Prosecution Hungarian style

I just read in today's papers that Chief Prosecutor Tamás Kovács met his predecessor's fate: his answer to an interpellation in parliament wasn't accepted. The question addressed to Kovács involved a case that has remained unsolved for more than two years. In late 2006 unknown assailants in the dark of night shot several rounds into the fairly new police headquarters. Because the modern building is  constructed of steel and glass, the attack could have been deadly. Luckily no one was in the rooms involved. The police offered all sorts of rewards, there were false reports about a police search for a black Volvo, drawings of people who might have been nearby were made public. No results. Meanwhile months and years went by and most people had completely forgotten about this brazen attack at the heart of the Hungarian police. That is, until a couple of weeks ago.

During an interview József Bencze, chief of the police, was asked: "What about the attack on the police headquarters? You couldn't solve that either." And then came the surprising answer: "We have known for a long time the identity of the assailants but the prosecutor's office refuses to bring charges against them." Wow! It's not surprising that András Bőhm (SZDSZ) decided to inquire from Kovács what the situation really is. Kovács "categorically denied that the prosecutors are in any way trying to hinder the success of the investigation." On the contrary, hasty action would endanger the investigation. Neither Bőhm nor parliament accepted the answer.

For people living in the U.S. this whole scene seems odd. What is the chief prosecutor doing in parliament? Why can he be questioned? What happens if he is voted down? To the last question the answer is: nothing. Kovács's predecessor must have been voted down at least a dozen times if not more, and that in no way influenced his tenure as chief prosecutor. How can that happen and why?

First and foremost, the prosecutor's office is independent of the government. In most western countries this is not the case. Exceptions being Bulgaria, Croatia, and Italy. One can perhaps understand why the framers of the Third Republic wanted an independent prosecutor's office. After all, the one-party dictatorship's prosecutorial practices were still on everybody's mind in 1990. According to some legal experts even the framers of the constitution were not really thinking about this arrangement as a long-term solution. They thought that within a short period of time the Hungarian prosecution's office would be brought more in line with Hungarian tradition as an arm of the state. Apparently that's why the chief prosecutor is elected by a simple majority but, interestingly enough, a two-thirds majority is needed in order to remove him from office.

The first chief prosecutor was Kálmán Györgyi who by all reports did a spendid job and was reappointed with an overwhelming majority. Then came the Orbán government and Kálmán Györgyi, after a tête-à-tête with the speaker of the house, abruptly resigned. To this day we don't know why. Some people whisper about blackmail. In any case, that gave Orbán the opportunity to get his own man, Péter Polt, an old friend and Fidesz member who earlier ran unsuccessfully for parliament. I don't want to go into the gory details of Polt's activities, but by all standards they were blatantly partisan. Polt's office simply refused to bring charges against anyone who was involved in any way with Fidesz or the Orbán government. During the 1998-2002 period when Ibolya Dávid was the minister of justice there was an attempt to bring the prosecutor's office under the jurisdiction of the ministry of justice, but not surprisingly the opposition (MSZP, SZDSZ) wouldn't hear of it. I remember that I was also suspicious of the move, but after all during Polt's tenure it really didn't matter whether the prosecutor's office was under the direct jurisdiction of the Orbán government or not.

Then came a new problem. In 2003 the prosecutor's office was placed above the police and its role was expanded. It was no longer an exclusively legal office whose task it was to prepare court cases on the basis of police investigations; if it so desires, it can take over the job of investigation from the police. This is an impossible situation. First, because investigative techniques are not taught to prosecutors. This is police work. Second, because one can imagine how this must poison the relationship between the police and the prosecutors.

And now we hear that the the prosecutor's office refuses to bring charges against the men who according to the police are most likely the perpetrators of the attack against the police headquarters. Put it this way, there is deep-seated suspicion that something is not quite right in the prosecutor's office. Péter Polt is still working there, heading the criminal division. Tamás Kovács at the time of his appointment was already too old to complete a six-year term. There are rumors that Sólyom picked him precisely because of his age. This way there will be another man soon and by then perhaps Viktor Orbán will be prime minister.