Four Hungarian men have been sentenced to jail after they were found guilty of killing six Roma, including a five-year-old child, in a wave of racially-motivated attacks between 2008 and 2009.

A Budapest court on Tuesday handed down life sentences to Arpad Kiss, Istvan Kiss and Zsolt Peto. A fourth defendant, Istvan Csontos, who served as a driver to his accomplices, was sentenced to a 13-year prison term.

The four convicted men, aged between 28 and 42 at the time of the crimes, are expected to appeal the verdict.

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 to eight percent of Hungary's 10 million population.

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.

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.

Plagued by poverty

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."

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".

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies