The Venice Commission’s trials and tribulations with the Orbán government

I would love to be a fly on the wall during the conversations of those judges of the Venice Commission tasked with sorting out the legal problems posed by the Orbán government’s “revolutionary” legislative activities of the last year or so. I’ll bet that even expletives can be heard here and there because the Hungarian government is (to continue the animal motif) playing a cat and mouse game with the honorable judges serving on the Commission.

A case in point is the latest exchange between the Commission and Budapest concerning “the legal status and remuneration of judges and on the organization and administration of courts of Hungary.” Earlier the Venice Commission sent a draft opinion which the Hungarians promised to consider and counter, but the Hungarian government’s answer and proposals to that draft opinion arrived too late to be considered in the final opinion. Thus, another round of opinions and proposals is inevitable.

The “Opinion on Act CLXII of 2011 on the Legal Status and Remuneration of Judges and Act XLXI of 2011 on the Organization and Administration of Courts of Hungary” was adopted by the Venice Commission at its plenary session in Venice on March 16-17, 2012. The “Opinion” was written by Christophe Grabenwarter (Austria), Wolfgang Hoffmann-Rimen (Germany), Hanna Suchocka (Poland), Kaarlo Tuori (Finland) and Jan Velaers (Belgium). The document is 30 pages long and addresses 122 points, the last being that “the Venice Commission was informed that–as a reaction to the draft Opinion–the [Hungarian] Government intends to introduce amendments to the judiciary acts in Parliament … [but] the Commission had no possibility to examine these proposals.”

The Opinion is devastating for the Hungarian government because the Commission found that “the [judicial] reform as a whole threatens the independence of the judiciary.” The main problem, according to the Commission’s findings, is the concentration of power in the hands of one person, namely the president of the National Judicial Office. I would like to remind everybody that this person is Tünde Handó, wife of József Szájer (Fidesz EP member and allegedly the author of the new constitution) who is also a personal friend of the Orbán family. Even if she didn’t have a long-standing friendship with both Anikó Lévai and Viktor Orbán ever since their college days, such concentration of power in the hands of one person is simply unheard of in Europe.

Handó has the power to select judges and senior office holders. She is elected without consultation with the members of the judiciary and is not accountable in any meaningful way to anybody except in the case of violation of the law. Her tenure is nine years, which the Commission considers far too long. Moreover, her tenure can be extended indefinitely if more than one-third of the members of parliament block the appointment of a proposed successor. The list of her powers is too long to catalogue here, but she will have the right to transfer judges against their will to another location; if they refuse, they can be automatically dismissed. And, this is a very important point, she can transfer cases from one court to another without any objective criteria for the selection of cases to be transferred and the court to which the cases are to be assigned.

Hando tude karikatura

This last issue is a very serious one. Ms Handó already transferred a couple of important cases from Budapest courts to courts located in other cities: one to Kecskemét and another to Kaposvár. Here I would like to highlight the case of Miklós Hagyó, former socialist deputy mayor of Budapest, which was transferred to Kecskemét. He was one of the two deputy mayors who looked after the Budapest transit system (BKV), whose troubles came to the surface already in 2009. Charges of corruption abounded and Miklós Hagyó was also implicated. Until May 2010 he couldn’t be arrested because of his parliamentary immunity, but as soon as Fidesz-KDNP won the elections Hagyó ended up in jail. He spent a fairly long stint in jail but a few months ago was released because of health reasons.

This is a very important political case. I am unable even to guess whether Hagyó is guilty of all those crimes his former associates accuse him of committing. I’m especially in the dark because it is becoming evident to me that Hungarian witnesses are not at all reliable. They can come up with the most incredible stories. However, it seems to me that for political reasons the outcome of Hagyó’s trial is of paramount importance to Fidesz. The Hagyó case most likely influenced the outcome of the elections in Budapest both at the national and the local elections. The newspapers for months were full of details of corruption at BKV, starting with the millions of forints worth of bribes Hagyó himself allegedly demanded be delivered to him in a Nokia box. One may or may not believe that Hagyó is such a stupid man that he demanded a bribe from a man whom he hadn’t met before, but if the court decides that after all BKV’s financial troubles were quite independent from Miklós Hagyó, Fidesz would suffer a serious political setback.

