Justice in Hungary

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the judicial system, the professional competence of judges, and unbelievable verdicts in civil and criminal cases. Although Péter Kende, who can be called a muckraker, wrote a book about the problem, I guess not too many people bothered to read it. I did, and I found his very low opinion of Hungarian judges more or less justified. (See Védtelen igazság: Röpírat bírókról, ítéletekről [Defenceless truth: pamphlet about judges and verdicts], 2007). There are historical reasons for the low quality of Hungarian judges: in the Kádár regime the prestige of judges was very low and the least qualified graduates ended up as clerks to judges and from this position within a couple of years they moved up be full-fledged judges. The pay was miserable too, and as a result the profession became feminized. Well over 60% of all judges are women.

Péter Kende’s low opinion of judges and verdicts is finally spreading. A lot of people question some of the decisions of the Constitutional Court; indeed, one doesn’t need a legal background to realize that they are off the wall. Then there is the Romanian boy’s case when it turns out that the Hungarian judicial system is incapable of handling it. The newest outrage is a verdict in the case of Gábor Princz, former head of the Postabank, under whose watch the state-owned bank lost billions of forints because of his negligent if not outright criminal behavior. He has to pay a few thousand dollars worth of forints and that’s that. One has the feeling that the presiding judges don’t understand the first thing about banking.

And let’s not forget the miscarriages of justice. Ten years ago an eleven-year-old girl’s throat was cut. A nineteen-year-old boy happened to be visiting a friend in the same apartment building at roughly the same time, and he decided that he would go to the police and tell them that he saw a tall dark-haired man in the entrance of the building. That was a big mistake. The young man, Gábor Tánczos, soon enough was accused by the police of the murder. Mind you, they never found the weapon, they never found any fingerprints, there was nothing to connect him to the murder. Yet he received a sentence of thirteen years. For good behavior he left the jail this morning after ten years. He and his mother swear that they will clear his name.

Another incredible story is the murder of eight people in a bank in the town of Mór in 2002. According to witnesses there were two people involved: one did the killing while the other stood at the door and kept people out of the bank while the robbery and killing took place. Eventually the police managed to find two guys who had been known to them from previous brushes with the law, and they arrested them on some unfounded suspicion. Again, not a shred of material evidence: the two men’s fingerprints didn’t match the ones found in the bank, they never found the murder weapon, the witnesses’ description of the two men didn’t jibe with the ones they arrested, but never mind: one is already sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The other man’s case is still pending.

And now comes the really interesting part. A year after the slaughter in the bank a mailman was killed and robbed in Veszprém. It seems a suicidal idea, but in Hungary most people’s pensions are delivered in cold hard cash by the mailmen. A mailman can easily carry millions of forints. Tempting fate, if you ask me. In any case, the police were madly looking and looking and finding nothing until they hit the jackpot: they found the two men involved, they found the murder weapon and, behold, it turned out to be the same weapon used in the Mór bank robbery case. Not surprisingly the fingerprints, DNA, everything matched.

And who was the judge in the bank robbery case? Zoltán Varga, the second highest ranking judge in the country who has the reputation of being a wizard. When Péter Kende, who is currently working on a book about the Mór case, pointed out the incredible legal blunders, mistakes, missteps in the proceedings, a colleague of Varga said to him: "OK, OK, today we know that Zoli in this particular case made a few mistakes, but not even you could dispute the fact that otherwise he is the best criminal judge in the whole country!" Kende couldn’t believe his ears and asked the judge to contemplate the meaning in this case of "otherwise." The conclusion is devastating, I agree with Péter Kende.

Anyone interested in the case can read part of the forthcoming book in Népszava’ s magazine section here (http://tinyurl.com/yrbmac). As Péter Kende said yesterday in an interview: if an innocent person somehow finds himself on the Hungarian judicial system’s conveyer belt, there is no way of ever getting off.