This is the story of Ahmed H., a Syrian man living in Cyprus since 2006 and married to a Cypriot national. He has two Cypriot-national daughters. Since 2015 he has been detained in Hungary. Now Amnesty International is trying to convince the Cypriot authorities to allow Ahmed to return home.
“Speaking to my daughter on Skype, she asked ‘Baba, when are you coming home?’ and it broke my heart. After almost four years apart from my wife and two young daughters, I do not understand why I cannot go home. I have a clean record in Cyprus, a business and a family,” Ahmed H. told Amnesty International from the migrant detention center where he is now being held in Hungary.
Ahmed’s story is a complicated one. He was born in Syria but moved to Cyprus in 2006 and married a Cypriot (and British) national, Nadia. He had a business, his wife works for a company in Cyprus and they have two daughters together.
In 2015, Ahmed left Cyprus to meet his elderly parents and other family members as they made their way toward the Hungary-Serbia border in the attempt to cross the border from Serbia into the EU. The day before, explains Dr. Áron Demeter, advocacy and media manager of Amnesty International's bureau in Budapest, the Hungarians had closed the border with Serbia and protests had broken out amongst the migrants and asylum seekers hoping to reach the EU.
At the Serbian-Hungarian border
“Because Ahmed could speak English, he ended up trying to negotiate with the Hungarian authorities on behalf of the few hundred people gathered at the border who were hoping to cross,” says Demeter. “Basically, you can see on Hungarian police footage that he was trying to calm down the crowd, and trying to find a peaceful solution to the matter.”
However, when the Hungarian authorities refused to reopen the border, clashes started and many people were throwing stones and other objects. “The act he committed in 2015 … he was also throwing five stones towards the Hungarian police.”
The police, says Demeter, “apprehended 11 people and only Ahmed H. was charged with terrorism.” Amnesty’s position, clarifies Demeter "is that throwing stones and using a megaphone could not be classed as an act of terror.” In fact, Amnesty states that his conviction is “wrongful” and that the proceedings against him were “unfair.”
Demeter says that Ahmed was demonized by the Hungarian government and that his story is emblematic of a much wider story going on in Hungary right now. “[Ahmed’s] story is really linked to the anti-migrant campaign that the Hungarian government has been running since 2015. […] Since then there has been a lot said that every migrant is a terrorist. Even before his conviction, he was called a terrorist. A lot of really nasty stuff has been said about him, and his family.”
Ahmed’s conviction took years to establish. His final conviction came in September 2018 after several trials and sentences prior to that. The ‘complicity in an act of terror’ charge can carry heavy penalties, up to 25 years in prison or even ‘life,’ says Demeter. Ahmed was first convicted to 10 years, that trial had to be re-run and then he received seven years, finally in September he was handed a five-year term with conditional release which came in January 2019.
Ahmed’s problems didn’t end there. During his time in prison, both his Syrian passport and his Cypriot residency permits expired. “[On release] the Hungarian authorities wanted to deport him to Cyprus,” explains Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s researcher on counter-terrorism and human rights. She has recently been in Cyprus advocating on Ahmed’s behalf with the Cypriot authorities.
Amnesty met with the Cypriot Interior Ministry and the Cypriot Foreign Affairs Ministry. “What they have said is that the case is under consideration at the moment,” states Hall. “They had originally issued a refusal to let Ahmed back to Cyprus and we were unclear as to why they would refuse to let him back, especially since the proceedings in Hungary were so flagrantly unfair.”
In a migrant detention center
Demeter explains that because Ahmed’s documents have expired, he is stuck effectively in a migrant detention center until Cyprus makes a decision. “The procedure is that Hungary has to approach another state asking them if they will accept this person.”
Ahmed has phone and internet contact with his family but he hasn’t seen them in four years. “That was the family’s decision, not the fault of the Hungarian authorities,” clarifies Demeter. Conditions are thought to be OK inside the detention center, but “it is still a detention facility,” says Demeter. “You can imagine a prison with maybe less strict rules than an actual prison but it is secured by Hungarian police, there are strict rules that people have to follow and he has no contact with others, except an option to talk to the lawyer or the family. He can get packages from people.”
Hall adds that going back to Syria, where Ahmed was born, is “completely out of the question.” For a start, there is no Syrian presence in Budapest, but Hall says that the Hungarian authorities did approach the Syrian authorities in Vienna. “He would be at risk of quite severe treatment and violations of his human rights should he be sent back to Syria.” Hall adds: “Hungary should know that it would violate its international obligations were they to forcibly remove him to Syria.
The family members that he went to help cross the border were also tried in Hungary but his parents received suspended sentences and were eventually allowed to travel on to Germany where they have now been granted asylum.
Calls for the Cypriot authorities to act
Amnesty International is launching a campaign for Ahmed H. on June 28 called #BringAhmedHome to ask Cypriot authorities to permit Ahmed to go home. Amnesty says the Cypriot government “offers the last hope for a Syrian man to return to his family in Cyprus.”
Neither Hall nor Demeter can estimate how long it could take to bring Ahmed back to Cyprus but the key for them is that the Cypriot authorities recognize that he has a right to reside there and return to his family “after four long years.”
“Governments can act as quickly as they want in cases like these,” says Hall. “The government has said that it is doing an assessment as to whether or not Ahmed is a threat to national security. We have asked them point blank what evidence they have that that could be the case. Especially understanding how unfair the process was in Hungary. They declined to present any information to indicate that Ahmed could present an ongoing threat.”
Hall says that if they have no credible information then they should allow him to come home. “In talks with government officials, one person expressed the concern that [Ahmed] was a devout Muslim. It is our sincere hope that the Cypriot authorities are not basing any of their alleged concerns about Ahmed merely on the manifestation of his religious practice. It is his right to practice his religion in any way he sees fit.”
Hope for the future?
Ironically, Demeter says that if the Cypriot authorities do not heed Amnesty’s pleas, Ahmed will, according to Hungarian law, have to be released from detention one year after he entered it which means in January 2020. At that point, if he still doesn’t have any passport or travel document the Hungarian authorities would be forced to offer him international protection.
Both Demeter and Hall hope it doesn’t come to that. Hall, who has met his family in Cyprus describes his wife Nadia as being “his most ardent advocate,” but admits it has been “a very long road for all of them.” After four years it is “really taking a toll, but we hope that the Cypriots can ‘do the right thing’ and help them put this sorry chapter to an end and help them be reunited.”