Subscribers to Google Alert who are interested in Hungary were inundated today with news items on an appellate court ruling regarding the fate of Béla Biszku, a hardline communist leader of the early Kádár period.
Biszku, age 94, was sentenced last year to five and a half years in prison for crimes against humanity for his role in two incidents in which unarmed civilians were fired on in December 1957. Today the appellate court declared the original verdict null and void because “the original ruling was so unsubstantiated that no meaningful decision could be reached based on it.”
This case has been dragging on for some time, as is usual in the Hungarian court system. I wrote about it some time ago in “Lex Biszku: Charge of homicide and high treason but can it be proven?”
Béla Biszku had a short but spectacular political career in the Hungarian communist party, especially immediately after 1956. He became minister of interior after the revolution but was dropped in 1962 because of his opposition to János Kádár’s new, more moderate policies. Since 1978 he has been living as a pensioner.
How did Biszku, after so many years, come to the attention of the law? In 2010 the old man foolishly agreed to a video interview with two young reporters of mandiner.hu. In the wake of that interview the Hungarian right swung into action. Jobbik charged him with denying the sins of communism. Another suit accused him of crimes against humanity, a suit that was thrown out by the Budapest prosecutor’s office because, according to Hungarian law, one cannot be charged with a crime that was not part of Hungarian jurisprudence at the time the alleged crime was committed. “Crimes against humanity” is a new addition to the Hungarian juris corpus. Finally, a young legal scholar claimed that Biszku was at least indirectly responsible for the death of several leaders of the October Revolution, including Imre Nagy.
At this point the Orbán government decided to make the task of the prosecutors and the courts easier. They submitted a bill to parliament that made it possible to charge Biszku and perhaps a dozen other people with crimes against humanity by making the law retroactively valid. The law came to be known as Lex Biszku.
It took some time, but eventually the prosecutors defined the charges against Biszku: accessory before the fact, high treason, illegal imprisonment, and abatement. Later new charges were added which, according to legal experts, would be practically impossible to prove. One of these was Biszku’s connection to the firing at civilians in Salgótarján and Budapest in December 1957. These cases were investigated already in the early 1990s, at which time the prosecution turned the archives upside down but couldn’t find any direct link between Biszku and the two massacres. At the time of the release of the indictment I wrote:
Although Biszku is an unsavory character who most likely committed an awful lot of crimes, there must be proof of these crimes. Unless the Hungarian prosecutors have come up with some new evidence that can link Biszku to these massacres or can prove that Biszku ordered the justices to condemn Imre Nagy and his close associates to death, this whole Biszku case will go nowhere. Even Lex Biszku will be impotent if the prosecution fails to prove its case.
Well, it looks as if I was justified in my skepticism about the case. First and most important, the court of first instance was unable to prove any connection between Biszku and the events in Salgótarján. Both the prosecutors and the judges handled the historical facts in a rather cavalier fashion. They didn’t explore the alleged connection between these paramilitary forces and the communist politicians in Budapest. They also didn’t investigate the relationship between the Soviet troops and the Hungarian military forces, which is of vital importance in determining Biszku’s actual role in the events. The appellate judge, in fact, instructed the lower court, which will have to take up the case again, to engage a historian whose duty it will be to unearth these details.
The lower court did in fact have a historical expert in the person of Frigyes Kahler, who is a member of an oddly named foundation–“Kommunizmus Bűnei Alapítvány” (Foundation of the Sins of Communism). Kahler started his career as a judge. Only in his 30s did he decide to get a second degree in history at night. His senior paper was on money forgery in the early nineteenth century. In 1989 he became interested in topics relating to the sins of communism. During the premiership of József Antall he was appointed head of the Történelmi Tényfeltáró Bizottság (Committee on Historical Factfinding). Since then he has written several books on 1956. All of his books appeared under the imprints of publishing houses that cater to right-wing authors. In any case, the appellate judge was critical of the use of Kahler as the only expert. He especially objected to the lower court judge’s long verbatim quotations from Kahler’s earlier books and articles. Kahler’s assessment was undoubtedly tainted by his zealous anti-communist bias. There are many other historians of greater repute specializing in the 1956 revolution who could have been called as witnesses.
And there was something else that made the court procedure in the court of first instance questionable. The whole Biszku case was politically motivated. Jobbik initiated the case, and the Orbán government wanted to prove that it is just as hard on former communist criminals as the neo-Nazi politicians of Jobbik are. The authorities dealing with the case knew what was expected of them, and therefore they were ready to force through a verdict that did not stand on solid foundations. Before today’s verdict Biszku’s defense lawyer, Gábor Magyar, felt that under the present political circumstances his client will not receive a fair hearing. He was all set to continue the fight in the European Court of Justice once all possibilities for legal redress are exhausted in Hungary.
And one more thing. At the time of the conviction Florence La Bruyère wrote an article in Liberation in which she called attention to some interesting facts about the case. First of all, there was the relatively speedy conclusion of the case, with the decision rendered in March 2014, just before the national election. La Bruyère also compared the Biszku case to the trials of Hungarian Nazi war criminals. In 2011 Sándor Képíró, who was responsible for the murder of 36 Jews and Serbians in 1942, was acquitted. The case of László Csatáry, another alleged war criminal, dragged on so long that the man died before the trial could begin.
It seems to me that while there are still many conscientious and knowledgeable judges in the Hungarian legal system, there are far too many who are not up to par. One doesn’t have to be a legal scholar, for example, to know that someone with a solid alibi for the time a murder was committed shouldn’t be found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. But such elementary “mistakes” are often made in Hungary. This time, however, a greater sin was committed. The trial court felt compelled, on the basis of nonexistent evidence, to convict someone just because the government obviously wanted it so badly–badly enough to change the law to facilitate it.