Tag Archives: Amnesty International

Justice in Orbán’s Hungary: The Ahmed H. case

As I was looking through my old posts to see my coverage of Ahmed H.’s trial for terrorism, which took place in 2016, I found to my astonishment that I hadn’t even mentioned the name of this Syrian man who received ten years for allegedly committing terrorism at the Serbian-Hungarian border. I have often been told that over the years the posts of Hungarian Spectrum can more or less serve as a timeline of Hungarian politics. I’m trying to cover all the important events, but, as is clear from this example, I don’t always succeed.

The omission is especially egregious because Ahmed’s alleged terrorism case was one of the pretexts for the government’s attempt to introduce a new category of emergencies that could be declared in the event of a “situation created by a terrorist threat.” Ahmed’s arrest and the subsequent charge of terrorism against him were followed by an unprecedented hate campaign against migrants. This Syrian man from Cyprus, where he has been living legally for the last ten years, became a symbol for all those vicious terrorists who want to overrun Hungary. The only problem with the Hungarian government’s plan was that the terrorism case against Ahmed H. was mighty weak.

Even if I missed covering the original trial, I can now make up for it, at least in part, by reporting on the ruling of the appellate court on June 15 and by recalling some of the events that led to the news that Ahmed has a second chance to receive a fair trial. The appellate court found the work of the court of first instance so flawed that the whole case must be retried–and not, as the judge made clear, by the same panel of judges.

Representatives of such civic organizations as Amnesty International and Migszol, a group formed at the time of the refugee crisis in Hungary in the summer of 2015, have been calling Ahmed H.’s trial a “conceptual show trial.” Looking through the available documents, one thing is sure. The Orbán government very much wanted to find someone guilty of terrorism. It needed such a verdict for its anti-migrant drive. Ahmed seemed to fit the bill. He had a bullhorn and was talking to the crowd in several languages, including English. He allegedly incited the crowd to violence, repeatedly threatened the security forces, and then joined the disturbances that took place on September 16, 2015. He was also charged with illegally crossing the border. On November 30 Ahmed H. was sentenced to a 10-year prison term.

The trial was a mockery of judicial fairness. The judge refused to hear the testimony of more than 20 defense witnesses and ignored the fact that the prosecution’s main witness, a police officer, was not certain of the accused’s identity. It was true that Ahmed threw a couple of items during the melee, but there was no proof that he hit anyone. He claimed that he tried to calm the people. But even if he was guilty of all the crimes he was accused of, did Ahmed H. deserve 10 years? Gauri van Gulik, deputy director of Amnesty International for Europe, said that “to sentence Ahmed to 10 years in prison for a terrorist act is absurd.”

The spokesman for Fidesz expressed the party’s delight after the initial verdict was announced. He repeated the slogan on the billboards: “every migrant must learn that, once in the country, he must honor the laws of Hungary.” But those outside the circle of Fidesz and its followers were stunned. The United States asked the Hungarian government to conduct a transparent investigation of the incidents at the border that would include an independent civic organization. The government should review Ahmed’s case. As far as the United States is concerned, it will follow the case’s future handling, the statement promised. It didn’t take long for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to respond, telling the United States that criticizing the work of the court may be allowed in the United States but not in Hungary. Moreover, in Hungary it is not the civic organizations that decide on the guilt or innocence of people but the courts. The ministry spokesman ended his harangue by saying that “we can promise one thing: Hungary will never demand an explanation of U.S. court decisions on terrorists attacking American policemen.”

A week before Ahmed H.’s case was to be continued at the Szeged Appellate Court, the Hungarian media reported that Péter Bárándy, one of the best lawyers in Hungary who was minister of justice between 2002 and 2004 in the Medgyessy government, was going to be Ahmed’s defense lawyer. (There is some indirect evidence that Bárándy had been working on the case since at least March.)

