On February 7, 2009, a fight broke out in a Veszprém disco. Present were some star members of the local handball team. In the end, one of the players, Marian Cozma, also a member of the Romanian national team, was dead and two others were seriously wounded. It turned out that a group of Gypsies was responsible for the crime. Anti-Roma sentiments, always strong in Hungary, were inflamed. The description of the events as recorded a day after the event can be read on Hungarian Spectrum.
Soon enough the Austrian and the Hungarian police rounded up the suspects and in due course three of the chief suspects received harsh sentences. Iván Sztojka got twenty years; Sándor Raffael and Győző Németh, life.
Cases in Hungary are automatically reviewed by appellate courts. On April 27, 2012, the Itélőtábla of Győr (the Hungarian name of the appellate courts) had to make its final decision on the cases of these three men. And to many people’s chagrin Judge Zoltán Nagy lessened their jail terms. Sztojka instead of twenty years in a penitentiary received only eight years, while the other two received eighteen years each instead of life sentences.
Soon enough a Jobbik member of parliament, Ádám Mirkóczki, addressed a question to the prime minister concerning the verdict of Judge Zoltán Nagy. What kind of message is conveyed to the general public by these, in his opinion, far too light sentences? After all, a world-renowned sportsman was killed. According to Mirkóczki, members of the profession—I guess members of the judiciary, the world of sports, and all men of good will are outraged. “Only the murderers are satisfied.” In his opinion this case clearly indicates what’s wrong with the Hungarian judiciary today.
Viktor Orbán answered him in a way which in my opinion was inappropriate. He told the Jobbik MP that he agreed with his assessment and wished he could share his opinion with him in private but he cannot do so in public. After all, if he criticized the verdict he would give the impression that the government wanted to pressure the judiciary which is supposed to be independent.
That was bad enough, but what came afterwards was really outlandish. A day later, on May 15, Tibor Navracsics, minister of justice and administration, wrote a letter to Péter Darák, the new chief justice of the highest Hungarian court, the Kúria. Navracsics complained about the verdict, which upset public opinion. Navracsics asked Darák “to study the possibility of reviewing judicial practice.” Navracsics in fact repeated his opinion on the matter on the local TV station of Veszprém, Navracsics’s hometown.
Navracsics in this television interview told the audience that naturally he cannot influence the verdict itself. He simply wanted to know “the chief justice’s professional opinion on the practice of the Hungarian judiciary which doesn’t show the severity the public expects.”
If we think about this just a little we must shudder at the very suggestion. First, the minister of justice is putting pressure on the justices, demanding more severe sentencing. Second, Navracsics here suggests that judges should mete out sentences not according to the Criminal Code but should adjust their verdicts to public expectation. If we took this seriously, Hungary would, as Jobbik actually has been demanding, re-introduce capital punishment. After all, this is most likely what the majority of Hungarians would like to see. But for that Hungary would first have to leave the European Union.
Three days later Tibor Navracsics received letters from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and TASZ (Társaság a Szabadságjogokért), the Hungarian version of the American Civil Liberties Union. According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, “it is difficult not to interpret [Navracsics’s letter] in any other way but an attempt of putting government pressure on the members of the judiciary.”
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee very rightly pointed out the incongruity of such a letter from someone who for years taught at a law school. Of course, we ought to keep in mind that Navracsics, although he finished law school, didn’t teach law but political science to law students.
Navracsics felt compelled to answer the Helsinki Committee’s letter on the same day. He emphasized that he as the minister of justice is responsible for the operation of the Hungarian judiciary and if “he perceives deficiencies it is his moral duty to indicate them to the person whose responsibility it is to safeguard the uniformity of judiciary practices, and that person is the chief justice of the Kúria.”
Here I would like to remind readers that the Kúria is simply the new/old name of the Supreme Court. This highest court in Hungary was called the Kúria until 1949 when, following the Soviet model, it was reorganized and named “Legfelsőbb Bíróság.” With the new/old name came a new chief Justice, Péter Darák who, most people suspected, was picked because of his good connections to Fidesz.
Darák showed remarkable independence today, however. He wrote a very polite letter in which he emphasized that “the Kúria finds the raising of such a subject unfortunate because it gives the impression that the Kúria has instruments or competence to interfere with the decisions of the lower courts when this is clearly not the case as it shouldn’t be in a constitutional state.” If the Kúria interfered it would violate the theory of judicial independence.
This letter indicates to me that the Hungarian judges are still jealously defending their independence and that intimidation has thus far been ineffectual. Let’s hope this remains the case. However, the Orbán government is resourceful and is able to change laws at will retroactively which can tie the hands of the judges. So, I’m not terribly optimistic.