PERSISTENT reports of inhumane and illegal treatment of aliens in a detention camp near Budapest is fueling a debate over law versus order in the fledgling Hungarian democracy.
Criticism focuses on a detention camp in Kerepestarcsa where recent inmates say they have been beaten, tear-gassed in closed quarters, and detained longer than the law permits.
Once a communist political prison, the camp at Kerepestarcsa has held more than 7,000 alien deportees, 200 to 300 at a time, since it reopened last year.
Most are economic refugees from Romania and the former Soviet Union. Along with Africans and Asians, they are held for entering Hungary illegally. Though not formally arrested, some are held for weeks or months pending deportation, Hungarian authorities say.
Critics include opposition members of Parliament and the international human rights organization Amnesty International, which last month said the reports "mark our most serious concerns since the change of government."
The human rights group's statement detailed what Amnesty researcher Paul Miller calls an alleged "pattern of ill-treatment in the camp," including frequent beatings and use of tear gas in confined spaces.
The authorities deny brutality charges while admitting that some detentions, though illegal, are needed to stem a threatening tide of economic refugees.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said April 6, in an interview with the Hungarian Nation newspaper, said that tear gas was one of the "coercive measures" used when inmates rioted, but only in self-defense, and "personal injuries did not occur."
Cases of arbitrary detention also worry critics such as Alliance of Free Democrats opposition member of Parliament (MP) Ferenc Koszeg. In January, he intervened on behalf of eight Chinese refugees who, despite having valid residence permits, were held in the camp for 26 days in what a police colonel called "an administrative error."
"Nobody spoke to us and told us what would happen," said one.
Authorities concede mistakes do happen. The "foreigners' [immigration] police" sometimes lack "the practical knowledge that would ensure legal and correct procedures," says Interior Ministry official Karoly Nagy.
Public attention focused on the camp last January after an MP was denied entry. Two weeks later, a tour for public officials and reporters through selected parts of the camp gave grim glimpses of life in the city-block-sized brick and barbed wire compound.
Inmates complained of having no flush toilets, hot water, fresh clothes, or nutritious meals. The conditions, Socialist opposition MP, Laszlo Korosfol, told Parliament, "don't meet average human norms."
Although Romania and Bulgaria also maintain refugee camps, according to Amnesty, Kerepestarcsa is the only one it has received complaints about. Unlike other eastern European countries, Hungary defines only Europeans as legal political refugees. Immigrants from outside Europe are considered illegal, and detained.
Yet General Nagy says following the law sometimes counters "the national interest." A case in point, he says, is observing the six-day legal limit for detention. Deportees' stays average three weeks and sometimes last several months, authorities say. But freed inmates, often with no country to accept them, tend not to return when summoned for expulsion or steal across the Austria border.
A country saddled with unemployment - virtually unknown under the communist regime but now reaching 40 percent in some areas - as well as harboring some 40,000 Yugoslav war refugees, can ill-afford more job-seekers, authorities say.
"When [the six-day] law was made in 1983, the conditions were different - 96 percent [of foreigners] were coming from neighboring countries, and most who were expelled left willingly," Nagy says. They were not economic refugees, like today's from Africa and the Far East."
Interior Minister Peter Boross similarly defended a controversial border-tightening decree. As economic refugees from Russia besiege the eastern frontier, he said, "many have debated whether or not there are legal grounds for [the decree], but we don't have time to analyze."
"[Authorities'] fears are understandable, but the methods they use are just awful," says poet and journalist Gyorgy Faludy, who was jailed in the camp as a "Trotskyist" in the 1950s.
"Police state" habits still linger here, he says; governments should replace, not break, laws they do not like. "We've had no real constitutional traditions here in 70 years," he says. "You can't have a real democracy immediately. It takes several years."