Máté Szabó, Hungary’s ombudsman for civil rights

One should know by now that if László Sólyom, the president of Hungary, finds someone to be the best qualified person for a job there is normally trouble. And if SZDSZ lends its full support to his excellent choice, the trouble is at least doubled. After all, the country must thank SZDSZ for László Sólyom himself. And let's face it, Sólyom's presidency has not exactly been a success story.

The problems started with his obstinate insistence on his prerogative to nominate candidates for certain posts without inquiring about the nominees' acceptance by the parliamentary parties. After all, the president makes the nomination, but the nominees must be approved by a two-thirds majority of parliament. Most of his nominees failed the test. Some of his successful nominations went through because parliament simply got tired of the wrangling. This was the situation with Máté Szabó's nomination as well.

Szabo Mate

 Sólyom's first nominee was László Majtényi, who had served as ombudsman dealing with privacy issues between 1995 and 2001. Majtényi wasn't acceptable to Fidesz. Soon enough, in the spring of 2007, he came up with the name of Máté Szabó, and he wanted immediate action on his nominee. Parliament refused to hold a vote in the spring session saying that the members had to familiarize themselves with Szabó's career and work. So the vote was postponed to the fall. On September 25, 2007, he received 290 votes. Only 37 members voted no and 23 ballots were invalid. Szabó needed only 257 votes. SZDSZ was especially pleased. According to Mátyás Eörsi, Szabó was an excellent man, known as an independent thinker whose main interests were legal questions concerning the rights of association and assembly. SZDSZ was sure that Szabó would do his best to fight for the equal rights of gays and lesbians, a pet project of the party.

Well, this wouldn't be the first or the last time that SZDSZ was wrong in judging a man. Máté Szabó turned out to be a disaster. The conflicts he generates are undermining the very office of the ombudsman. By now his fellow ombudsmen, whose offices are in the same building as his, don't consult with him on anything. They barely say hello to him in the corridors. There are at least two reasons for the icy relationship between Szabó and his colleagues. One is that Szabó without consulting with anyone announced one day that it would be much better if he were made the "chief" ombudsman while the others would be subordinate to him. Well, that didn't go over too well. The second problem was that in an interview he talked about "Gypsy crime." The ombudsman in charge of minority issues, a Gypsy himself, was especially outraged. Szabó also behaves strangely on occasion. For example, once when in front of a parliamentary committee inquiring about his activities, he took his shoes off. Occasionally he appears at press conferences in slippers! He also seems to have a persecution complex of sorts. He was investigating a death in a Kaposvár prison and had just announced that he was going to launch a nationwide investigation of prison conditions when his son had a very ordinary car accident. The other car happened to belong to the Szombathely police, miles away from Kaposvár. Szabó was certain that the car accident was engineered by the police in revenge!

He is not doing well in parliament either. Parliamentary committees unanimously reject his reports, including one that concerned itself with human rights and another with constitutional matters. Some organizations actually demanded his resignation. What I personally find unacceptable when it comes to Szabó's pronouncements is his doctrinaire attitude on all matters. For example, although bus and streetcar drivers and passengers are being beaten up all too frequently in Budapest, he opposes the placement of cameras in the vehicles because, after all, there is such a thing as the right to privacy of the passengers. He doesn't seem to care about their bodily safety. Those who were outraged by his racist remarks might not like him, but Jobbik is becoming Szabó's greatest supporter. Not so much because of his remarks about "Gypsy crime" that he basically retracted but because he found "abuses" in the police's handling of the illegal gathering of the banned Hungarian Guard. Szabó and his colleagues in the ombudsman's office investigated the events on Erzsébet tér. (I wrote about it in my post "The Hungarian Guard demonstrates in Budapest" on July 4, 2009.) What did he find objectionable? Almost everything. First, it is true that the police called upon the crowd to disperse, but "it didn't specify the reason" and that is wrong because this was a "violation of the procedures concerning the right of peaceful gathering." He added that "the rules and regulations concerning the use of public places are not in agreement or not quite complete" so that made the police action incoherent. The demonstrators were holding balloons and and passing out leaflets, both perfectly legal activities, and the police had no right to interfere. And that's nothing. Szabó claimed that just because the court disbanded the Hungarian Guard that decision "didn't provide direct legal grounds for police action." I guess that means that the police must work out its own attitude in the matter in light of the court's verdict. The police, according to Szabó, must "decide whether the behavior of the demonstrators on the spot violates the right and freedom of others or not" and act accordingly. Wearing the uniform of a banned organization was also immaterial as far as the ombudsman was concerned. It is "questionable" whether arrests were at all necessary, and in many cases the policemen didn't ask the arrested demonstrators whether they wanted to talk to their relatives or their lawyers. Máté Szabó also had problems with the handcuffs used. According to him the instruments used to release these "plastic handcuffs" may cause injuries, and thus one's right to life and to physical well being might be threatened. One thing is sure. Szabó's office must have been busy. They collected many hundreds of documents, sixteen DVDs, numerous photographs and thirty complaints.

Szabó complained about these "mistakes" to parliament and to the police chief of the country. As far as parliament is concerned the six or seven different committees that wouldn't accept Szabó's reports lead me to believe that the MP's were not terribly impressed with Szabó's legal arguments. József Bencze did answer: he doesn't agree with Máté Szabó! According to a very recent article in HVG, Szabó is receiving rapid fire from all sides: parliamentary committees, civic organizations, legal aid societies, political parties. As the writer of the article said: the air is getting thinner around the ombudsman.

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