Tag Archives: European Court of Justice

Political interference with the Hungarian judiciary

Fidesz politicians have a penchant for creating situations that call attention time and again to the fact that something is very wrong with democracy in Hungary. We have discussed on numerous occasions the many unconstitutional laws enacted by the Hungarian government that have been criticized by both foreign and domestic legal bodies. I don’t think we have to repeat what Kim Lane Scheppele has so eloquently told us over the years about these issues. Instead I would like to talk about a much less complicated case, one understandable even by those who have no knowledge of constitutional law or the intricacies of the legal systems of Hungary and the European Union. I’m talking about the Rezešová case.

Eva Rezešová is a very rich woman of Hungarian extraction from Slovakia. Driving while intoxicated, she had a very serious car accident in Hungary on August 23, 2012. Her BMW ran into another car carrying four people. All were killed. The public outcry was immediate and widespread.

I must say that I didn’t follow the Rezešová trial because I didn’t think that it could possibly have political ramifications. After all, it was an ordinary, if tragic, car accident. But Fidesz politicians manage to muddy (or, better, taint) the legal waters even in seemingly straightforward cases.

Rezešová was brought to trial, found guilty, sentenced to six years, and placed under house arrest until the appeals court re-hears her case. The prosecutor filed the appeal since he believed the verdict was too lenient.

Public outrage followed the announcement of the house arrest. The Internet was full of condemnations of the decision. After all, this woman who caused four deaths while driving under the influence didn’t deserve to live in a comfortable apartment in Budapest. News spread that her two children, who are currently in Slovakia, will join her and will attend school in Budapest while she is awaiting her second trial.

Antal Rogán decided to join the outcry. He took along a cameraman and delivered a short message in front of Rezešová’s residence, which he placed on his Facebook page. He expressed his disgust and, in the name of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, called on the parliamentary committee dealing with legal matters and on the minister of justice to investigate the outrageous decision that Rezešová could spend her time between the two trials in the comfort of her home. That happened around 10 a.m. on December 4. A few hours later the announcement came from the court, which had originally ordered the house arrest, that they had changed their minds. Rezešová must return to jail because there is a danger of her escape. Observers were certain that there was a direct connection between Rogán’s demand for an investigation and the court’s change of heart.

Antal Rogán in front of Eva Rezešová's apartment house / mandiner.hu

Antal Rogán in front of Eva Rezešová’s apartment house / mandiner.hu

This may not be the case. The prosecutor appealed the case and also asked the court to reverse its decision on the issue of the house arrest. So, it is entirely possible that Rogán’s instructions to the parliament and the ministry just happened to coincide with the court’s announcement. Whatever the case, it doesn’t look good. It looks as if in Hungary politicians give instructions to the judiciary and these instructions are promptly obeyed.

Why did Rogán try to influence the court’s decision? Is he that ignorant of the notion of the separation of powers in a democracy? It’s hard to imagine. People consider Rogán one of the brighter politicians around Viktor Orbán. Perhaps as the national election approaches the Orbán government is ready to ignore the “fine points” of democracy as long as a gesture like Rogán’s is appreciated by the majority of the people. And, believe me, it is appreciated. On Facebook one can read hundreds and hundreds of comments thanking Rogán for “doing the right thing.” After all, if the judges don’t know what decency is, here is a man who does and who instructs them to make the right and just decision.

The Association of  Judges reacted immediately and pointed out that Rogán’s statement may give the impression of undue influence on the judiciary. The Association felt it necessary to defend the judges against any such interference. It announced that the Association cannot tolerate “expectations expressed by politicians in cases still pending.” The president of the Hungarian Bar Association found it “unacceptable that a politician expresses his opinion on a case before the final verdict.” He called Rogán’s action “without precedent.” And today even the chief justice of the Kúria (Supreme Court) alluded to the case without mentioning Rogán’s name or the Rezešová case. The issue came up in a speech by Chief Justice Péter Darák welcoming the new clerks and judges. He warned them never to fall prey to outside influences.

