The following article and translation of the closing statements of Márton Gulyás and Gergő Varga, two arrested activists, originally appeared in the Budapest Sentinel. It is reprinted here with the permission of the news site’s editorial staff.
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The following are the closing statements made by Márton Gulyás and Gergő Varga at their trial on Thursday of April 13th, 2017. The civil activists were arrested Monday night for throwing open bottles of orange paint at the Sándor Palace, the official residence and office of the President of Hungary, János Áder.
Earlier that day President Áder had signed the modified law on higher education adopted the previous week by the Fidesz-controlled parliament with virtually no debate, ignoring the advice of numerous constitutional experts and the wishes of some 70,000 demonstrators who had taken to the streets of Budapest in protest the previous evening.
“Lex CEU” contains provisions that would essentially force Budapest’s Central European University to close its doors. The law was widely seen not so much as an attack on American financier and philanthropist George Soros, who founded CEU 25 years ago, but as an attack on academic freedom, prompting thousands to protest before the presidential palace Monday evening.
Gulyás was taken into custody at the demonstration, Varga at his home several hours later. The two protestors were detained by police for 72 hours pending an accelerated trial ordered by the prosecutors. Charged with conspiring to “breach the peace” and “vandalize a landmark building” the two faced up to three years imprisonment if convicted.
Gulyás and Varga were sentenced to 300 and 200 hours of public work, respectively. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union called the verdict “absurd.”
I’ll be brief because everyone is very tired. I would like to thank the members of the press for being here in such large numbers covering my case. Which is obviously not only my case, but without the press far fewer people would know what is happening in this country. I would like to thank my defense counsel for the speech he gave in my defense. Even I could not have said it better. Thank you. And I would also like to thank the prosecution for expressing so succinctly the charges against me, claiming that my actions amounted to disturbing the peace and public order in a defiantly anti-social and violent manner.
And now the court must decide whether this is what, in fact, happened. This is a question of legal interpretation. Though I am not a lawyer, allow me to address this as the question fundamentally is to what extent must the judicial authorities correlate or in some way coincide with society’s general sense of justice. I am now of the view that it is not a bad thing if some correlation exists between the two. And I must say that in the event my actions really constituted disturbing the peace and public order in a defiant anti-social, violent manner, then I agree with the prosecutor that it is necessary to bring the provisions of criminal law to bear on my action. But in that case I would ask what society should do with its sense of justice which, for many years or even decades, has been continuously violated or when members of society continuously see various groups and individuals who in a provocative, anti-social manner abuse their power and misappropriate public property and other assets entrusted to them. And we can see that in these cases prosecutors never show the kind of proactive behavior that they did in my case.
I would like to emphasize that I am not saying that–in the event the court convicts me–my case can be compared to any other kinds of legal proceedings. That is not what I mean. I regard my case as different from those. I am merely saying that today’s event, and forgive me for the immodesty on my part, but I think that if I am convicted today and given a suspended sentence as proposed by the prosecutor and the court upholds it, it is a verdict on the whole judicial system. What will happen then? Will society’s sense of justice be satisfied with this decision? I dare say, and forgive me for my immodesty, that I don’t think that society’s sense of justice will be restored. It would be nice if it would be. If this sentence were enough to restore society’s sense of justice, then I would head for the Gyorskocsi Street or Markó Street jails and I would promise to stay there for the rest of my life in order for society’s sense of justice to be revived. If this is not going to happen, and I think it is not going to happen, what precedent is the prosecution setting by this judgment? The prosecution, I’ll say it again, that refuses even to investigate the various abuses of criminal organizations.
Representatives of newspapers are sitting here who write about these cases. Today we know about them because there is still a small group of independent journalists who write about the instances of VAT fraud amounting to billions, about the public tenders that are actually deceitful robberies which take place in broad daylight, and we could go on, but I do not want to continue because everybody knows what I’m talking about. People do read the media and learn about these cases.