And this very important case was transferred to Kecskemét. Even if Ms. Handó’s decision to transfer Hagyó’s case has nothing to do with politics, the suspicion is already firmly planted and will linger on perhaps for years. The president of the Kecskemét court was one of the very few heads of county courts who refused to sign Chief Justice András Baka’s protest against the early retirement of judges. So, that court and its judges can be suspected of pro-Fidesz sympathies. And there is something else that gives pause for thought. It was at this court that the case of a young socialist politician who was tried for a relatively minor corruption case received an eight-year jail sentence. Just as a point of comparison, recently a man who was found guilty of killing his own son received only five years.

It’s hard not to be suspicious that in this case the Kecskemét court was not randomly chosen. All verdicts in such cases can be challenged, and those who feel wronged can turn to international forums and complain about the outcomes of their trials. If these provisions remain on the books, the Hungarian judiciary will be condemned by all international judicial forums.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Living with it in Hungary
Guest
Living with it in Hungary

It is unlikely that these cardinal laws will be changed willingly and this is why the deal with the IMF is in serious jeopardy. The rating agencies have already hinted at yet another downgrade if there is not deal with the IMF. Will this ruling will be enough to trigger that move?

Guest

London calling!
Very timely Guardian piece on Tünde Handó by Joshua Rozenberg:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2012/mar/20/tunde-hando-hungarian-judges?newsfeed=true
Regards
Charlie

GDF
Guest

Charlie: “Very timely Guardian piece on Tünde Handó by Joshua Rozenberg”
Just watch out for Orban’s best friend’s (Bayer) future opinion piece about the [place any adjective you would expect from that guy] ethnic origin of those at The Guardian who denigrate Hungary’s judiciary system.

Guest

Thanks, Charlie and GDF!
I just posted the Guardian link to pol.hu – let’s wait and see what the usual suspects there will make out of it – if they react at all …
The insolence of Fidesz seems to know no limits – unbelievable!

Member

Thanks GDF!
I think what sums up the concerns from the article about the dangers of the Orban oligarch are:
“In Hungary, one woman effectively controls the judiciary, and she happens to be married to the author of its constitution.” “she is married to József Szájer, a founding member of the ruling Fidesz party and the man credited with drawing up Hungary’s constitution on his iPad”
“because the retirement age [of judges] is being reduced from 70 to 62. Handó will be able to promote more than 200 judges to the most senior positions.”
“[Hando] has been just given a nine-year term of office. And that, even after that term is up, this hugely powerful figure will simply remain in office unless a successor can command a two-thirds majority in the country’s parliament.”
Well, that is today’s Hungary and Hungarian democracy in a nutshell.

kormos
Guest

The Guardian article start like this
“Imagine a European country where one person can pick the judges. And effectively sack them or transfer them to other courts. And draw up court rules. And initiate legislation on the courts. And hold some 60 other specified legal powers.”
I do not believe that this person (the author) is well informed.

Member

@kormos
Imagine a …
European country – Check
where one person can pick the judges – Check
And effectively sack them or transfer them to other courts – Check
And draw up court rules – Check
And initiate legislation on the courts – Check
And hold some 60 other specified legal powers – OMG! Don’t tell me it’s 59 ..
“I do not believe that this person (the author) is well informed”
Thank you for your thorough analysis. We’ll keep your expert opinion in mind.
By the way well informed about what? The Swedish liquor prices?

peter litvanyi
Guest

“If these provisions remain on the books, the Hungarian judiciary will be condemned by all international judicial forums”
So it should be. The new “constitution” happens to be a bit unconstitutional to anyone sane.
Sincerely:
Peter Litvanyi

Living with it in Hungary
Guest
Living with it in Hungary

@kormos, humm reads like the report so whats the problem with the article?