Ahmed H. has had four lawyers, including Bárándy. First, he had a court-appointed lawyer. Then a local Szeged lawyer took over who, according to a member of Migszol, “during the trial sat quietly and wasted not one word in defense of his client.” Two weeks before the end of the trial he quit. The accused got another court-appointed lawyer who apparently did at least try to defend his client, unfortunately without much success.

The news of Péter Bárándy’s appearance as the lawyer for the defense was not exactly welcome news in government circles, but it did give Fidesz leaders an opportunity to connect “terrorism” with its alleged supporters, the Hungarian liberals and socialists. In fact, Gyula Budai, the man who in 2010 was entrusted by Viktor Orbán to bring all socialist and liberal “criminals” to justice, gave a press conference in which he charged that the Soros organizations, Brussels, and the socialists are working hand in hand to free Ahmed H. and therefore “they support terrorism.” He used strong words like “while Europe is terrified of terrorism, Brussels is openly supporting it.” He wanted to know “who is paying the lawyer” and called on MSZP to give an account.

Péter Bárándy in the courtroom

At the trial the prosecutor mostly praised the excellent decision that had been reached in the lower court. But he found the sentence of 10 years, the minimum for those accused of terrorism, insufficient and asked the court for 17.5 years instead. It was then Bárándy’s turn, who pointed out that he found 205 serious mistakes in the proceedings of the lower court. Here, of course, I cannot recount all of them. But I think a couple of examples will give a good idea of the kind of justice that was meted out to Ahmed H. A key charge against him was that he was the leader of the crowd that was throwing rocks against the police. A video, however, showed that the rock throwing had been going on for at least 45 minutes before Ahmed got hold of the bullhorn. In addition, the judge ignored the existence of a video taken by a policewoman which, as opposed to other videos, also contained sound and it doesn’t support Ahmed’s alleged incitement of the crowd. On the contrary, he can be heard saying to the fellow refugees “please, wait, stay here,” “please advise,” “we speak English, we don’t want an Arabic interpreter, we are asking for someone who speaks English.” And finally he told the refugees in Arabic, “no, wait, go back, please go back.” The verdict also claimed that Ahmed gave the police two hours to open the border. How did the police know this? He held up two fingers. But this can also mean “victory.” Finally, he was found guilty of illegally crossing the border, but even that judgment was wrong because Ahmed had free access to all EU countries, including Hungary. At the most, Ahmed was guilty of a misdemeanor (szabálysértés).

Ahmed H. with his back toward us is trying to calm the crowd / Source: police.hu

After the appellate court sent the case back to the lower court for a retrial, Zsolt Bayer wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Idők titled “H. Bárándy and Ahmed Péter.” Bayer may seem to have gotten a little mixed up. I assume you get the gist of what he wants to tell us. It was a relief to read close to the end of the article that “we are not going to incarcerate the judge [of the appellate court] or H. Bárándy.” That’s awfully charitable.

Let’s end this post on a lighter note. The management of state television M1 channel most likely was certain that the Ahmed H.’s verdict would not be reversed or annulled. Perhaps he will even get 17.5 years as the prosecution demanded. They decided to send a camera crew to the trial along with their legal experts who were supposed to give live commentary. For three solid hours one could watch the trial. Once the decision was handed down, however, M1 ended the live broadcast in a great hurry. No further commentary necessary.

The reaction of the top Fidesz leadership has been as expected–a complete denial of any possibility that the original verdict could be flawed and a charge that the socialists, the civic organizations, Brussels, and everybody else under the sun are working together to open the borders and let in all those migrants who are in Bayer’s words members of “the terrible mob of Mordor, the Third World.”

June 18, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s next victims: The civic organizations

The Orbán government, at least on the surface, is not intimidated by the growing criticism of and demonstrations against its hurriedly accepted amendments to the law on higher education, which makes Central European University’s life in Hungary impossible. On the contrary, Zoltán Kovács, spokesman for the Hungarian government, attacked those who raised their voices in defense of the university. For example, when Ulrike Demmer, deputy spokesman of the German government, expressed her government’s concern over the amendments, Kovács fired back, saying that it looks as if George Soros can mislead even the German government with his lies. He also called it regrettable that a serious and responsible government such as the government of Germany would make such a statement.

