It was more than five years ago that one of the worst natural disasters occurred in Hungary, at the Magyar Aluminum Zrt. in Ajka. The storage facilities gave way and toxic red sludge covered three villages nearby, killing 10 people. The international media was full of the case, and I myself spent days discussing the Orbán government’s handling of the disaster. As usual, in no time the tragedy became a political football. Viktor Orbán and his undersecretary for the environment declared that the owners of the company were guilty even before the investigation began. The prime minister threatened the owners a few days after the disaster: “This affair will not end up the way that was customary in past years…. A new era started a few months ago in Hungary.”
As time went by, however, it became obvious that the fault lay with those so-called experts who in the mid-1980s, when the reservoirs were built, decided to locate them on a spot that was geologically unsuitable for carrying the enormous weight of the sludge. A disaster was unavoidable. The only question was when it would occur. The new owners who bought the facility in the mid-1990s, however, were assured at the time of purchase that the reservoirs were sound. And only two weeks before the accident state inspectors, recently appointed by the undersecretary in charge of the environment, certified that they were still sound.
Five years later the district court in Veszprém found the accused executives and employees of MAL innocent. The 15 defendants were cleared of all criminal charges, including reckless public endangerment.
Environmental groups and the people affected by the disaster were dismayed and Fidesz was outraged. The job of officially voicing this outrage was given to Szilárd Németh, a man with no legal training and a bully of limited mental powers. As was already evident in 2010, right after the accident, Fidesz politicians have little regard for the independence of the judicial branch of government in general, but Németh’s involvement guaranteed that there would be a frontal attack on the Hungarian judiciary.
On the day that the verdict was announced Németh expressed Fidesz’s dissatisfaction with two recent verdicts that didn’t meet their expectations. One was the three-year suspended sentence for Miklós Hagyó (remember the infamous Nokia box?), whom the prosecutors wanted to send to the penitentiary for twenty years for crimes committed as part of a conspiracy. Instead the charge was reduced to being an instigator of misappropriation. The other case, of course, was the MAL acquittal.
The first question is why Németh got the job of dealing with a situation involving the judiciary. Németh has no legal training. He got a degree that prepared him to be an elementary school teacher and librarian. Mind you, the other Fidesz politician who spoke on the issue, Bence Tuzson, does have a law degree. Both he and Németh insisted that Fidesz “finds it unacceptable that no one is culpable” in such a dreadful case. Naturally, they respect judiciary independence, but they want not only “the administration of justice but also the administration of equity.” Németh and Tuzson “emphatically called on the prosecution” to appeal the verdict. According to Németh, the judge was wrong. The people responsible for the tragedy can be identified–the executives and employees of MAL.
Yesterday Németh gave a press conference during which he further elaborated on Fidesz’s insistence on “doing something” about the faulty verdicts in the red sludge and the Hagyó cases. Hagyó, formerly MSZP deputy mayor of Budapest, was, he said, a crime boss who deserved a very stiff sentence. The “judge misunderstood the charge presented by the prosecution.” I might add that Péter Polt’s prosecutors are frequently “misunderstood.” There are two possibilities: either they prepare their cases so poorly that the judge has no choice but to rule in favor of the accused or the charges are fabricated against Fidesz’s political adversaries. I suspect the latter is the more likely.
According to Németh, there are serious problems with judges who don’t want to follow the stricter laws the government introduced as a result of the wave of migrants and instead “run abroad where they ask for a change of the clearly successful new laws.” Németh is referring here to the latest ruling of the European Court of Justice against the anti-terrorist surveillance legislation that would have allowed TEK, the anti-terrorist group, to conduct activities that the court deemed illegal.
What does Fidesz plan to do about judges who don’t toe the party line and decisions that run counter to the party’s wishes? First, the party’s parliamentary caucus will have a discussion on this sorry state of affairs next week, and perhaps the following week the Fidesz chairman of the parliamentary committee on justice, György Rubovszky (KDNP), will put the question on the table. Németh added that, if necessary, the committee will ask Péter Darák, chief justice of the Kúria, Hungary’s highest court, and Tünde Handó, chairman of the National Judicial Office mentioned in yesterday’s post, to testify. In addition, it may be necessary to amend the criminal code to remedy this situation. He said all this while claiming that although Fidesz “respects the liberal demand of judicial independence,” it wants to enforce “democratic demands of transparency and accountability.” I didn’t realize that judicial independence is a liberal notion, but if that is the case, in an illiberal state like Hungary it can obviously be constrained.
Today in a popular blog, Vastagbőr (Thick Skin), a guest blogger, N. L., a lawyer, had a few things to say about Németh’s ideas. According to Németh, the verdicts in these two cases are scandalous, which rightly rouse the indignation of most people. This may even be true, N.L. wrote, but that shouldn’t be brought up as a valid argument against the verdicts because this would lead to the administration of justice by outraged individuals. N. L. very much hopes that neither Péter Darák nor Tünde Handó will oblige the head of the parliamentary committee on justice in case he decides to haul them before the committee. Otherwise, they would violate the law, which states that “a judge must avert all attempts at influencing his decisions.” Their appearance in front of that committee would truly be “the end of judicial independence.”
The Association of Hungarian Judges published a short communiqué, which stated that Németh’s statement “by itself violates the independence of judges declared in the Basic Law” against “exerting pressure on judicial bodies, including the courts.” Péter Darák also made a statement in which he expressed his dismay over the public expression of personal opinions and expectations vis-à-vis the courts. This is especially true, he said, when it is uttered by representatives of another branch of government. Tünde Handó has not yet expressed an opinion.