Tag Archives: Béla Biszku

János Széky on secrets of the past well kept

I’m  pleased to be able to publish this essay by János Széky, whose writings on politics I have admired for years. János Széky is a man of many talents. He was originally known for his translations of the works of such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Mary Renault, Nathanael West, and Norman Mailer. Around 2006 he began writing on politics. He has a regular column in Élet és Irodalom, but one also finds his articles in several other highly respected publications. Last year he published his collected essays on politics that had originally appeared on Paraméter, a Hungarian-language internet site from Slovakia. It was titled Bárányvakság: Hogyan lett ilyen Magyarország? “Bárányvakság” is the Hungarian equivalent of Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a rare eye disease that results in blindness (“vakság”). “Bárány” when it stands alone means sheep or lamb. This compound word gives us a fair idea of what Széky had in mind when he opted for this title.

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baranyvaksagThe story of a veteran swimming coach and a retired industrial manager enthralled the Hungarian public for five full weeks through April and May, overshadowing more direct and more important political issues. There have been some aftershocks since, but basically the case is closed by now, so we can draw the conclusions with a measure of confidence. While the story and the response was emblematic and even politically relevant in several ways, it seems difficult to explain the backgrounds to anyone who is not intimate with the depths of the Hungarian national psyche. I will try.

On April 5, 2016 two obscure, sub-tabloid websites, specializing in sensational crime stories, broke the news that László Kiss, 75, head coach (official title: “Federal Captain”) of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, had raped a young girl in a backroom (a “service apartment”) of the National Sports Swimming Pool in 1961. He and his two associates were finally convicted in 1962, and released from prison in 1963.

Thirty-six days passed, then on May 11 Kiss, who had by then resigned from captaincy, met his victim, Zsuzsanna Takáts, 73, in the office of the latter’s lawyer. There, in front of the cameras of Hungary’s largest TV channel, he presented her a bouquet of flowers, asking for, and being given, forgiveness. (But, as Ms. Takáts remarked later, forgetting would be more difficult.)

What took place between the two dates was a real drama, full of mysteries, twists and turns. A huge public debate arose. What made it all the more strange was that the usual dividing lines were blurred; defenders and attackers of Kiss came from both the government’s and the opposition’s side. Not even gender solidarity mattered, as in the social media some liberal-minded women stood up for Kiss, only to be reprimanded by men from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

So why was it so important? Why was it political after all? How come it became news again, 54 years after the court’s judgment was made public? Why did it end more or less abruptly with such a theatrical gesture, while many of the details remained uncovered?

A nation of Olympic addicts

First of all, Kiss is not just a successful swimming coach. His name was largely unknown even among sports fans until late September 1988, when at the Seoul Olympics his trainee Krisztina Egerszegi won the 200 meters backstroke. It was a symbolic moment: the 14-year-old, small and slender Hungarian girl, nicknamed “Egérke” (Little Mouse), beat the wardrobe-sized East German swimmers almost effortlessly (back then, it was only rumored that they had been pumped up on steroids under State Security supervision). Watching television, or listening to the radio commentator’s ecstatic cries: “There’s no such thing! And still there is!,” we all saw it as a triumph of sheer Hungarian talent, charm, and ingenuity over raw Teutonic physical power in the obedient service of a hardline dictatorship.

Note the date: September 25, 1988. Glasnost and perestroika were in full swing in the Soviet Union, but the East European revolutions were still a year away. Hungary was considered a model state in the region, way ahead of the rest of the Eastern Bloc. The institutional and legal foundations of market economy had already been laid. Relations with the West were excellent. The Young Turks of the communist party had already got rid of the old dictator János Kádár. Although most of them wanted to stop democratization before one-party rule was threatened, for many outsiders it was clear they had reached a point of no return (Fidesz, e.g., had already been formed by that time as an independent youth organization). “We are the best around” was the national feeling, and the unexpected victory in Seoul seemed to be a spectacular proof.

