Hungarian laws and the courts

Front page news in this morning’s Népszava: "Riots: the Budapest court reduced the sentences." From reading the article it becomes clear that this decision was reached on appeal and therefore is final. As usual, in the Hungarian media, court reporting can be a bit foggy. For example, the reporter neglects to tell us what punishment was meted out in the lower courts, but let’s be grateful for the snippets found in this article. The article talks about "last fall’s disturbances," which could be either the siege of the television station or the riots on October 23. From one sentence we learn that one of the accused was banging on a police car on Rákóczi Street, so it seems that the offense occurred on October 23. At any event, the higher court reduced Ádám Béla Géczi’s punishment to an eight-month suspended sentence. If the "young adult" doesn’t repeat his violent outburst against the police, if he doesn’t take part in further disturbances, or, more precisely, if no one catches him, then he is off scot-free. The judges took into consideration his youth, that he had no criminal record, that he lives with his parents in an orderly household, and (this is the most interesting) that "he was carried away by what was going on around him."

The other man’s crime seems to me much more serious. Tamás Zoltán Horváth was armed, and he and his fellow rioters, as a group, attacked "an official person." I assume a policeman. His sentence was reduced to fourteen months in jail. Again, we have no idea what the decision of the lower court was. The reasoning for the reduced sentence was very similar to the previous case: he was young, had no criminal record, and "under normal circumstances" wouldn’t have committed a crime. (How do they know that? It’s beyond me!)

In the current situation, when democratic institutions and principles are being challenged by right-wing extremists, Hungary is plagued by poorly crafted laws and by a judiciary that has not attracted "the best and the brightest." (In Hungary it was neither prestigious nor financially rewarding to be a judge.)

First, the problem with the laws. Almost twenty years ago, when the opposition tried to hammer out a new constitution and an accompanying set of laws, they tried to be extra liberal. As a result, they enacted laws that are ill suited to restrict the activities of people whose intentions are not always honorable. Moreover, the laws themselves were rather hastily crafted; under closer scrutiny they are subject to multiple interpretations. So the police often don’t know what their competence is. What they can do, what they cannot do. They are afraid to act decisively because then they can be accused of being the successor to the old repressive police force of the Kádár regime. To change these laws the government would need a two-thirds majority of the members of parliament, but given the current political situation this is clearly impossible.

And then there is the question of the competence of the judges. If the spokesman of the Budapest Court is any indication, these judges seem to wear blinders. And logic is not their strength either. The following conversation between Judge László Gatter and József Orosz, reporter for KlubRádió and Napkelte, will perhaps elucidate what I mean. The topic was the registration of the Hungarian Guard as an officially recognized organization. Gatter kept repeating that the court cannot use its own judgment in determining whether or not to allow the registration of an organization. Gatter claims that their decision can be based only on what they read in the application. In the Guard’s application there was nothing that would have prevented its registration. "They had no choice, they had to allow it." Orosz is not the kind of man who gives up easily. He recalled that the Jobbik asked for a permit in mid-April and that it was sometime at the end of June when the permission was granted by the court. In the meantime, Gábor Vona, head of the Jobbik, gave several interviews from which it was obvious that the real aim of the Guard was not what appeared in the application. In brief, the contents of the application were a pack of lies that served only one purpose: to make the Guard legal. Should the courts take this into consideration? Gatter’s answer: No! It doesn’t matter what happened between the request and the granting of the permission, the courts have no room for any kind of consideration. I find this an absurd position. But what can one do? Nothing! This is the voice and stance of the independent Hungarian judiciary.

Continuing the theme of "consideration," Orosz inquired whether the judges could take into consideration that the riots were actually aimed at overthrowing a legitimate, democratically elected government. Absolutely not: this would be a politically motivated consideration, and the courts cannot get involved with politics. Can’t the courts distinguish between politics and democracy? Need I say more?