BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A Hungarian court jailed four neo-Nazis on Tuesday for killing Roma families in a spree of racist violence in 2008 and 2009 that shocked the country and led to accusations that police had failed to protect an historically persecuted minority.
The gang killed six Roma and wounded several others in carefully planned attacks across the country over 13 months, creating a climate of fear for members of Hungary's largest ethnic minority. Roma, who make up about 7 percent of the population of 10 million, face widespread discrimination and often live in dire poverty.
Three men were jailed for life without parole and a fourth for 13 years, also without parole. The ruling can be appealed.
Judge Laszlo Miszori said the perpetrators saw themselves as vigilantes imposing "an ethnic-type solution" in revenge for crimes committed by Roma.
"To carry out their plans first they bought arms, then began to 'reinstall order', meaning armed attacks in places where Roma had committed crimes against Hungarians," the judge said.
In one of the attacks, several men set fire to a house at the edge of the dusty village of Tatarszentgyorgy, near a forest 30 minutes from Budapest, late at night on Feb 22, 2009.
When the inhabitants fled the burning building, the attackers shot dead Robert Csorba, a 29-year-old Roma man, and his 4-year-old son Robert Jr. A girl was also seriously wounded. The assailants fled.
Robert's mother Erzsebet Csorba told Reuters on the eve of the verdict that she looked forward to the closing of a chapter but had no faith it would deliver full justice, bring safety or ease tension between Roma and other Hungarians.
"It's just like it was four years ago," she said in Tatarszentgyorgy, seated on a stool below portraits of her slain son and grandson in the house where she lives next door to the charred remains of the building where they were killed.
"It might be harder for us because of all the heartache that made us numb to life, but we can't seem to get out of this racism, this poverty."
Peace of mind has been elusive. Strangers still come through the woods late at night and stalk her house, she said.
Human Resources Minister Zoltan Balog, who is responsible for Roma inclusion, said the verdict "strengthens my belief that no perpetrators of racist crimes can escape the law in Hungary, and especially savage murderers pay a worthy penalty for their deeds".
"This is not a question of minority or majority: this is a question of human dignity," he said in a statement.
Police documents showed that the authorities dragged their feet in investigating the Tatarszentgyorgy attack, although the earlier killings had already unleashed fear throughout the Roma community for months.
The last attack in the spree occurred six months later when a young Roma woman was killed in eastern Hungary, after which the perpetrators were finally caught.
Roma have lived in Hungary for centuries and are now scattered mainly in rural areas in the northeast and south of the country.
The collapse of heavy industry after communism in 1989 hit the Roma hard. Unemployment is widespread, generations of Roma have grown up poor and illiterate, and some have resorted to petty crime to make ends meet.
Hostility towards them among many other Hungarians has helped fuel the rise of the far-right Jobbik party, which vilifies the Roma openly and won 17 percent of votes for parliament in 2010, becoming the third biggest party.
Some of that resentment could be felt in Tatarszentgyorgy's convenience store, where a question about the Roma drew knowing stares from shoppers, who complained that Roma lived on welfare, engaged in crime and had more children than they could afford.
In his ruling, the judge said two of the killers, brothers Arpad and Istvan Kiss, had attended a swearing-in ceremony of a nationalist vigilante group set up set up by Jobbik, the Hungarian Guard, but had decided to embark on their own plans for attacks after concluding the group was ineffectual.
Back in 2009, the funeral of the slain Csorbas, father and son, was seen as an opportunity to encourage understanding between Roma and other Hungarians. Celebrities attended the service, but their presence did little to change attitudes, said Szilvia Varro, an activist who helped organise the funeral.
"We failed to make the case part of our shared history," she said. "Hungary typically suffers from a ghetto-like mentality in this way; there are our dead and their dead, and it's very hard to bridge that divide."
With another parliamentary election due next year, the Roma issue is becoming hot again, said Varro.
Her advocacy group Communication Centre X (XKK) released a series of video clips last month with well-known Hungarian actors reciting excerpts from the trial testimony, describing the killings while blood stains are shown spreading over them.
"The ruling is a good opportunity to reintroduce the issue," Varro said. "We filmed emotionally charged scenes because we wanted Hungarian viewers to feel it could have been their kids."
Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Peter Graff