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BUDAPEST (AFP) – Four Hungarian men were found guilty Tuesday of killing six Roma including a five-year-old child in a wave of brutal racially-motivated attacks between 2008 and 2009.
Life sentences were handed down to Arpad Kiss, Istvan Kiss and Zsolt Peto, while a fourth defendant, Istvan Csontos -- who served as a driver to his accomplices -- was given a 13-year prison sentence.
During a year-long spree of violence, six people were killed and five seriously injured, all of them ethnic Roma, a community that makes up between five and eight percent of Hungary's 10-million population.
Over 14 months starting in July 2008, the men carried out nine assaults on Roma living in various villages in northeastern and central Hungary, using grenades, guns and Molotov cocktails.
In one of the most gruesome attacks, a Roma father and his five-year-old son were gunned down as they tried to flee their house, which the gang had set on fire.
In another incident, a woman was shot in her sleep.
Police security was heavy inside and outside the court building for the verdict, which ends a two-and-a-half year trial, and comes a few days after the anniversary of the last attack on August 2, 2009.
Hundreds of people gathered to hear the verdict, some wearing T-shirts bearing pictures of the victims. One T-shirt read: "Their skin was their crime".
Prosecutors said the four defendants, all hard-core fans of the Debrecen football club in northeastern Hungary with neo-Nazi links, had had run-ins with Roma in the past.
The idea for the attacks emerged after they shared their stories in a pub, the prosecution said.
Plagued by poverty and high unemployment and often shunned by the rest of society, the Roma are often subjected to verbal and physical abuse.
On Monday, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) had warned that the court's verdict would be crucial in determining how Hungary tackled racism in the future.
A clear judgement "would go a long way toward preventing similar crimes in the future," Eszter Jovanovics, head of the HCLU's Roma Programme, said in a statement.
"The prejudice against Roma and the resulting crimes remain the most serious human rights issue in Hungary."
The Roma have also been targeted by vigilantes, the far-right Jobbik party and even by a close ally of centre-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
In January, Zsolt Bayer, a prominent journalist close to Orban, equated Roma to "animals" who "shouldn't be tolerated" and "should not exist". His newspaper was later fined by the country's media regulator.
Legal analysts say civil cases could now be brought against the state for alleged errors made in the investigation.
The four convicted men -- aged between 28 and 42 at the time of the crimes -- are expected to appeal the verdict.