It was all about something deeper, however. Ever since the late nineteenth century Hungarians have been obsessed with success in sports, especially at the Olympic Games. First, while the Kingdom of Hungary was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, we had our separate national teams. So the purpose was to show that we are a separate nation, fit for the world’s stage after all the troubles. Later, after the disaster of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), the successive governments, whether authoritarian or totalitarian, used Olympic successes as tools of national-collectivist propaganda to compensate for national humiliation, or lack of liberty, or relative poverty, or all of them. There has been no exception even through the democratic period, so the Hungarian public has internalized it, and found it only natural that we are more successful in Olympic sports than larger, more powerful, or more prosperous nations. There are only a few global lists in which Hungary is near the top (such as tax level or Nobel laureates per capita, at least when country of origin is concerned), but “Olympic gold medals per million people” is the most prominent among them. Here Hungary is an all-time second. And although there are some traditional specialties like fencing or kayak and canoe, nowadays swimming is the only “big sport” (attracting media attention and therefore much money) in which Hungary can still produce world stars.

Out of prison, back to the elite

So one of the first responses to the revelation was that evil and unpatriotic forces wanted to sabotage our swimmers’ successes in Rio. The reason why it was not the only immediate response as would have been natural in such cases was threefold.

First: Many people interpreted it as a covert attack against Tamás Gyárfás, chairman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, whom no one actually likes, and many people would like to see resign. So, unlike in other scandals concerning revered celebrities, a large part of the public tended to give some credit to the news from the very first moment. Second: Kiss’s status had already been weakened somewhat when Katinka Hosszú, the biggest star in Hungarian swimming, and her American husband/coach Shane Tusup humiliated him last January. At a press conference she publicly refused Gyárfás’s offer of c. $45,000 in exchange for taking part in the 2017 World Championship’s publicity campaign. She tore the contract in two and denounced the HSF for providing pitiful Stone Age training conditions to swimmers. Kiss tried to approach her to say some conciliatory words or to ask for an explanation, but Tusup dragged her away before the head coach could reach her. Later it was said that Hosszú would never listen or talk to Kiss during the previous weeks (no one knew exactly why). Kiss resigned immediately (recently there have been hints that he was aware of the danger looming ahead, so this could have been a convenient way of leaving the public stage), but Viktor Orbán himself persuaded him to stay. So he revoked his resignation – for the time being.

Finally, public opinion was divided from the very first moment because it had been sensitized to the issue of poolside sexual offenses by a best-selling book in 2013, in which former swimming champion Nikolett Szepesi described how at the age of 13 she, as well as other young girls, were molested by a masseur, and forced to keep silence by people around the HSF. So when the news broke about Kiss, a lot of people’s automatic first reaction was, “How could they allow this man to work with underage girls?”

Pieces of additional information and disinformation emerged immediately. It “became known” that the victim had died some time ago; that her father was a high-ranking state security officer, otherwise the three young men would not have been sentenced (all false). Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist very popular among left-wing audiences, said he knew the case, and the three young swimmers were handsome, easy-going Lotharios (kind of true), while the girl “just liked to screw around” (false), there was no rape (false), and the young men were framed (false). Aczél had been a regular contributor to Hungary’s largest political daily Népszabadság for 25 years; after this blatant example of sexist victim-blaming they would not hear of him any more.

At least one newspaper acquired the documents of the trial from the archives and began to leak out reliable information in small doses, until Attila Péterfalvi, chairman of the National Authority of Data Protection and Freedom of Information, blocked access to the archived and hitherto public documents, using a legal loophole. It was not clear whose data he wanted to protect.

There were some obvious signs of manipulation. People from the Olympic swimming community said that “in the world of the pools everybody knew,” but would not say why they never shared this knowledge with the wider public. Websites published photocopies of the Hungarian Telegraph Agency’s report on the 1962 judgments, and even an AP report that reached the American press. Kiss’s defenders said this was evidence that nothing had been secret about it. What the defenders deliberately ignored was the fact that this happened in 1961-62, when there was no Internet with search engines, so if one did not remember a two-inch story from the back pages of a newspaper, they could only go to a library to find the piece in the back copies; but if they did not remember, they did not know what to look for in the first place.

Moreover, it happened in communist Hungary, where there was no press freedom. So, on the one hand, the press did not cover the truth or everything that could have been interesting for the general public. (Two of the most notorious but unreported sex scandals of the age involved actors, who were not sent to prison, just disappeared from Budapest theatres for a while, and there was nothing about the real background in the newspapers.) On the other hand, it was unimaginable that a journalist would follow the trail of someone sent to prison without a directive coming “from above.” So what the authorities did was simply unremembering the case: never talking about it again, so everybody duly forgot it who was not “in” on it.