So, my question is: Is it the court’s intention to prevent such things from happening? I agree with the prosecutors that it is not a good situation when citizens feel compelled to throw bottles of paint as a way of expressing their political opinions. We can agree that it is a bad situation. But will the situation be rectified, and will a dialogue-based, more democratic order result by convicting Gergő Varga and me, or by prosecutors doing their jobs and going after the really serious crimes which today limit the ability of citizens to exercise their basic rights? Those cases should be prosecuted which paralyze this state, paralyze this government, and render the most important public institutions the subject of public ridicule. But instead of ridicule one should feel despair.
So, I ask the court to consider very seriously when it comes to a decision on my case whether a conviction will really satisfy society’s sense of justice or whether a serious investigation by the prosecution of the real offenders will, as I assume, arrest the terrible dissatisfaction which exists among a broad segment of society. Because it is not by accident that 70,000 people take to the streets. You can make people believe on Echo TV, and on M1, even TV2 that the demonstrators were flown in from Prague, because the people have been misled, and obviously European public opinion, even American public opinion, as well as the various Nobel Prize winners and so on and so forth are all misled. You can make people believe this for a short time, but society is not an assembly of stupid people. They know perfectly well that today the power of the state does not serve their interests but propagates its own enrichment and power by robbing the people. And so I very politely ask the court and the prosecutors to rise to the seriousness and loftiness of their authority and kindly initiate the kinds of legal proceedings that will really eliminate what is harming the Hungarian people. That will bring the oppressors and exploiters of the Hungarian people here, where I am standing now. Because unfortunately I am not the one who constitutes a real threat to Hungarian society. The reason I say “unfortunately” is because if the restoration of public opinion really only depended on my case, then, believe me, I would be the happiest person around. But you know perfectly well that this is not the case. Thank you for listening.
I am not a lawyer. I would just like to say that I think that in a democracy our rights and freedoms do not exist merely because some etheric force guarantees them or because they are written down in the fundamental law, which in our case changes rather frequently especially considering it was carved in granite. In this way the freedom of speech is only guaranteed if we use it and if we test its limits. It is not free speech if we say it exists but we don’t use it. It’s like saying “you can be furious but don’t be furious.” In such exceptional cases, like the current one, the two of us, in addition to a third phantom demonstrator, felt that we needed to test the limits of free speech because public life has sunken to a level that can no longer be tolerated.
But all right, let’s accept the arguments of the prosecutor that our action was simply a breach of peace and vandalism, as though thousands of other people weren’t there and hundreds of policemen weren’t standing there that day, and as though tens of thousands of hitherto politically inactive protestors and police hadn’t been staring each other in the eye for the past week. The police would rather have gone home to their families to relax, but instead they were afraid that the crowd might attack them. I’m curious whether under such circumstances this was really just a simple breach of peace, or a simple act of vandalism, which to my knowledge does not generally merit locking up people for 72 hours who, for example, scribble “Russians go home” on landmark buildings, or whatever. Such people are not locked up for 72 hours or given an accelerated trial. The fact that prosecutors forcibly detained us has antagonized so many people that there were two sympathy demonstrations on our behalf. There are so many people present at this hearing that perhaps you are in breach of the peace, except that you are a state organization.
So far it has not been allowed to say that this country is a dictatorship. But what if it really is? Then what will we call it? They say that the expression of my political opinion was a breach of the peace. What will we call what comes later? If what we did is a breach of the peace and vandalism, and every other context does not count, then the basic tone of political expression in the future will be a breach of the peace, and everything else will only be worse. I do not mean that people will be afraid, but that if we criminalize the act of speaking out, then what will be next? Next week they will break up a demonstration because loud noise after 10 pm is not permissible? Will we use violence against a community to sentence Roma? Wait a minute, that has already happened. What is happening to this country? If this court convicts me here today, I will bear this proudly. What kinds of people observe laws that are passed against them?