It is possible that Rogán’s ill-considered move  may have serious practical consequences. For example, what if Rezešová’s lawyer eventually decides to turn to the European Court of Justice claiming political influence in the verdict of the appellate court? It will be very difficult to prove that the two events occurring on the same day had nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

And there are other clouds looming over the Hungarian government with regard to its constant interference with the judiciary. Two days ago the Constitutional Court found the practice the Orbán government introduced of transferring cases from one court to another unconstitutional. This is not the first time the Constitutional Court ruled on the issue, but every time it found the law unconstitutional the government smuggled the same provision into either the constitution or some other law. Meanwhile the head of the National Judiciary Office (OBH), Tünde Handó, kept transferring practically all political cases at will to the far corners of the country to courts that she most likely considered to be partial to the government’s position. In 2011 thirteen and 2012 forty-two such cases were assigned to non-Budapest courts. These cases are still pending.

There are two possibilities now. One is to stop all the proceedings and start the cases over again, this time in the courts to which they by law belong. The second possibility is to proceed as if the Constitutional Court never spoke and have the courts hand down verdicts that will most likely be found null and void by the European Court of Justice. If I were the Hungarian government, I would opt for the former.

Testimony on the situation of Roma in Hungary by the European Roma Rights Centre

For consideration by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, U.S. Helsinki Commission

The situation of Roma in Hungary

Human rights NGOs have consistently reported that Roma in Hungary are discriminated against in almost all fields of life, particularly in employment, education, housing, health care, and access to public places. Yet government representatives maintain that the problems faced by Roma relate to their economic and social difficulties, rather than racism and prejudice against Roma in Hungary. A similar view of the Hungarian authorities has been noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in its report following a mission to Hungary.

In January 2013, following a complaint initiated in 2005 by two Romani people represented by the Chance for Children Foundation and the ERRC, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Hungary violated the European Convention on Human Rights in a case challenging the segregated education of Romani children in a special school. The Court underlined that there was a long history of wrongful placement of Romani children in special schools in Hungary and that the State must change this practice. The Court concluded that ‘positive obligations incumbent on the State in a situation where there is a history of discrimination against ethnic minority children’ would have required Hungary to provide necessary safeguards to avoid the perpetuation of past discrimination or discrimination practices.

State response to violence against Roma

In Hungary the European Roma Rights Centre examined the progress in 22 known cases of violence against Roma. In these incidents seven people died, including a five-year old boy, and a number of individuals were seriously injured. Ten Romani homes were set on fire with various levels of destruction. Guns were involved in 10 of the examined cases and in two cases hand- grenades were used. Out of the 22 attacks, nine, resulting in six deaths, are believed by police to have been committed by the same four suspects who are currently on trial.

Police misconduct and procedural errors were documented during the investigation of one of the violent crimes against Roma, as raised by NGOs and later confirmed by the Independent Police  Complaints Committee and by the Head of Police. Misconduct by the National Security Service was also found.

In the majority of the cases examined, the information provided by State authorities was inadequate. Where information was provided, limited results of investigation and prosecution were revealed. In several cases information was not provided by the authorities, who cited data protection and criminal procedure laws.

The Hungarian government does not systematically monitor racist violence. Police, prosecutors and court officials are reluctant to consider racial bias motivation as an aggravating circumstance to crimes: it is not explicitly included in the Criminal Code (only “base” motivation is included). Hate crimes are dealt with as a separate legal provision but are not linked to other crimes.

In Hungary, there are no specific protocols or guidelines developed for police and prosecutors on how to investigate and prosecute hate crimes. In addition, there is no systematic monitoring of racist violence, or the collection of data disaggregated by ethnicity about the victims of crimes. There are no reliable statistics on the real number of racially-motivated crimes in Hungary: according to available statistics the number of cases investigated under the hate crime provision of Hungary’s Criminal Code is extremely low.