Kiss served 20 months in prison, but this fact was obliterated from the known universe. It was not included in Ki kicsoda, the Hungarian version of Who’s Who, where they (that is, he) falsified the facts and “pasted over” the prison term, saying he was an athlete of Ferencvárosi Torna Club until 1961, and in 1962 switched to another club called Budapesti Spartacus; while in reality he was expelled from Ferencváros in 1961 and was released from prison only in 1963 (at least if that piece of information is true). It was not included in the Wikipedia article nor in his professional biography (Csurka, Gergely, Az edzőfejedelem [The Prince of Coaches], Ringier, Budapest, 2012; the author is now the spokesman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation). When the scandal broke, Gyárfás was ridiculed for triumphantly saying that it was not a secret, “anyone can read it on Wikipedia.” In fact, the text of the article had been edited earlier that day.

There was also confusion about the circumstances of Kiss’s release. In his own version, he was set free with the sweeping Great Amnesty. This was proclaimed in March (officially April) 1963, after secret talks with the U.S. State Department, and resulted in setting free many people imprisoned for taking part in the revolution of 1956. The Hungarian communist authorities did not want it to look like a political retreat, so they extended the amnesty to many non-political criminals who served lighter sentences. Kiss was sentenced to three years at the second instance; he was incarcerated in October 1961; by the amnesty order he should have been released after two years, in October 1963. He won, however, the bronze medal in 200 meters butterfly stroke at the National Championship that year, which was held in late summer. So, counting in the training period, he must have been released several months before October. He himself said he spent 20 months in prison; that would have ended in June. So either there was some other intervention on his behalf, or Kiss lied.

It was a living legend, Éva Székely, Olympic champion at Helsinki, the pioneer of the butterfly stroke, who gave the key to this riddle. She said now that she had wanted to take “this talented boy” out of prison, so she went to a very high-ranking party functionary and asked for his release. That functionary was most probably Béla Biszku, who died six days before this scandal broke out. He was the last surviving member of Kádár’s original junta, overseeing state security as well as prisons – and sports. So what Székely herself revealed was nothing less than that she had facilitated the extralegal release of a condemned rapist by using her own prestige, and asking one of the most hated figures of the communist dictatorship for a favor. In any democracy, such a revelation would have ruined her morally overnight. But as it happened in Hungary, no such response came. This is a perfect illustration of three specific features of Hungarian political thinking: nationalist emotions can override all other considerations such as the issue of dictatorship v. democracy; some people, including star athletes, are not just privileged but beyond any political, legal, or moral scrutiny; and finally, these conditions have not changed a bit since 1963.

That Kiss could continue where he had left off in1961 meant that he was not simply released as early as possible, but that he was immediately retaken to the ranks of a privileged elite within the party-state. Meanwhile, the heroes and legends of 1956 were confined to low-paid, menial jobs. (If they could find a job at all.) In 1965 Kiss quit competitive swimming and became the head coach of Spartacus. The next year he was “given individual pardon” by the Hungarian Presidential Council, which meant a clean criminal record, and being eligible for a “service passport”, which meant he could visit most countries in the world anytime, expenses covered. This at a time when ordinary citizens could travel to the West every third year; and for spending money they were allowed to buy a mere 70 dollars high above the official exchange rate – that is, if their request for a passport was not refused for being “harmful to public interest,” as was the norm for people with a 1956 background.

Dark non-secrets

The main argument of the defense of Kiss was that he “created something unique,” with which he more than atoned for his crime. This was not true for two reasons. On the one hand, there was nothing special about him for 18 years after his release, until he had the luck of meeting a really unique talent in the person of seven-year-old Egerszegi. On the other hand, the method which created world and Olympic champions out of teenagers was not his invention. The merit belonged Tamás Széchy (1931-2004), who, from 1967 on, began to train young boys (many of them under the age of ten) with sadistic brutality. Apart from the extraordinarily heavy training load, he kicked them, beat them with bare hands and a massive stick, humiliated them, and abused them verbally. The children were too young to protest (and did not know it was abnormal in the first place), while the parents approved, partly because the atmosphere in many families was just as authoritarian, partly because they saw it as a way to fame and national glory, and partly because in the world of “socialist” sports, the success of the minors meant privileges and material rewards for the parents as well. And the results duly came: after a long slump between 1952 and 1973, one of Széchy’s trainees, 17-year-old András Hargitay, won a gold medal at the first World Swimming Championship in Belgrade.