In addition to its legislation against CEU, the Orbán government decided to proceed with its long-planned move against those civic organizations that receive financial assistance from abroad. I began collecting information on this issue sometime in February when I spotted a statement by László Trócsányi, minister of justice. He accused the NGOs of being political actors without any legitimacy as opposed to parliament, which is elected by the people. Soon enough Viktor Orbán himself attacked them. By late March the situation seemed grave enough for a group of scholars from the United States and Great Britain to sign a statement, “No to NGO crackdown in Hungary.” What was remarkable about this statement was that a fair number of the signatories came from decidedly conservative organizations and think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the Adam Smith Institute. Their concern didn’t impress Viktor Orbán, who in Warsaw at the summit of the Visegrád Four countries accused the NGOs of being in the “migrant business,” which would require new regulations to ensure the “transparency” of their finances.

One didn’t have to wait long for follow-up action. On April 2, 444.hu obtained a copy of a proposal that would regulate all NGOs that receive foreign financial support. The reason given was long-winded and confused. Basically, the government was afraid that foreign interest groups might be able to influence Hungarian civic organizations to perform tasks that don’t serve the interests of the community but only the selfish interests of these foreign groups. Foreign-funded NGOs thus “endanger the political and economic interests … sovereignty and national security of Hungary.” For good measure, the proposed bill cited the danger of money laundering, financing extremist groups, and lending a helping hand to terrorists. The complete text of the draft can be read here.

HVG, with the help of its legal experts, took a quick look at the draft and decided that the bill in its present form doesn’t make the affected NGOs’ existence impossible. It is just nasty and humiliating. One of the humiliating items is that every time associates of these NGOs make a statement, give an interview, or provide informational material they must identify themselves as representing “an organization supported from abroad.” The experts decided that this is not as bad as the original idea, which apparently would have called the associates of these organizations “foreign agents.”

Spokesmen for these organizations were not as optimistic as HVG’s legal experts. According to Amnesty International, this new law can have the same devastating effect as the Russian law had after its introduction. Áron Demeter, Amnesty International’s human rights expert, considers the proposed bill a serious violation of the right of association and freedom of expression. Márta Pardavi of the Helsinki Commission regards the notion of “foreign subsidy” far too vague. It looks as if even EU grants are considered to be foreign subsidies and would thus be viewed as “foreign interference” that endangers Hungary’s national security. Or, there is a fund that was created from the budgets of the foreign ministers of the Visegrád Four countries. Is this also considered to be “foreign money”? She noted that churches and sports clubs are exempt from any such restrictions. Political think tanks and media outlets that also receive sizable amounts of money from abroad are exempt as well, although, as Pardavi rightly points out, they have a more direct influence on politics than, for example, the Helsinki Commission.

As it stands now, any civic organization that receives more than 7.2 million forints (about $25,000) a year from outside of Hungary must describe itself as an “organization supported from abroad.” Each time an organization receives any money from abroad, it must report the transaction to the courts within 15 days. The details of each organization’s finances will be listed on a new website called Civil Információs Portál. If an organization misses this deadline it can be fined and, in certain cases, can be taken off the list, which means that it will be shut down for at least five years.

Gergely Gulyás, one of the deputy leaders of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, invited all those parties that have individual caucuses for a discussion of the bill. At the meeting, held this afternoon, it became clear that none of the opposition parties wants anything to do with the bill, which will be submitted to parliament this week. Even Jobbik said “no” to the proposal. As Gulyás Gergely said after the meeting, “George Soros’s hands even reached as far as Jobbik.” As the Fidesz statement insisted, “every Hungarian must know who George Soros’s men are; what kind of money and what kinds of interests are behind these organizations supported from abroad.” The bill will be voted into law before the week is out.