Living with it in Hungary
Guest
Living with it in Hungary

What happens if she resigns or get hit by a bus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_factor) and they can’t get a 2/3 majority on the successor?

Guest
London Calling! If Handó falls under the proverbial bus (a very perspicacious observation Living-With-It-In-Hungary!) then Orban says the National Judicial Council will decide. But these are his (or Hando’s) placemen and even if Orban fall’s under the proverbial bus and there is an election (or an election for any reason) then the conflict of interest echoes on and on and…. So in England we talk about the ‘long arm of the law’ for its far-reaching penetration of justice. In Hungary it will be ‘the long arm of Orban and Fidesz’ for its far-reaching penetration of injustice. The ramifications will rumble on for years – as corruption cases – an inevitable corollary of what appears to be the nasty smells of corruption in the present government – are proceeded with. In addition, with the unusual (and religiously bigoted) element of religiousness in the Constitution – then minorities had better watch out if they ever come to the attention of the courts. It will inevitably lead to accusations of religious bias. Which of course it will be. The judges will slowly slowly slowly become an arm of Catholicism too – if they are not already. That old reactionary Roman Catholic duffer Maffy… Read more »
riviera1
Guest

Hungary–Back to the Past at the speed of Insanity.
Tribalism is returning. Those around the Leader will eat well:
others will scratch for crumbs.
After Hungary withdraws from the EU, the brave believers
will/must, perforce, release their Romanian brethren from
their burdens. Garda to the vanguard!
Sudetenland–Hungarian style.

Kingfisher
Guest

n 2002, there was a bomb explosion outside the Szájer’s flat. I remember Mr Sz being photographed wondering around the wrecked living room in his dressing gown. As Eva has stated on this blog elsewhere, there is a strong suspicion that this was an “commissioned” explosion. An acquaintance working for one of the new commercial channels was one of the first one the scene and this is the what the police told him as well. And interestingly, no one was caught and Fidesz has never tried to re-heat the matter again (which is unlike them if it was real.)
She must surely have known about it. Make of it what you will!
p.s. There is not a cat in hell’s chance that Hagyó has been falsely accused. The miracle is that this is the only thing they’ve got him on (which is why the MSZP is not defending him. He is a gangster)

Kingfisher
Guest

Oops, I should have written 1998.
And oops, I just looked on NOL and there is an article saying they ARE about to reopen some of these cases! So who knows?
But for what it is worth, the police who were called in to investigate believe that these particular explosions were clearly staged.

Living with it in Hungary
Guest
Living with it in Hungary

OT Rumor of IMF coming to Budapest rebuffed.
“There is no planned visit in mid-April as of now,” the Fund’s Representative in Budapest, Iryna Ivaschenko, told Reuters in an emailed response to questions.
The piece goes on to say that nothing has changed since January. What ever is supporting the HUF, this has taken it down a notch.

Guest

London Calling!
OT (Finance!)
The Forint appears to be weakening sizeably today since the IMF confirmed no mid-April visit.
Are we seeing the start of the slide as the scribblers realise the let-Hungary-stew-in-its-own-juices strategy of the EU?
Discuss! (LwiiH!)
Regards
Charlie

Guest

London Calling!
Hey! LwiiH!
Our posts crossed!
(Great minds think alike (idiots seldom differ!!)) (Don’t you do any work?!)
I’m just listening to the budget by our Chancellor – so mind is on thoughts financial!)
Regards
Charlie!

Living with it in Hungary
Guest
Living with it in Hungary

Hi Charlie,
It’s hard to say. As one analyst who bought 100,000,000 euros of HU bonds said, they ran the models and the downside appeared to be a 3% yield and as long as that is the case, as long as someone can some how hedge the risk and make money….. But I think everyone recognizes that the risk factors are only increasing so this is a real game of financial chicken.
Looking out on June and Sept, the curves look like 221 and 224 to the USD respectively which I guess reflects a little bit of risk but not as much as you’d think or I’ve seen in the past. Go out a year and it’s 228 so….. But this could all change quite quickly as it did in Dec/Jan. I think OV and his lads have a better handle on how to talk to the markets. But abuse the trust again and all bets are off…

kormos
Guest

@ Mutt
Re:”We’ll keep your expert opinion in mind.”
All six of you? :-))

Paul
Guest

“Hungary will explode soon – I can feel the repression.”
Well, in two years of this madness, there hasn’t been the slightest hint of any explosion. People either like what OV is doing, or are keeping their heads down, or have given up.
There will be an explosion, eventually, but things have got to get a lot worse before people get that desperate.