What Kiss and other second-rank coaches did was to stick to the inhuman training load without Széchy’s sadistic antics (for which today he would be put in prison), while still retaining much of the original abuse of power, though “mildly” enough by now to apply to girls as well. Until 1988, however, Széchy was the swimming coach in the eyes of the public (who knew nothing about his methods), and many people were just surprised that there was another successful coach around. It had the overtones of dethronement.

The day after the old story came to light, on April 7, the Presidency and the Trainers’ Commission of the HSF unanimously voted for the Federal Captain to stay. While sticking to the “crime-punishment-redemption” theme (“I was given a chance, and I used it,” referring to his later successes as a coach), Kiss himself also suggested that he had been framed. On the next day, however, he resigned not only from the captainship but from his position of deputy mayor in the city of Százhalombatta as well (the local swimming pool was also named after him). This was preceded by a large sponsor withdrawing its support from HSF and also criticism from the local government of Százhalombatta, which happens to be dominated by Fidesz. The debate cut across political lines. The “swimming profession” rallying to his defense was not enough. The original websites which disclosed the news also promised new pieces of information, not too subtly hinting at Kiss’s alleged involvement with State Security (while they themselves have been accused of the same). This is another Hungarian specialty: as there has been no thorough State Security lustration like in Czechia, Slovakia, or Germany, and “the public’s right to know” has been largely denied in these issues, there seems to be (or by all signs there is), a large blackmail database 26 years after the demise of the communist régime, out of which compromising facts can be culled whenever it is profitable for its users.

Kiss also announced that he would seek a retrial, so as to clear his name. This is one of the more obscure chapters of the story. Everybody could have told him his chances were less than slight. Who on earth could have advised him to do such a thing, and why? Kiss seems to have been certain that the victim had died, but who could have told him that?

The scandal dragged on. Apart from moral and gender issues, the debate revolved around Endre Aczél’s victim-blaming version (showing that the Hungarian public is much more liberal, after all, than politicians like to think) and also around the theory that the real target was Tamás Gyárfás, the chairman of HSF. Gyárfás is something of an anomaly in the Fidesz system. Originally a sports journalist, in 1989 he started a media company to sponsor a morning political magazine within the state television’s program. The money came from a businessman György Bodnár, returning from the U.S. to Hungary, whom Gyárfás met during his stay in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Games (which Hungary, as well as all Warsaw Pact countries except Romania, boycotted). Bodnár served some time in prison in the U.S. in the 1970s. When in 1994 the weekly magazine HVG asked if he had some ties to the Los Angeles Hungarian Mafia, he said he had no knowledge “of any serious Hungarian group of organized crime operating there.” (It is clear that this network consisted of criminals exported from Hungary from the late 1960s on; and, of course, it had State Security ties.) But that’s another far-reaching story. Anyway, though Gyárfás himself never belonged to the ranks of real oligarchs, his morning magazine Nap-Kelte (‘Sun-Rise’) survived all governments in spite of its definitely left-wing orientation and shabby production, even after Fidesz decided to boycott it in late 2006. It finally ceased to exist in September 2009, half a year before the all-important 2010 elections.

Meanwhile, Gyárfás became one of Hungary’s most important sports officials. He was elected to be chairman of HSF in 1993, and in 2006 he even tried to grab the presidency of the Hungarian Olympic Committee from Pál Schmitt, who was Fidesz’s vice-president back then and later became President of Hungary. (Rumors say the boycott of Nap-Kelte was Fidesz’s revenge for the HOC coup attempt.) And Gyárfás is still in the position now, a year before the 2017 World Aquatic Championships, which involves a $320 million investment. With that much money around, and Fidesz politicians and cronies literally occupying all the important federations and clubs, it would only be logical if Fidesz wanted to get rid of Gyárfás, whom, for some reason, no one has been able to remove from his throne at HSF yet.

Plus ça change…

It looked like another Hungarian scandal that would die off after much excitement, when finally, on May 7, a bombshell was dropped. The victim, who was alive after all, got fed up with the lies, and with her lawyer she approached a reporter from Fókusz, a very popular news magazine program at RTL Klub.

