said as he waited in police custody after his case. Sitting on a bench in grey jogging trousers with a baseball cap on his head, he says he is determined to continue his journey.
"From Serbia we will try to go to a European country if we can make it, if Allah can help us. We are tired of our life back in our country. So we will see what is in our destiny."
Like other migrants sentenced to expulsion, Abdul will now be taken to a camp under police custody for 72 hours. This can be extended to 60 days "if the conditions for expulsion do not exist," the Immigration Office said. Human rights groups said Serbia was reluctant to take back expelled migrants.
The Helsinki Committee, a human rights group that has sent lawyers to act as defense counsel in some of the trials, said most expelled migrants were hoping to move on via Croatia.
Abdul's trial was scheduled for 3 p.m. on Sept. 23, but the judge decided to hear three cases in one at 1 p.m., saying the three Afghan men accused of illegally crossing the fence were caught together, spoke the same language and shared the same lawyer.
"This speeds up the procedure," judge Csaba Juhasz said.
The three, Abdul, Mummand and Said, stood before the judge in the small courtroom as the prosecution quickly read out the charges.
Their written confessions were the read out. All three had told police they knew they were committing a crime when they crossed the fence, and regretted it.
Said, 22, was the only one who wanted to make additional remarks via an interpreter. He said a taxi driver took them to the border and he did not know it was a crime as they were told thousand of migrants had already entered Hungary this way.
After the judge read out witness reports from two policemen, the prosecutor, Szilvia Kiss-Szabo said: "It can be stated without a doubt that the accused have committed the crime."
The public defender cited the Geneva Conventions and argued that Serbia cannot be regarded as a safe country for refugees. All three had committed the crime out of "necessity", and should therefore be acquitted.
The court withdrew for 10 minutes and made its ruling. The trial was over in about an hour.
Judge Juhasz said that irrespective of citizenship or schooling "all adult men" should know that crossing a fence on a border amounts to a violation of rules.
"Also in the territory of Hungary ... if one neighbor climbs over to another neighbor in a way that is not allowed, that amounts to a crime or at least a misdemeanor," he said.
Juhasz dismissed the defense counsel's arguments.
"We accept and understand that they are trying to stay in Europe but this can be done in many different ways and in their case they started by committing a crime ... so we believe the one-year expulsion is definitely proportionate and necessary in order to achieve the punitive goals," he said.
In the first such trial on Sept. 16, an Iraqi man who was caught crossing the fence 6 hours and 15 minutes after the new law took effect on Sept. 15 was also expelled for a year.
The man, who said he was fleeing Iraq because of Islamic State, insisted he was not aware of the new legislation.
"We did not know about this law," he said in tears.
He was brought to court in handcuffs, a policy since discontinued.
Holding a black sports bag, with his head turned to the wall, the Iraqi was asked what he would do now: "I don't know."
HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS
On the Croatian-Hungarian border, where a fence is only now being erected, migrants get different treatment.
The new law makes illegally crossing the border barrier punishable by up to three years in prison. However, crossing the border where there is no fence is not a crime.
"Those who do not enter the territory of Hungary via the so called technical border barrier, do not commit a crime under the current legislation," the National Judicial Office, the body that oversees the courts, said in reply to Reuters questions.
"The fence is still being built on the Croatian border, we have not yet introduced the status quo valid on the Serbian stretch of the border," government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said.
The Helsinki Committee said this differentiation was unacceptable and asylum-seekers should not be sanctioned for crossing a border fence illegally anyway.
The UN refugee agency, meanwhile, does not consider Serbia a safe third country for asylum-seekers, although Hungary has declared that it is.
"It is not a crime to cross a border to seek asylum," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said in a statement.
The Helsinki Committee said migrants can apply for asylum both during and after criminal proceedings, which should be suspended while the request is being assessed.
In a case on Sept. 23, an 18-year-old Afghan man was sentenced to a two-year expulsion, even though his lawyer said he wanted to seek asylum.
The Judicial Office said that if the accused asks for asylum in court, the court would send the request without delay to the Immigration Office. If asylum is granted, the expulsion will not be carried out, it said.
(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Giles Elgood)