Law enforcement abuse against Roma

Following an incident in 2010, the ERRC and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union represented a Romani woman in domestic procedures and before the European Court of Human Rights. In June 2012 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Hungary had violated the European Convention of Human Rights in a case of police violence against a Romani woman.

In its judgment, the European Court found that there had been a substantive and a procedural violation of Article 3 of the Convention (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment). The Court concluded that the police used excessive force during the incident, and that such use of force resulted in injuries and suffering of the applicant, amounting to degrading treatment. The Court also noted that no internal investigation or disciplinary procedure appeared to have been carried out within the police force concerning the appropriateness of the police action. The Court also found that no adequate investigation had been carried out into Ms Kiss’ allegations. However it rejected the claim of discrimination (under article 14), finding there was no evidence of discriminatory conduct by the police. Anti-Roma demonstrations and statements Romani individuals and communities continued to be victims of intimidation, hate speech and various violent physical attacks throughout the last two years. The ERRC’s non-exhaustive list on Hungary includes eight attacks in 2012.

Paramilitary groups have been marching and organising demonstrations in Hungarian villages since 2006. In spring 2011, paramilitary groups marched and patrolled, particularly in the Hungarian village of Gyöngyöspata, harassing and intimidating Romani communities. Members of the organisation patrolled the town, where they prevented the Romani residents from sleeping by shouting during the night, threatened Roma with weapons and dogs and followed them every  time they left their houses, unimpeded by local police. Human rights NGOs raised concerns and called on State authorities to take immediate action. During these unlawful actions Romani women and children were relocated due to the threat of violence. As a result of racial harassment, and due to stress, a Romani woman in her eighth month of pregnancy delivered her baby early and needed to be hospitalised. The incidents have been reported by the US State Department in its Hungary Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2011 alongside other incidents.

Similar far-right movement activities continued in 2012, when several demonstrations were organised in Devecser, Cegléd and Miskolc. In Devecser pieces of concrete and other missiles were thrown at Roma houses, and one female activist was injured. In an open letter to the Hungarian Minister of Interior and the National Chief of Police, three Hungarian NGOs expressed their concern about the violence in Devecser, stating that by not dispersing the demonstration, the police failed to ensure the rights to freedom, equality and security of the local inhabitants. The Ministry and the police responded by saying they considered the police intervention in Devecser had been adequate.

Incitement to hatred is a common occurrence in Hungary. One of the latest examples was the publication of an op-ed in the Hungarian daily newspaper Magyar Hírlap on 5 January 2013 by a leading journalist and co-founder of the ruling FIDESZ party, calling Roma “animals” that “need to be eliminated” “right now by any means”.   This kind of inflammatory language is especially dangerous in Hungary. Bayer was initially criticised by the Deputy Prime Minister, Tibor Navracsics; Navracsics later defended Bayer, saying that he could not imagine that Bayer seriously thought what he said in his article. Key senior figures in the government, e.g. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and the Minister with responsibility for Roma issues, Zoltán Balog, did not officially condemn the racist article by Bayer on behalf of the Hungarian Government.

In response to the incident, the ERRC joined with a coalition of Hungarian NGOs in asking domestic companies and Hungarian divisions of multinationals to take a stand against racist commentary in Hungary. The NGOs have asked, among others, Vodafone, T-Com, FedEx, IKEA and Procter and Gamble to reconsider advertising in Magyar Hírlap.

