Hungarians march to protest PM Orban's anti-Roma campaign

By Krisztina Than

BUDAPEST, Feb 23 (Reuters) - More than 2,000 Hungarians, including Roma families and civil groups, marched to parliament on Sunday to protest against the government's refusal to pay compensation to Roma children who had been unlawfully segregated in a school in eastern Hungary.

Nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has come under fire from the European Union for his perceived erosion of the rule of law, suggested the state should disobey court orders to pay compensation to Roma children in the village of Gyongyospata and provide training instead.

Lower courts have ordered the state to pay damages in a lawsuit that has been dragging on for almost a decade. Hungary's top court is due to make a final ruling soon.

With the economy slowing, and his anti-immigration campaign losing steam, analysts say Orban is seeking to mobilise his voters by targeting independent courts, the Roma minority, and the NGOs who help them.

"The meddling of the government in the Gyongyospata restitution issue is unlawful and violates the rule of law and the independence of the courts," protest organisers said on Facebook.

Protesters held up banners saying "No one is above the law" and "The future cannot be built on hatred".

Orban has been in power since 2010 and his ruling Fidesz party is leading in opinion polls because of its anti-immigration stance.

However, Fidesz suffered a surprise setback in a municipal election last October, losing Budapest to the opposition.

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Orban has said "a court ruling citing segregation has stirred up public opinion by awarding large sums of money to some Roma residents," adding that everyone must work to receive money.

He has also said "business-savvy lawyers" exploited overcrowded prison conditions to launch 12,000 lawsuits against the government for breaking EU prison standards. Senior lawyers said Orban was undermining the rule of law.

Fidesz has said people connected with Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros helped Roma launch the lawsuits. The party has campaigned for years against Soros, who promotes liberal causes.

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By Sunday, close to 500 psychologists had signed a petition saying that the government campaign could fuel hatred between Roma and non-Roma. Roma make up 5-7% of Hungary's population.

Robert Laszlo, an analyst at liberal think-tank Political Capital, said Orban was trying to energise his base with his new campaign.

This will include a "national consultation" next month when questionnaires will be sent to millions of Hungarians on the issues of payments to Roma and compensation for prisoners. (Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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