Hungarian judges and courts

In the 1950s and 1960s law wasn't exactly a favorite major for students who had just finished high school. (In Hungary, and I suspect in most European countries, the study of law is not undertaken after the attainment of a bachelor's degree.) In those days students ended up in law who had no chances elsewhere. The subject of my blog today, Ágnes Frech, head of the criminal division of the Court of the Capital City, entered law school in 1964 because–according to her own admission–her science preparation was not adequate to get into medical school.


For a while she wasn't enamored with the legal profession but it grew on her. By now she is in a very high position. I suspect that as head of the criminal unit she rarely enters the courtroom as a judge. Rather her duties are mostly administrative. In addition, she often acts as a spokesman trying to explain her Court's often bizarre cases and decisions.

In order to understand the often embarrassingly low performance level of Hungarian judges it's important to recall that, in the past at least, judges were at the bottom of the heap in the legal profession. The pay was meager and the profession became more and more the final destination of female students. Today the great majority of the judges are women. And as often happens once a profession is inundated by women, its prestige goes down. Apparently the brighter law students became practicing lawyers whose pay in those days wasn't fabulous but definitely better than that of judges or prosecutors. It seems that lately the pay scale for judges has improved markedly. Moreover, I understand, many younger judges are well qualified. The problem is that the court system is strictly hierarchical so that the older generation of Ágnes Frech et al. are in high positions while the younger perhaps better qualified judges are consigned to the grey world of the mundane. They certainly never appear in courtrooms in connection with important cases.

Péter Kende, a journalist with a legal background, has written book after book about the very poor quality of judges and verdicts in Hungarian courts. One of his books, Védtelen igazság: Röpirat bírókról, ítéletekről (2007) is truly frightening reading. I was still in the middle of it when I said to myself, "thank God it's unlikely I will ever end up in a Hungarian courtroom because guilty or not I would go directly to jail." Perversely, the opposite is true in some special cases, such as when the accused are extreme right-wing propagandists or worse. Outright political criminals.

By now György Budaházy's name should be familiar to the readers of this blog. Ever since 2002 when he organized stopping traffic on the Elizabeth Bridge in Budapest he has been in the news constantly. He is either hiding from the police and the police are unable to find him or he is arrested but a few hours later he is let go and his case doesn't come up for years and when it does he gets off the hook. Should I continue? However a few months ago it seems that the police really got him. Or at least I hope so. He turned out to be the mastermind behind the Arrows of Hungarians, a group that was preparing the murders of certain MSZP politicians. This time he is sitting in jail while the police and the prosecutor's office continue to gather evidence. Thirteen people are in jail in connection with this alleged plot, and apparently most likely there will be more arrests. So why did Budaházy appear at the end of last week in a Budapest courtroom? Because of another earlier alleged "misdeed." He was charged with incitement to overthrow the lawful democratic regime of the country. He did all this on the internet.

If I understand it correctly, such a crime according to the Criminal Code is deemed serious enough to merit a five-year maximum jail sentence. Budaházy, on the other hand, received only a one-year suspended sentence! And his admirers and followers who were allowed into the courtroom, including uniformed members of the banned Hungarian Guard, didn't seem to appreciate the judge's leniency. They called the judge everything under the sun. They told him that he will hang, they called him a filthy Jew (everybody whom these people don't like is by definition Jewish!), they sent him to Auschwitz, they wished him dead on the spot.The scene was incredible. It is worth looking at the video even if one doesn't know Hungarian. The judge, the prosecutor, and the other officials sat there placidly, doing absolutely nothing. Earlier, during the session, the pro-Budaházy audience kept signalling victory, and after Budházy's final speech they cheered him on. Even that didn't move the judge to put an end to the circus.

And now comes Ágnes Frech, who made the mistake of granting an interview to József Orosz on his weekday program, Kontra (KlubRádió). The first surprising announcement on Frech's part was that she knew absolutely nothing about any disturbance. The judge kept good order in the room and in any case there were eight policemen in the courtroom accompanying Budaházy. Orosz inquired at this point whether "a loud ovation following Budaházy's speech or clapping" is considered a disturbance or not. The answer was somewhat puzzling. Yes, this is a disturbance, but the judge asked them to leave and the bailiff on duty led the people out to the corridor. As we can see, this wasn't exactly the case. As for stopping the proceedings and emptying the courtroom, Frech's surprising answer was that "according to the ruling of the Constitutional Court judges must endure verbal insults. The court is defenseless in cases like that." But, she continued, Orosz was wrong in supposing that such disturbances would influence the judge in any way. In any case, she repeated, there was no disturbance in the courtroom. Period.

Orosz at this point inquired whether such epithets as "filthy Jew, drop dead, go to Auschwitz, you'll hang" must really be endured by judges? Nothing can be done? Frech seemingly retreated and replied that indeed the judge doesn't have to endure such insults, but "the judge heard nothing of the sort." Too bad, she added, that there are no cameras in the courtrooms because they would know exactly what happened. Orosz interjected at this point that "it is on the internet." Ah, said Frech, "we don't hang on the internet day in and day out." But as far as ovations, clapping, and spoken words are concerned, "the judge must be patient. He can't react to everything." He has to concentrate on the case. And what about those members of the banned Hungarian Guard who showed up in uniform? Frech answered, "the court is not a criminal investigative unit." It is "not the business of the courts to ponder over what kind of clothing people appear in."

What will happen if the courts continue on this laissez-faire path? What will happen if such light sentences are meted out to people who, for example, were ready to kill policemen on September 19, 2006? I found a few more good pictures of the "siege," by the way. How could these people receive only very light suspended sentences? What will happen if the courts continue to allow the kind of behavior in the courtroom we can see on the attached video? Nothing good, I can assure you.