But, as 444.hu pointed out, by attacking the NGOs the Orbán government is treading on dangerous ground because Hungary in 1999, during the first Orbán government, signed the Charter for European Security of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In the charter we find the following: “We pledge ourselves to enhance the ability of NGOs to make their full contribution to the further development of civil society and respect for human rights and fundamental freedom.” 444.hu predicts that this piece of legislation, if passed, will prompt even greater protest in Europe and the United States than the Hungarian government’s action against CEU.

Given Hungarian political developments in the last seven years, I assume it doesn’t come as a great surprise that one of the key findings of Freedom House’s “Nations in Transit 2017” is that, with regard to democracy, “Hungary now has the lowest ranking in the Central European region,” behind Bulgaria and Romania. The trajectory of Hungary’s fall from grace is shown below.

April 5, 2017

Amnesty International: Devastating report on Hungary

A few days ago Amnesty International (AI) released its 2015-16 report “on the state of the world’s human rights,” which includes a scathing analysis of Hungary’s record. Since the refugee crisis dominated public discourse in the European Union during this period, AI paid special attention to Viktor Orbán’s policies regarding the refugees who gathered at the southern border of the country. AI describes Hungary as a country that “led the way in refusing to engage with pan-European solutions to the refugee crisis” and opted instead to seal its borders. The report stresses the anti-Muslim rationale for Hungary’s refusal to admit refugees.

AI’s report deals with four problem areas: (1) refugees, (2) freedom of association, (3) discrimination against the Roma population, and (4) freedom of religion. The space devoted to Hungary is fairly long. It begins with the statement that, according to a report compiled by the Eötvös Károly Institute, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, “the replacement of judges of the Constitutional Court and the 2010 constitutional amendments undermined the Court’s independence.” Thus, the whole legal foundation of the country is flawed.

The report traces out the stages of fence-building and the amendments to the Asylum Law. AI comes to the conclusion that “the application of the law could lead to the violation of Hungary’s obligation of non-refoulement,” a practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they may be subjected to persecution.

The AI report also points to the fact that “NGOs critical of government policies faced harassment and threats of losing their registration.” The section on discrimination against the Roma lists several court cases, including the so-called “Numbered Streets” neighborhood in Miskolc, which is still pending because of the municipality’s appeal. As far as freedom of religion is concerned, the Hungarian government, although it should have changed the 2011 Church Law to comply with a 2014 European Court of Human Rights judgment, has done nothing and therefore “freedom of religion continues to be restricted” in Hungary.

It’s not a pretty picture, and Júlia Iván, director of Amnesty International Hungary, expanded the list of complaints by pointing out that the Hungarian government in the past six or seven years has done everything in its power to deny assistance to and protection of refugees. Moreover, the Hungarian government incited a level of xenophobia in its citizens that is becoming something of a record in the western world. “Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan, and other similar populists dehumanize whole groups of people and make them scapegoats,” says Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, as quoted in Magyar Nemzet.

I’m sure that those of us who are familiar with the refugee record of the Hungarian government could have anticipated the findings of AI. So I will move on to the Orbán government’s reaction to AI’s assessment.

No more than a couple of hours after the Hungarian media began reporting on AI’s analysis of the Hungarian situation Magyar Idők published an article about Amnesty International which, according to the Government Information Center, encourages “the violation of the law of illegal immigrants.” This is especially unacceptable because “the government is only trying to defend the rights of European citizens and Hungarian families.”

A few days later Magyar Idők continued its attack on Amnesty International. It repeated Fidesz’s accusation that George Soros, who helps fund AI, was behind the negative report on Hungary. It also speculated about another reason for AI’s negative view of the Hungarian situation. The bad report card was expected because the Hungarian parliament will soon debate the government’s new proposals on restricting the free movement of migrants whose status is still pending. Of course, this is a ridiculous accusation since such a lengthy report cannot be put together in a couple of weeks and the new government proposals are of fairly recent vintage.