To date seven companies have said they will no longer place advertising in the Hungarian newspaper that published the extreme anti-Roma statements. Erste Bank blacklisted Magyar Hírlap after the NGOs’ call, and expressly brought it to their media agency’s attention to “act more prudently next time” when dealing with the publication of their advertisements. They also emphasised that the bank will not advertise in any media whose content “hurts the dignity of others, or uses an inflammatory tone regarding any minority, ethnicity, or religious group”. The leaders of CIB Bank said that the CIB Group will refrain from advertising in Magyar Hírlap and its portal “until the editorial staff categorically condemns Zsolt Bayer’s writing and ensures that both publications are free from writings that include hate speech”. IKEA, FedEx, and GDF Suez also distanced themselves from the article, and stated they do not plan to advertise in the online version of the newspaper in the future.

On March 15, 2013, a national holiday in Hungary which is also the “Day of Hungarian Freedom  of Press” the Hungarian Government awarded the journalist Ferenc Szaniszló the “Táncsics Mihály” award and honoured him as the “journalist of the year in Hungary”.  Mr Szaniszló is infamous for spreading Jewish conspiracy theories and describing the country’s Roma minority as “human monkeys.”

The award was given for “extraordinary journalistic achievements” and was presented by the Minister of Human Resources, Zoltán Balog, who is also in charge of integration of Roma. Balog claimed that he did not know who had received the award, but still handed it over to Szaniszló. Balog later distanced himself from the views of Szaniszló.

Recently, Canadian authorities launched a billboard campaign in Miskolc, Hungary, to deter Romani asylum seekers. The majority of Hungarian Romani asylum-seekers to Canada originate from this town. The billboards around the city stated that “Canada’s refugee system has changed” and that “Asylum claims are evaluated within weeks instead of years”. The billboards further cautioned the public that “Applicants with unjustified immigration claims are sent home faster”.

A side effect of the billboard campaign in Miskolc has been the aggravation of the hostile atmosphere that Romani people have to face every day. The Mayor of Miskolc Ákos Kriza (member of the governing party FIDESZ) stated that, “Miskolc will not welcome back repatriated Roma refugee claimants arriving from Canada”.  A couple of days after his appearance on national television, Mr Kriza announced that he will “keep the criminal elements out of Miskolc by checking whether any of the people who left for Canada also took advantage of social assistance from the city or the central government.” He claimed that he had already found five people who were ineligible and who thereby committed a crime. He got in touch with the police. He will do everything to prevent “these criminals from settling in the city. Moreover, criminals currently residing in Miskolc will be driven out by the authorities.” He even threatened returning Romani parents that the authorities would take their children away and place them under state supervision.

After the campaign in Forró (near Miskolc) anonymous anti-Roma graffiti appeared on houses calling on the Roma to “go to Canada”.

Suggested questions to the Hungarian Government:

Does the Hungarian Government keep detailed data on the number and type of racially motivated crimes committed against Roma, and in particular Romani women, as well as information on prosecutions? Please supply detailed information.

  • What measures have been adopted to bring the Hungarian criminal legislation in line with international standards on investigating and prosecuting hate crimes?
  • What professional training and capacity-building activities have been implemented for law-enforcement, prosecution and judicial officials dealing with hate crimes?
  • What measures have been adopted to ensure that access to counselling, legal assistance and justice for victims of hate crimes is explored, in co-operation with relevant actors?

 

Another round of talks between Viktor Orbán and José Manuel Barroso

Viktor Orbán had a full schedule today: a lecture in Brussels and three important meetings with José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission; Herman Van Rompuy, president of the Council of Europe; and Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament. A pretty exhausting schedule, especially since tomorrow the Hungarian prime minister is flying to Moscow to have a discussion with Vladimir Putin. The meeting will be brief, only half an hour, but the topics to be covered are weighty: setting natural gas prices for the next ten years and possible Russian involvement in the extension of the Paks Nuclear Plant.

