Case Studies

Jozsef Szekely: Tried and sentenced without his knowledge


Jozsef Szekely is a 33-year-old father of two with a Hungarian ethnic background, who grew up as a tenant farmer in a remote and sparsely populated part of central Romania. He is currently in Oradea Penitentiary in Romania*.

Jozsef was sentenced to years in prison for cutting down and stealing several Christmas trees from a remote part of the forest.

“There were four of us, we went in the forest, about 10 kilometers in, and we cut the trees for ourselves and our families. For my mother, for my cousin. Then the police came, they confiscated the trees, they took our statements and that was it. They didn’t say anything about a fine or about prison. Nothing.”

When Jozsef was caught, he recalled, police spoke to him and may have questioned him, but he does not speak Romanian and no translation was provided. He did not know that he was being prosecuted and that he was later tried and sentenced in absentia – he did not even know that he had been charged or committed a crime.

Jozsef said that he would have attended his trial if he had known about it. He also does not know whether he was represented by a lawyer during the trial and because he is illiterate, it’s been difficult for him to find out.

Jozsef did not know to be worried about anything, so he took a job in Hungary as a dockhand, unloading ships along the Danube, when he was picked up by police in a roundup of illegal migrants. Eventually he was surrendered to Romania because of the European Arrest Warrant for the theft of the Christmas trees.

“I was walking down the street. The police were there, asking people for their IDs. They asked for mine too. It was about 5:00 PM when they checked my ID. Then they said that there was an international warrant on my name and took me in,” he told. “It’s a common thing in Hungary. They’re checking people’s IDs on a daily basis.”

He was later surrendered to Romania and he is now in Orodea prison.

“It’s not easy, it’s hard in prison,” Jozsef says. He shares his small prison cell, only two and half meters wide and six meters long, with six others. His wife takes care of their young children in Hungary, where they migrated to for work.

*Information in this article is correct as of October 2018.