Dissatisfaction with the Hungarian judiciary has been growing in the last couple of years. Earlier complaints usually focused on the inconsistency of decisions: different judges came up with opposite verdicts in virtually identical cases. Or that on appeal the judge of the appellate court reached entirely different conclusions from those of the first judge. In the last two years the law-abiding citizens who are horrified at the behavior of a fairly easily defined group on the streets of Budapest have been noticing a certain reluctance of the courts to punish people for acts that ordinary citizens consider to be criminal. Yesterday’s decision reached at summary proceedings (gyorsított eljárás) really was the last straw. People are by now convinced that the Hungarian court system is defending the criminals and that the members of the Hungarian judiciary have a political agenda. And let’s face it, there have been several cases where the courts’ inconsistencies are politically suspect. When demonstrators threw eggs at Gábor Demszky, SZDSZ mayor of Budapest, the court decided that a public figure like Demszky must suffer such acts; they are simply expressions of some people’s contrary political opinion. However, when a similar situation occurred in the case of the Fidesz mayor of Esztergom, suddenly egg throwing became a different matter. The egg throwers were punished.
Until now every time I heard spokesmen of either the courts or the prosecutor’s office talk about controversial cases they always defended the decision, however implausible it sounded to the layperson. They always had a complete explanation for anything the members of the Hungarian judiciary did. However, there seems to be a slight change in the attitude most likely as a result of the outcry that followed yesterday’s verdict. At least this is what I felt listening today to Ágnes Frech, a judge herself and very often the spokesman for the Budapest Court. First of all, she expressed her own opinion which seems to be at odds with the verdict of her colleague at yesterday’s summary proceedings. According to her these seven people who appeared yesterday in the Pest Central Court committed a misdemeanor and were not just guilty of disorderly conduct. Ágnes Frech seemed to be pointing the finger at the police and the prosecutor’s office. The charge was disorderly conduct and apparently the judge couldn’t throw out the case and send it back to rewrite the charge. As for the acquittal of the three men Frech had an explanation here too. Apparently Hungarian law allows a defense based on “wrong assumption.” That is, if the accused can prove that he had good reason to believe, for example, that egg throwing was legal then this explanation is accepted by the judge. (This wouldn’t not stand up in an American court.) All seven men’s defense was the same: they thought that egg throwing was legal because that is what they read in the newspapers and on the internet. (Only in one case, that of Mayor Demszky, did the judge rule that egg throwing was legal and only because Demszky was a public figure.) The judge accepted the defense’s argument. So all seven should have been innocent. But four of them kept throwing eggs even after the police told them to cease and desist. Therefore, they were guilty not necessarily because of their egg throwing per se but because they kept going even after they were told not to. I find this a rather tortuous explanation; it took Frech a long time to try to make sense of the ruling.
I think that Frech herself realized that her legal pettifogging will not convince anyone about the correctness of this verdict. Therefore she tried to calm her audience: this may not be the end of the case. The police and the prosecutor can bring other charges against these seven men. More serious charges that may have more serious consequences. Also she made sure that we understand that altogether 59 people were arrested whose crimes were more serious than throwing eggs. So, basically, she must have realized that the Hungarian people are fed up and demand action. They demand that these people be punished. I had the feeling that the judges realize that it’s time to pull themselves together because otherwise public opinion will really turn against them.