Röszke, September 8, 2015 / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Béla Nagy

Today Magyar Idők once again returned to the topic of Amnesty International, arguing that last year the organization inundated the office of László Székely, the Hungarian ombudsman, with complaints. In one year the poor man had to deal with 7,500 complaints. Of that number 2,600 dealt with immigration. Only ten of these complaints came from Hungary, the rest arrived from abroad. Surely, Magyar Idők wrote, AI is behind this deluge of mail. Associates of the ombudsman’s office said that among the letters there were even some written in English, German, French, and Spanish. The associates proudly announced that all the complaining letters were answered in the appropriate language.

Reporters from the government paper confronted Áron Demeter, who deals with human rights violations for Amnesty International Hungary. Why does Amnesty International encourage its followers to write such letters? Demeter’s explanation was that HHC had asked the ombudsman to turn to Hungary’s Constitutional Court on the question of the government’s criminalization of irregular border crossings. They hoped that as a result of receiving so many letters the ombudsman would be moved to act. But the letters didn’t change the ombudsman’s mind. Magyar Idők’s reporter didn’t hide his disapproval of such “pressure tactics.” Demeter explained that ever since its foundation AI has undertaken letter-writing campaigns to authorities that keep innocent victims incarcerated. In many cases, he added, this tactic had proved to be successful.

That explanation didn’t impress Magyar Idők’s reporter, who kept repeating that the behavior of AI was unconscionable. Their letter writers burden the already overworked ombudsman, who is supposed to represent those citizens who have grievances and who seek remedies from the offending authorities.

Finally, I would like to call attention to a short video that records complaints of police brutality along the Serbian-Hungarian border.

If the stories are true, and I fear they are, one can only be ashamed of what’s going on in the “center of Europe,” as Hungarians like to refer to their country’s geographic position.

February 25, 2017

The first stop in the European Union: Refugees keep arriving in Hungary

The refugees keep coming despite the fact that the Hungarian parliament passed amendments to the law on refugees, making it a great deal more stringent. The government is so eager to have this piece of legislation in place that it asked János Áder to sign it as soon as possible. It can’t, of course, solve the refugee crisis either in Hungary or elsewhere in Europe.

A headline in one of the Hungarian papers proclaimed: Leaders of the Catholic Church offer their help to the government in solving the refugee problem. I couldn’t believe my eyes. But then I read the whole article. It was the Czech Catholic Church, not the Hungarian. The latter, as far as I know, has done nothing. The same holds true for the Calvinists. The only exception is the small Hungarian Lutheran Church, which gave a modest amount of money to one of the few charitable organizations involved. And, as usual, Gábor Iványi, head of the Methodist Magyarorszáagi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség, not officially recognized as a church in Hungary, became involved.

There are charitable and kind-hearted Hungarians

Concerned citizens who find Viktor Orbán’s hate campaign against the refugees unacceptable have organized and begun collecting food and clothing for the “unfortunate people” (szerencsétlenek), as volunteers usually refer to them. The first such group was formed in Szeged, close to the Serbian border, where the refugees usually start their journey either to Debrecen or more often toward the West by train. MÁV, the Hungarian State Railways, made the refugees’ stay in Szeged difficult by locking up the waiting rooms for the night. That meant that the refugees, often with small children, had to spend the night outside, trying to sleep on the pavement. It was at this point that concerned citizens, many of them from the university with English-language skills, came to the rescue. At first there were no more than a handful of people, including a professor of medicine who is of Syrian origin, but by now hundreds are at work who have given food and clothing to those in need. The babies received diapers and the children toys.

