There has been a fierce open debate for well over a year between historians and liberal-minded intellectuals on the one hand and the presiding judge at a rather bizarre case on the other hand. The story goes back to July 27, 1944. By that time Hungary was under German occupation and a young man, Endre Ságvári, a member of the illegal communist party and one of the leading, if not too numerous, anti-fascists got into an armed conflict with the three gendarmes who came to arrest him. The gendarmes arrived with loaded weapons, Ságvári also had a pistol: he killed one man and wounded two. One of the wounded one was László Kristóf. Ságvári himself died in the scuffle. László Kristóf managed to hide for a fairly long time. He was caught in 1957 and sentenced to death two years later.
In 2006, the descendants of Kristóf appealed to the Supreme Court asking for the annulment of this sentence. Five judges of the Supreme Court, headed by István Kónya, decided that Kristóf was innocent and that the proceedings against him in 1959 were merely a show trial. The justifications for the verdict were the usual ones: the gendarmes were simply following orders, they only defended the order of the state and society according to a law of 1921, the German occupation had nothing to do with the case, and the gendarmes acted against both left and right extremists and Ságvári, after all, was a left extremist.
Most of these justifications are spurious. Since Nuremberg a defendant cannot claim that he was simply following orders. Moreover, what kind of societal order were the gendarmes defending in July 1944? Was it justified to fight against a regime that was responsible for terrible crimes against humanity? Kristóf may not have been directly responsible for Ságvári’s death but at the very least he was an accomplice. Moreover, Kristóf served in the detective unit of the gendarmes and in this capacity took an active role in torturing people whom the authorities considered to be enemies of the state. Four witnesses appeared at the 1959 trial to describe the brutal treatment they received at his hands: cigarette burns, electric shocks, beatings on the soles of their feet. However, Kónya and his fellow judges announced that it was impossible to determine the seriousness of the torture committed by Kristóf. Kristóf was not guilty of anything according to the verdict of Kónya and his fellow judges.
The people who were outraged at the Supreme Court’s decision appealed and brought forth an eighty-eight-year-old woman, Marianne Pintér, another antifascist, who was apparently also tortured by László Kristóf. The appeal was turned down, and a letter of explanation was sent to Miss Pintér. Part of the letter reads: "historians, archivists, filing clerks, hat-check boys, newspapermen and other quasi authors to this day are not satisfied with the historical fact: László Kristóf–as opposed to Endre Ságvári–didn’t kill anyone." And for good measure the letter states that Marianne Píntér "must be satisfied with the fact that the accused who didn’t commit a crime deserving a death sentence was executed forty-nine years ago by the plaintiff’s comrades."
Well, this was too much for the Hungarian Helsinki Committe. One of lawers working for the Committee wrote a letter to the Chief Justice, Zoltán Lomnici. Lomnici immediately answered and stated that this kind of behavior is unworthy of the Supreme Court and that he is launching an investigation.
Investigations usually don’t get anywhere in Hungary, but this one may have legs. The political atmosphere that must permeate the Hungarian Supreme Court is frightening. The ferocious anti-communism among the older judges who were the most trusted supporters of the dictatorship is hard to fathom. Or perhaps not.