In a harrowing interview Zsuzsanna Takáts, now a retired engineer/manager and a grandmother, recounted how 55 years ago, at 18, she was raped by the three young men taking turns. It turned out that the details were just the opposite of what was spread around. She was not a sex-crazed swimmer who “loved to screw” but a 7-stone, “underdeveloped,” performance-conscious young girl under strict family control, preparing for her university entrance exams. After the acts, during which she lost consciousness, she was told to “wash herself” with diluted vinegar. At that time she was so inexperienced that she did not realize what it was good for. Her stepfather was not a high-ranking State Security officer but a self-employed shoemaker (small entrepreneurship with fewer than ten employees was tolerated; in the economy of shortage, some of these people were quite well off, but politically they were pariahs). Instead of the powerful father moving in to punish the “Lotharios,” somebody first tried to bribe him to withdraw the accusation, and when he refused, unidentified persons beat him up. He responded stoically: it was part of the game, he said, and would not back down. It took several years for Ms. Takáts to recover mentally and physically. Later, when he saw Kiss’s successes, it was as if Kiss was a complete stranger to her.

When Kiss got news of the interview beforehand, he still said it would finally prove him innocent. By that time he had hired one of the most prestigious lawyers in Hungary, Dr. János Bánáti, chairman of the Hungarian Chamber of Lawyers. Dr. Bánáti read through the documents of the original trial, watched Fókusz, and the next thing we know is that Kiss made a complete reversal: he apologized, announced that he would not push for a retrial any more, and withdrew all his claims. His name was taken off the Százhalombatta swimming pool, and he said he wanted to spend as much time as possible with his grandchildren. We cannot know whether decency, painfully missing from several episodes of this story, had finally prevailed, or if Dr. Bánáti had persuaded him to act decently after all, or if he found some details in the documents which made it advisable to forget the case as quickly as possible. RTL Klub also showed the scene with the flowers, which some people found insincere, but at least it was back to what we call European norms and normalcy.

The lesson of the story? While some things have changed for the better in Hungary since 1961, some have not changed at all. In that respect, 1989 was not a watershed. Nowadays the public is much more sensitive to any kind of violence – against women, against children. And, what had been unimaginable until this scandal broke out, people would say they don’t want Olympic gold medals at such a price. Still, it was shocking to learn that those who enjoyed undeserved privileges before 1989 would be protected well after the transition; that information deliberately withheld until 1989 could be withheld until 2016 too. In other words, to learn how much of the communist past is alive and kicking in the form of well-guarded secrets and uncontested false values. This time pure chance helped us. If the sub-tabloid website were better off financially, or if Kiss and Aczél were more decent and did not insult the victim, we would never know what Kiss did in 1961 and how it was hushed up for more than fifty years. But knowing that now, we might never know how many similarly hushed-up stories are out there in the real Hungarian universe.

May 24, 2016

No rest for the weary: A busy summer in Hungarian politics

During the summer everything slows down. Soon members of parliament will leave for their summer holidays. Certain programs on KlubRádió will suspend broadcasting for the next two or three months, and ATV has only skeleton programming. One would think that political life must be really boring in Hungary. Nothing to discuss or analyse. But the funny thing is that there are so many topics worth thinking about or investigating that I simply cannot keep up with them. At the same time I don’t want to ignore them, so I decided to cover two topics today.

The Biszku case

You may recall that sometime at the end of May the Budapest appellate court ruled that the verdict of the court of first instance, which had sentenced Béla Biszku, János Kádár’s first minister of the interior, to a three-year prison term, was null and void. The fault lay with both the Budapest Prosecutor’s Office, which prepared the case, and the lower court judge who most likely felt pressured to produce quick results. Even Ádám Gellért, the young lawyer who was responsible for Biszku’s indictment, had to admit that the case the prosecutors came up with was unspeakably poorly prepared. The appellate judge had only two options: either to throw the case out or to acquit Biszku.

The reaction of the Budapest chief prosecutor, Tibor Ibolya, was not that of a “shrinking violet,” as his family name would indicate. (I saw him in action once with Olga Kálmán and in fact recommended viewing this interview in one of my earlier posts.) In his frustration and anger, he accused Biszku’s defense lawyer of “making a clown with cap and bells out of the court, which, instead of objecting, assisted him.”

The chief prosecutor of Budapest is not the only one who is upset. Ádám Gellért is also frustrated. At a conference held today, he offered a dangerous suggestion: a law should be enacted that would transform political responsibility into a criminal act under certain circumstances. A right-wing historian, Tibor Zinner (Veritas Institute), went even further. He wouldn’t mind having a law that would allow the sentencing of people already dead.