What the refugees also need, and what the Hungarian authorities don’t provide them with, is information. After they are registered, they receive a document written only in Hungarian that allows them to board a train to one of the refugee camps. But how to get there is sometimes unclear even to the natives. For example, in Szeged the volunteers who call themselves Migráns Szolidaritás, or MigSzol, didn’t know that in order to travel from Szeged to Debrecen one has to change trains in Cegléd. Or, I heard about lost refugees who were supposed to travel to the Western Station in Budapest, but no one told them that because of renovations the station is closed and the train stops elsewhere. The result was that a group of refugees wandered around the station, not knowing where they were and how to get to their destination.

A group similar to MigSzol was formed in Cegléd. The Szeged and Cegléd groups are in constant communication. The Szeged activists phone ahead to Cegléd, telling them when the refugees will arrive, and the Cegléd group waits for them at the railroad station. These groups already have more than 2,800 members on Facebook. They have helped at least 700 people in Cegléd alone.

Amnesty International just released a report titled Europe’s borderlands: Violations against refugees and migrants in Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary which states that “refugees who make the perilous journey [via the Balkan route] are met with both violence and indifference by the authorities.” The refugees, greeted with such kindness on the part of Hungarian volunteers, are extremely grateful.

Neo-Nazis’ hate campaign against the refugees

This is the laudatory side of Hungary but, unfortunately, there are many who loathe the refugees, especially since the prime minister has for months been inciting hatred and fear of the refugees and has repeated time and again that he will defend the country from these intruders.

On Sunday night Jobbik organized a demonstration near the Debrecen refugee camp where Gergely Kulcsár, a Jobbik MP, spoke. As a reminder, it was Gergely Kulcsár who spat on the shoes placed on the bank of the Danube in memory of those Hungarian Jews who were shot and thrown into the Danube in late 1944. Although the demonstration was peaceful, according to one journalist who was present, right after the singing of the national anthem a few people complained loudly about the “black apes” inside the camp.

In Szeged 50 or 60 members of another neo-Nazi organization called the Army of Outlaws (Betyársereg) decided to put the fear of God into those civilians and refugees who are staying around the railroad station. I wrote about this group in 2011. Fortunately, in Szeged, unlike in Cegléd, the policemen guard both the refugees and the activists 24/7. Since there were about as many policemen as outlaws, nothing serious happened although, according to the report, the situation was tense for a while. The Szeged group has been in existence only for eight days, but there have already been three incidents around the railroad station.

Members of the Army of Outlaws arrived in Szeged

Members of the Army of Outlaws arrived in Szeged

The policemen cannot be everywhere, and in one of the villages along the border there is a young mayor, László Toroczkai, who is doing his best to stir up sentiment against the refugees. Toroczkai’s career began in MIÉP, an anti-Semitic far-right group, in 1998, but on the side he also organized a paramilitary organization, Special Unit of the Sons of the Crown, and later the Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (HIVM/Youth Movement of the Sixty-four Counties), a reference to Greater Hungary’s counties. Because of the irredentist propaganda he conducted in Serbia and Romania he has been banned by both countries. In 2013 he was elected mayor of Ásotthalma in a by-election. I wrote a post about Toroczkai’s career, from the siege of the television station where he was one of the leaders of the football hooligans to the mayoralty.

Toroczkai is now in his element. He seems to know English because I’ve encountered him in several foreign-language articles as someone who informs journalists about the situation along the border. He is also busy on Facebook, where he writes not always truthful stories about the alleged atrocities committed by the refugees. One of his posts on Facebook described a situation in which a group of migrants sat down under a tree on the property of a farmer. According to Toroczkai, the mother who was alone in the house with two small children asked them to leave but they refused. An incredible number of hateful comments appeared immediately after Toroczkai’s short description of the alleged encounter. A reporter for a local paper visited the farmer’s wife, and it turned out that the family actually gave the refugees food and water who then peacefully settled in the shade of the tree and waited peacefully for the police to arrive.