In anticipation of the Orbán visit to Brussels, commentators differed in their assessment of what Viktor Orbán could expect in his negotiations. Some predicted difficult negotiations while others contended that after the two-year-long “freedom fight” it was time for Hungary to mend fences and normalize relations. Interestingly enough, Magyar Nemzet‘s commentator predicted a tough time, especially in light of the IMF-EU report released on January 28. The IMF officials predicted that in both 2013 and 2014 Hungary’s deficit will exceed 3%. If the European Commission takes the report seriously, their opinion might adversely influence Ecofin’s decision about lifting Hungary’s Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP). And Viktor Orbán’s political future might depend on this decision. If the EDP is lifted, the Hungarian government could spend more freely in 2013 and early 2014 in anticipation of the election sometime in April of that year. Otherwise, further austerity measures must be introduced.

Viktor Orbán’s meeting with  Herman Van Rompuy was also more than a courtesy visit. As it stands, the European Union is planning to reduce the subsidies to Hungary by 30% over the next seven years. Considering that the little investment there is in the country comes from the EU convergence program, a 30% reduction could be devastating to the Hungarian economy.

Orbán began his Brussels schedule with a lecture at the Bruegel Institute, a European think tank specializing in economics. HVG somewhat sarcastically entitled its article about Orbán’s appearance at Bruegel “Orbán teaches economics to his audience in Brussels.” The very idea of Viktor Orbán giving a lecture on “work-based economies” to a group of economists working for this think tank borders on the ludicrous. I also wondered what his listeners thought when he boasted about his government’s achievements and called his economic policies a “true success story.”

The meeting between Barroso and Orbán took place in the afternoon and lasted a little longer than expected. At the subsequent joint press conference Barroso told the reporters that they talked about the upcoming EU summit in early February, about the 2014-2020 EU budget, and naturally the present state of the Hungarian economy. For the time being the Commission has no definite opinion about the past performance of the Hungarian economy, but by February 22 their recommendations to Ecofin will be ready. There was one sentence here that I think needs more clarification: “We also discussed the quality of the economic adjustments.” To me this means that Barroso and the Commission are aware that the way the Hungarian government achieved the low deficit may not be optimal.

Viktor Orbán and José Manuel Barroso at the press conference, January 30, 2013

Viktor Orbán and José Manuel Barroso at the press conference,
January 30, 2013

Viktor Orbán was more exuberant. “It was an excellent meeting,” he announced. They discussed matters that had created friction between the the Commission and Hungary in the past. He claimed that on the issue of the Hungarian National Bank they came to an agreement quickly. He admitted, though, that there are outstanding issues. Orbán indicated that he has no intention of backing down: the European Court of Justice will decide those issues he refuses to address himself. I might add here that cases the Commission sends to the Court usually go in the Commission’s favor.

Barroso sent a message to the Hungarians about the “rights and duties of the European Commission to insist that all national governments respect the laws of the Union.” The Commission tries to be impartial and objective. The Commission, like an umpire, must enforce the rules and regulations. This comment was most likely prompted by last year’s anti-European Union demonstrations instigated by the Orbán government.

Viktor Orbán might claim that the meeting was successful, but serious differences of opinion remain between the European Union and the Hungarian government over economic policies. The IMF-EU delegation predicted that further budget adjustments will be necessary to hold the deficit under 3%. Viktor Orbán disagrees, but I would be surprised if in the next few months, sometime before April, György Matolcsy didn’t announce another new tax in order to boost revenues.

All in all, at least on the surface, the meeting was friendly, or at least the two men pretended that it was. However, both Barroso and Orbán were careful in formulating their thoughts. In fact, Orbán opted to speak in Hungarian instead of his customary English, ostensibly because most of the reporters present were from Hungary. I suspect that the real reason was to avoid any imprecise formulation of his carefully worked out statement.

Whether Viktor Orbán was hoping for a public promise of support with regard to the Excessive Deficit Procedure I don’t know, but he didn’t get it. Olli Rehn, the commissioner in charge of finance, will have to mull over the details of the IMF report as well as the 2012 economic data submitted by the Hungarian Statistical Office. In my opinion, the 2013 budget belongs in a Brothers Grimm collection. The question is what the experts in Brussels will think of it.