Since Biszku is 94 years old, by the time the prosecutors, judges, legal scholars, and historians decide what can be done with high-ranking communist politicians who may be responsible for the deaths of people after the uprising of 1956, he will most likely be dead.

What’s happening with the Hungarian Gripens?

During the first Orbán government (1998-2002), under mysterious circumstances, Viktor Orbán went against the advice of his military advisers and acquired 16 Gripen fighter planes. The cabinet had been expecting an announcement that Hungary would purchase F16 planes from the United States. Instead, out of the blue, Orbán announced that he had decided on the Swedish Gripens. The decision was suspicious at the time, but it became even more so after we learned that the Saab Group, manufacturer of the Gripens, was quite generous when it came to “convincing” its customers. I wrote about the Gripen scandal at least three times: in August 2007, March 2009, and September 2012.

Now we have a Gripen scandal of a different nature. On May 19, one of the 16 fighter planes was totally destroyed while taking part in an exercise in the Czech Republic. The Hungarian public has learned nothing since about the cause of the accident. The Hungarian planes are leased because the country’s finances didn’t allow for an outright purchase. The original arrangement was that after a certain period Hungary would be able to take full possession of the fleet. But eventually it became clear that the country couldn’t even keep up with its monthly payments. In any event, the plane, which is a total loss, is probably a further strain on the Hungarian military budget. The financial situation of the military is so bad that, as Magyar Nemzet sarcastically remarked, although the planes have been in Hungary for nine years, “they didn’t manage to buy a single bomb for them.”

And then, less than a month later, another accident happened, this time in Kecskemét, the Hungarian airbase. The plane is not totaled, only damaged, but the pilot who had to catapult from the plane, just like a colleague in the Czech Republic, injured his spine. This time, it looks as if the accident was due to technical difficulties. Something is very wrong with either the Gripens or the Hungarian airmen and servicemen, or both.

After the accident in Kecskemét

After the accident in Kecskemét

Imre Szekeres (MSZP), minister of defense between 2006 and 2010, commented on these accidents on Facebook. According to him, perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of flying time. Szekeres suspects that there is not enough money for fuel. The pilot of the plane that was damaged in Kecskemét had eight hours in the air this year. Moreover, apparently it is not known how many planes are actually flyable. Two are definitely not, but there was a third plane that was returning from Sweden where its pilot had received flying instruction. It never reached the Kecskemét base but had to force land in Košice/Kassa. No one knows in what shape that plane is.

The Hungarian Air Force, with its inexperienced pilots and its ailing planes, will soon be responsible for the defense of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Beginning in August, it will be spending four months on a Lithuanian airbase. Since these countries don’t have air defense capabilities, other NATO countries protect them on a rotating basis. We can only pray that no one decides to attack any of these countries between August and November.

The Béla Biszku case

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 judge reads the sentence in the Béla Biszku case

The lower court judge reads the sentence in the Béla Biszku case

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.

Lex Biszku: Charge of homicide and high treason but can it be proven?

I have been planning to write about the so-called Biszku case for quite a while, and this is as good a time as any. It provides something of a break from day-to-day politics. It was way back in the summer of 2010 that Jobbik went to the police to demand an investigation into Béla Biszku’s denial of his allegedly murderous communist past that by then was a criminal offense. The Orbán government insisted that if the legislature passes a law on the denial of the Holocaust this piece of legislation must also include a reference to the genocide committed by the communists.

biszku then

Béla Biszku then

Who was Béla Biszku? No question, he was a hard-line communist who had a rather short but spectacular career in the Hungarian communist party, especially after 1956. Prior to the revolution he was among the lower-ranked party apparatchiks. He served as party secretary in several Budapest districts. Not really high positions. But after the revolution, he had a meteoric rise. First, he became party secretary of the whole of Budapest, a member of the Central Committee, and later of the Politburo. At the same time he was chosen as minister of interior (1956-1961) and later deputy prime minister (Sept. 13, 1961-Sept 27, 1962). His eventual dismissal stemmed from his opposition to János Kádár’s new, more moderate policies. For a number of years he remained the secretary of the Central Committee, a position that carried no real weight. In 1978 the party sent him into retirement at the age of 57.