And the “experts” in service of the government

But there are more dangerous propagandists who can influence public opinion through the media. One is György Nógrádi, a university professor and an expert on national security matters. He is a great supporter of a fence or a wall. He gives dozens of interviews and is the favorite man of the state radio and television stations. Even the liberal ATV made the mistake of inviting this windbag for a so-called conversation with another expert on national security.

Then there is László Földi, a former intelligence officer, who poses as an “expert on the secret service.” He is certain that the present refugee crisis is actually part of a war between the Islamic State and civilized Europe. In his opinion the leaders of IS want to conquer and convert the entire world. Their first move is to invade Europe. “This is war,” which can be handled only by warlike methods. This nonsense was uttered on, of all places, Olga Kálmán’s “Egyenes beszéd” (Straight Talk). Kálmán, looking grave, kept nodding. Mind you, Földi was also certain that last fall’s demonstrations were organized by the CIA to overthrow Viktor Orbán’s government.

People like Nógrádi and Földi are more dangerous by virtue of being “experts” in their chosen fields. I’m greatly disappointed in ATV, which gave a platform to these hatemongers.

Zoltán Kovács, Viktor Orbán’s international spokesman in Brussels

Today I will try to squeeze three topics into one post. Two will be short, more like addenda to earlier pieces. The third subject of today’s post is new: the stormy meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on Hungary.

The Albert Wass Library in Tapolca

As one of our readers pointed out, György Konrád incorrectly said that the János Batsányi Library was renamed after Elemér Vass, a lesser known Hungarian painter, that it was instead named after Albert Wass. The reader was correct. Moreover, what Konrád left out of his brief story at the very end of his interview with Olga Kálmán on “Egyenes beszéd” was that the name change actually took place in 2006. Tapolca’s town council has had a solid Fidesz majority for years. Why the city fathers decided in 2006 that Albert Wass was a more important representative of Hungarian literature than János Batsányi is a mystery to me. Anyone who’s unfamiliar with the works and politics of Albert Wass should read my summary of his activities.

The Gala Event at the Ferenc Liszt Academy

A friend who lives in the United States happens to be in Budapest at the moment. Her family’s apartment is very close to the Ferenc Liszt Academy, so she witnessed the preparations for the arrival of Viktor Orbán at the Academy, where he delivered a speech at the unveiling of the Hungarian “miracle piano.” According to her, there was no parking either on Nagymező utca or on Király utca. The police or, more likely TEK, Orbán’s private bodyguards despite being called the Anti-Terror Center, set up three white tents equipped with magnetic gates, the kind that are used at airports. The distinguished guests had to go through these gates before they could share the same air as Hungary’s great leader. By six o’clock the TEK people, in full gear, had cordoned off a huge area. Hungary’s prime minister is deadly afraid. Earlier prime ministers never had a security contingent like Viktor Orbán has now. I remember that Ferenc Gyurcsány used to jog with scores of other ordinary citizens on Margitsziget (Margaret Island) with two guys running behind him at a distance. Well, today the situation seems to be different.

Hearings of  the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs*

The announced agenda was “The Situation of Human Rights in Hungary,” specifically the pressure the Hungarian government has been putting on nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, especially “Okotárs Alaítvány,” about which we have talked at length. That’s why three civic group leaders were invited from Hungary: Tamás Fricz, founder of the Civil Union Forum; Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs Alapítvány; and Attila Mong, editor of Atlatszo.hu. In addition, two experts were present: Barbora Cernusakova from Amnesty International and Anne Weber, advisor to Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe. The Hungarian government was represented by Zoltán Kovács, international spokesman from the prime minister’s office.

Although the main topic was the Hungarian government’s attack on civic organizations that are critical of the Orbán government, during the two and a half hours speakers addressed other human rights issues as well: media freedom, censorship, homelessness, and even Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration statements.

