Hungarian prosecution: A joke or something else?

Népszava lately has been doing a good job of finding dirt in Hungarian politics. For the most part it uncovers "anomalies," as Hungarian politicians and the media euphemistically call them, on the right side of the political spectrum. This is not terribly surprising because Népszava is an unabashedly socialist paper and therefore leaks on the wrongdoings of the right will naturally be sent to its headquarters. Dirt on the other side of the spectrum will be dropped into the lap of Magyar Nemzet, the mouthpiece of Fidesz. In the past Magyar Nemzet was notorious for reporting untrue stories about MSZP and SZDSZ politicians, but lately their hits have been more accurate. I suspect that there are built-in informers parading as socialists sent by the party to snoop around and that most of the stories come from them. The other side is either not so clever or not so low, depending on one's point of view.

The latest Népszava sensation hit the stands on July 30. Front-page news with a huge cartoon that depicts a prosecutor standing in front of a judge and uttering the following:  "Honorable Court! I have in my possession proof of extenuating circumstances worth a great deal of money."Prosecution In the article one  reads that Gergely Varga, one of the closest associates of Budapest Chief Prosecutor Sándor Ihász, was caught receiving 600,000 forints from a woman charged with embezzlement. The paper alleges that the prosecutor handling her case originally demanded two million forints for a "more lenient charge" resulting in a fine instead of jail term or a suspended sentence, but the woman didn't have that much money. So apparently he settled for less. Under normal circumstances an official accused of bribery must be remanded immediately, but in this case Varga is allowed to prepare his legal defense as a free man. At least he was removed from his job. Another "anomaly" is that bribery cases involving a member of the judiciary must be  reported to the media immediately, something Sándor Ihász's office neglected to do. Thus Népszava concluded that the Budapest Chief Prosecutor's office "was trying to keep this embarrassing case secret." The journalists of Népszava immediately moved into action and inquired from the official spokesman of the Central Investigative Chief Prosecutor's Office (Központi Nyomozó Főügyészség [KNF]) about the details. Well, they didn't receive much information. Géza Fazekas, the spokesman, admitted that "a few days ago the authorities began proceedings against a district attorney because of suspicion of bribery." He refused to divulge the name which Népszava, of course, already knew.

This is not the first time that Gergely Varga, the accused and formerly the official spokesman of the Budapest Prosecutor's Office, is in trouble. In the middle of January 2008 he was accused of "aiding and abetting" and nondisclosure of mitigating circumstances. According to a secretly recorded tape that circulated on the Internet, Varga exclaimed after the trial of policemen charged with undue force at the October 23, 2006 riots that the ones found guilty by the court were not the real culprits. He claimed to know who the real culprits were. Varga attended the trial as a private citizen because one of the accused policemen was a personal friend of his. An investigation followed. Varga claimed that he had made up the story in an attempt to help his friend. He was found not guilty by KNF. A departmental investigation followed and Varga was stripped of his position as the official spokesman of the office. However, he was permitted to continue as one of the district attorneys.

I can well imagine Sándor Ihász's reaction when he opened Népszava Thursday morning. He must have been furious as I gathered from an interview with him on "Nap-kelte/Sun-Rise" on MTV, the public television station, on August 1. He called Népszava unreliable, a paper that tells untrue stories about his office and about himself. He also tried to explain why he didn't release the information immediately on Monday or Tuesday but instead waited until Népszava found the scoop on Varga. Already on Thursday Ihász rejected the newspaper's claim that he was trying to keep this piece of unpleasant news secret. They didn't make it public, but that doesn't mean that they kept it secret. They needed more proof and that took time, claimed Ihász. It's hard to imagine the necessity for more proof when the district attorney was caught red-handed in a shopping center where the authorities witnessed the exchange of money. I have been unable to locate a video of Ihász's press conference, so I don't know whether any of the journalists present had the guts to press him harder on the difference between keeping something secret and not making something public. However, on the Op-Ed page of Népszava Jenő Veress, a sharp-tongued and sharp-eyed publicist, wrote a devastating opinion piece in which he made fun of "not keeping secret" as opposed to "they didn't tell." One thing is certain, as soon as the story was published by the paper, Ihász officially released the news.

Népszava (August 1) learned, most likely from some socialist members of parliament, that the Chief Prosecutor, Tamás Kovács, will be grilled by parliament once the fall session begins in September. They will ask him about UD Zrt. as well as about the bribery case of Gergely Varga. In the latter case the question uppermost in the minds of the MPs is how it was possible for a fairly low-level district attorney to modify a charge without his superiors' knowledge. Apparently the hierarchy of the prosecutor's office resembles that of the military. The socialists would like to remove Sándor Ihász from his current position as chief prosecutor of Budapest because, according to rumors, he is at the moment the most likely to succeed Tamás Kovács who is nearing the compulsory retirement age of seventy early next year.

Ihász is Péter Polt's man, and it is Polt who is largely responsible for the current deplorable state of Hungarian prosecution. Polt was Fidesz's designee (in fact, before he became chief prosecutor, he ran as a Fidesz candidate at the 1998 elections but lost) who was supposed to make sure that no Fidesz corruption would ever come to light after 2002. He did a good job. The most outrageous thing is that after Polt's term was over (and naturally he didn't get reelected by a parliament that had a socialist-liberal majority), he remained with the organization heading its criminal division. According to Népszava "Polt is still the grey eminence of the Chief Prosecutor's Office." Ibolya Dávid, who called the prosecutor's office "a state within the state," was actually charitable. It is more likely that it is the right-wing opposition that is running the country with the help of the Hungarian judiciary.