Paul
Guest

“I do not believe that this person (the author) is well informed.”
So, kormos, are we going to get a justification of this weird statement?
Which part of the arcticle did he get wrong?

Paul
Guest

Some time in the last month or two, we’ve obviously shifted to a parallel universe where money is no problem.
OV’s latest wheeze is to spend 30bn Ft on increasing wages in the healthcare sector – http://www.portfolio.hu/en/economy/hungary_pulls_yet_another_budget_trick.23976.html
Can anyone explain how a country that was so desperate for money three months ago that it was prepared to eat EU humble pie, is now so wealthy that it doesn’t need the IMF and can pull 30 bn rabbits out of the hat, just like that?
Sitting here reading about the UK budget (“millions will be paying more, while millionaires will be paying less”), and OV’s latest financial ‘wizardry’, I’m left wondering if it’s me who’s mad.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kingfisher: “There is not a cat in hell’s chance that Hagyó has been falsely accused.”
In that case Hando shouldn’t have transferred his case to Kecskemét. After the transfer if the verdict goes against him he can go to the European Court of Justice and complain

Living with it in Hungary
Guest
Living with it in Hungary
@Paul, the latest decision to further hit the banks will cause a further draw down on the balance sheets. This will make the country more vulnerable to any negative change in the macro economic situation or the EU finally making good on their threats. I believe the EU is hoping OV will back down because they don’t need another country in trouble yet they cannot be seen as being soft on these issues. On the local rhetoric side of the equation, the draw down on balance sheets is being sold as foreigners pillaging the country when in fact without the foreign capital the country wouldn’t be able to operate and OVs henchmen know this. Again, the banks priced in risk into the HUF loans backed by FX funds vs straight FX loans. Long story short, the banks aren’t about to pack it in but they also won’t be loaning money to anyone any time soon == stagnation in the economy == trouble down the road. The only hope is that macro economic situation improves allowing more exports and export related jobs which would allow the country to grow it’s way out of the problem. This is where Hungary is actually… Read more »
enuff
Guest

Paul “There will be an explosion, eventually …”
This is what I observed for the last two years : when spring/summer is in the air. People simply do not want to deal with reality. They just want to enjoy the sun! With money or not, people plan vacation to Balaton or wherever.
When people are ready to face reality, I’m just afraid might be too late. But I think they much prefer to indulge in new season of Való világ, the big bro. reality show.

Living with it in Hungary
Guest
Living with it in Hungary

More smoke and mirrors..
“Hungary will “automatically” meet conditions for a precautionary financial assistance agreement it is seeking from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union, if it makes fiscal adjustments requested by the EU by June, Fiscal Council chairman Arpad Kovacs said at a forum organised by the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) on Wednesday.”
I wonder what afoot motivating the ramping up of the propaganda machinery.

Guest

Very OT: I just heard that Yvette Boszik has just resigned as the director of Trafó House
(Trafó Kortárs Müvészetek Háza) She took over when the directorship was up for renewal a few months ago. There are no plans for a fall program. Their site shows only four evenings of performance in June, then nothing.
Is this an opportunity to shutter Trafó?

kormos
Guest

@ Paul
I understand if the statement about my believe (regarding the preamble of the article) was looking weird from your point of view. However I do not understand your interest in Hungarian “explosion”, and exciting or advocating other political unrest. I deduct from your comments that your Hungarian relatives are thriving. So what is wrong?

Living with it in Hungary
Guest
Living with it in Hungary

@kormos, as long as the trains run on time?

Mutt Damon
Guest

@kormos I know it’s a difficult concept … but some people actually worry about others.