The first half hour was spent on procedural wrangling between the European People’s Party members of parliament, including naturally the Fidesz representatives, and the rest of those present. Kinga Gál (Fidesz) presented their grievances. The EPP representatives wanted to invite at least three civic groups close to the Hungarian government, arguing that after all in addition to the two NGO’s critical of the government, Ökotárs and Átlátszó.hu, there were two international organizations (Council of Europe and Amnesty International) represented. They failed to convince the majority, however, and therefore only Tamás Fricz was left to represent the NGO that organized two large pro-government demonstrations in the last few years. Tamás Fricz opted not to attend. I suspect that his declining the invitation in the last minute was part of an overarching strategy to make the hearings totally lopsided. Everybody on one side and only a government spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, on the other. Such a situation could easily discredit the proceedings. However, as it turned out, it was Zoltán Kovács himself who was discredited, though not before the EPP MEPs had walked out of the hearings.

Zoltán Kovács

Zoltán Kovács

I will not go into the content of the speeches since the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with the problems that exist in Hungary today as far as human rights issues are concerned. Instead, I would like to concentrate on Zoltán Kovács’s representation of the Hungarian position.

All the participants delivered their speeches in English with the exception of Zoltán Kovács, whose English is actually excellent, but, as he admitted later to György Bolgár, he decided to speak in Hungarian so his words wouldn’t have to be translated. In brief, Kovács’s message was addressed not so much to those present at the meeting but rather to Hungarians at home who could admire his effective defense of their government. The trouble was that what he considered to be simply a vigorous defense turned out to be aggressive and disrespectful. Calling the hearings of an EP committee “the fifth season of a soap opera” did not go over well, to put it mildly, especially since he added that “by now neither the actors nor the script writer knows what means what and what they want to say.” He called the charges against the Hungarian government “half truths or outright lies” and said that the members present were prejudiced against his country.

The reaction was predictable. Many of those who spoke up reacted sharply to Kovács’s speech. They were outraged that Kovács talked about the European Parliament, which “represents 500 million inhabitants of the European Union, in such a manner.” It was at this point that Péter Niedermüller (DK) told Kovács that as a result of his behavior “you yourself became the protagonist of these hearings.” Kovács later complained bitterly that Niedermüller spoke out of order, which in his opinion besmirched the dignity of the European Parliament.

A Dutch MEP inquired whether the Norwegian or the Dutch government, the German chancellor, everybody who ever criticizes the Hungarian government is part of this soap opera. Finally, she announced that she is sick and tired of the so-called “Hungarian debates” which are no more than “dialogues of the deaf.” What is needed is a new, effective mechanism that monitors the affairs of the member states yearly. A Swedish MEP “was beside herself”and warned Kovács to watch his words. “The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission all say that there are problems with human rights in Hungary. So, then we all lie?” Another MEP called Kovács’s attitude “contemptuous cynicism” and offensive because after all he said that 500 million EU citizens don’t live in a democracy and that the EP commission doesn’t function according to democratic rules. He told Kovács that what’s going on in Hungary at the moment is “the tyranny of the majority.” Kovács was not moved. In his answer he repeated his charges and indicated that as far as the Hungarian government is concerned “the case is closed.”

A few years back Kovács served as government spokesman, but after a while he was replaced by András Giró-Szász. Viktor Orbán remarked on that occasion that “it is time to see some smiles” when the spokesman makes his announcements. The remark was on target. Kovács would resemble Rasputin if he let his very dark beard grow. One has learned not to expect smiles from the man, although on official photos he tries hard. After his removal from his high-profile position he spent some time in the ministry of human resources responsible for, of all things, Roma integration. But last year he was reinstated as “international spokesman.” I don’t know why Zoltán Kovács was considered to be more fit to be a spokesman of the Hungarian government on the international scene than he was at home. His reception in Brussels was not exactly promising.

*Video streaming is now available here:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/content/20150116IPR09871/html/Committee-on-Civil-Liberties-Justice-Home-Affairs-meeting-22-01-2015-0900