For at least fifteen years or so no one was especially interested in Béla Biszku, who has been living in Budapest as a pensioner. How did he suddenly become the center of attention? Sometime in the spring of 2010 two associates of Mandiner, a more moderate right-wing online paper, had a lengthy interview with Biszku which was subsequently made into a film. They got permission for the interview under false names and identities. They claimed that they came from Márokpapi (pop. 460), the birthplace of Biszku, as representatives of the village leadership. They would be thrilled if Biszku would come visit them and talk to the people of Márokpapi. The old man was so moved that he agreed. During the interview he called the 1956 revolution a counterrevolution and showed no remorse about the very harsh reprisals while he was minister of interior. Otherwise, he denied any direct involvement in  individual cases that ended in death sentences or very long prison terms.

Béla Biszku now

Béla Biszku now

It was sometime after the release of the film that Jobbik decided that Biszku was guilty of a denial of the sins of communism. In my opinion, Jobbik either misread the law or misinterpreted Biszku’s statements in the film. The only thing Biszku did was to claim that the revolution of 1956 was a counterrevolution, which is no more than an opinion, whether we agree with him or not. So it’s no wonder that Zoltán Fleck, a liberal legal scholar, hoped that in case prosecutors bring charges against Biszku, the panel of judges would acquit him in the name of freedom of expression.

This was not the only attempt to get Biszku’s case to the point of indictment. Another suit charged him with crimes against humanity, but this 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. Crime against humanity is a new addition to the Hungarian juris corpus.

In October 2010 Ádám Gellért, a young legal scholar, brought different charges against Biszku. He claimed that Biszku was responsible for multiple homicides. Gellért specifically mentioned Pál Maléter, József Szilágyi, Miklós Gimes, and Imre Nagy for whose deaths Biszku was at least indirectly responsible. That charge was taken seriously by the Budapest prosecutor’s office and Gellért’s brief was sent to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office for an examination of the charges.

So by late 2010 there were at least two pending charges against Biszku: a denial of the revolutionary nature of the October events and homicide. The Orbán government decided to make the task of the prosecutors and the courts easier. They submitted a law to parliament that made it possible to charge Biszku and perhaps a few dozen other people with crimes against humanity by making it retroactively valid. This law, which of course was enacted, would allow Hungarian courts to treat these cases as war crimes that have no statute of limitations. The law has since been nicknamed Lex Biszku.

Throughout 2012 one could hear all sorts of speculations about what kinds of charges would eventually be leveled against Biszku, but it was only recently that the details of the indictment became known. As we found out, it took a whole year to come up with an indictment that might be able to stand on its own. It looks as if the prosecutors relied on one of Jobbik’s many charges which claims that Biszku as minister of interior was an accessory before the fact in several cases involving homicide. In addition, he is guilty of high treason, illegal imprisonment, and abatement.  These crimes if proven might carry a life sentence.

As time went by, more and more surprising charges emerged which, according to legal experts, will be practically impossible to prove: for example, Biszku’s connection to the firing at civilians in Salgótarján and in Budapest at the Western Station. A total of 50 people died in the two incidents. The connection between Biszku and the Salgótarján-Western station massacres was already investigated once in the early 1990s. At that time prosecutors turned the archives upside down but couldn’t find any direct link between Biszku, who at that time wasn’t even minister of the interior but a member of a temporary committee of the party handling the immediate work of getting things back to “normal,” and the two massacres. As far as we know, no new documents have surfaced since.

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 the Lex Biszku will be impotent if the prosecution fails to prove its case.

Finally, a brief note. It was only a few days ago that I read that a leading prosecutor might be dismissed for incompetence.  We don’t know who the person is, but the suspicion is that he was involved in those high-profile cases which the prosecution lost, one after the other. All were politically motivated, like the Hunvald case involving the former MSZP mayor of one of the Budapest districts. Or former Budapest Deputy Mayor Miklós Hagyó’s case. And these were not the only ones where the prosecution showed complete incompetence.

This Biszku case seems to be heading toward the same fate, that is, if Biszku lasts that long. I’m not even sure whether the prosecution or the Hungarian government believes or even cares whether Biszku’s wrongdoings can be proven. Most likely their only goal is to show how seriously they take crimes against humanity, especially if they involve the communists. Their eagerness in the case of László Csatáry who was charged with crimes against Hungarian Jews in 1944 was a great deal less visible. I think that the main aim is to show to Jobbik and its followers that they take all this very seriously and that their anti-communism can be translated into deeds. Otherwise, the outcome of the trial doesn’t interest them very much.