Tag Archives: Gyula Budai

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

Ferenc Kumin’s encounter with Ágnes Heller

Ágnes Heller, the well-known Hungarian philosopher, is once again in the news. This time on account of a brief appearance in a Swedish television documentary on the state of Hungarian culture and politics, with particular emphasis on the extreme right.

Do you remember the case of the liberal philosophers whom the newly elected (and neither liberal nor philosophical) Orbán government accused of embezzlement? That was in January 2011 when the official inquisitor, Gyula Budai, entrusted with “uncovering mass corruption” on the part of politicians and, it seems, philosophers as well, began his investigation. Budai’s efforts bore no fruit. Of about 140 cases only a handful actually made it to court, and most of those ended either in acquittal or in a light, suspended sentence on questionable grounds. Eventually Budai’s position was eliminated and he was moved to the Ministry of Agriculture where his greatest concern is the price of watermelons.

It took a year before the philosophers, including Ágnes Heller, were cleared of any wrongdoing but not before news of their harassment spread far and wide. After all, Ágnes Heller is a very well-known person and her friends and admirers are influential people. Viktor Orbán and his underlings should have known better than to pick a fight with her. She is both pugnacious and scary smart. Moreover, she doesn’t give a hoot about government threats. If she wasn’t silenced by the Kádár regime when she was officially accused of treasonous activities and forced into exile, she certainly will not be frightened by threats coming from an assistant undersecretary entrusted with  “foreign communication,” better described as worldwide propaganda extolling the virtues of the Orbán government and defending it against malevolent attacks.

I’m talking about Ferenc Kumin who as far as I know is still working on his Ph.D. dissertation in political science. I don’t know how he finds time for his studies given his crowded schedule, which also includes a lot of traveling. Only a week or so ago he was in Washington trying to convince Jewish organizations that the Hungarian government’s support of the Jewish community is exemplary. I understand they were not moved. When he is at home he tracks every word uttered by foreign politicians or written by journalists he finds politically objectionable. In addition, he busies himself with writing an English-language blog and, unlike some, he takes his writing seriously. How much of it is written by him and how much is drafted in some Washington PR firm, I’m not sure.

Kumin’s position is new. He is one of those undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries who are attached to the Prime Minister’s office and who have usurped the Foreign Ministry’s traditional role. I just read an M.A. thesis by Lili E. Bayer (Hungary’s Turn to the East, Oxford, 2013) on Viktor Orbán’s “Eastern opening” in which the author found that only 8.75% of bilateral meetings were led by officials of the Foreign Ministry as opposed to 36.25% by the Prime Minister’s Office!

Every summer Hungarian ambassadors from all over the world go home for a meeting organized by the Foreign Ministry and attended by the prime minister, who delivers a speech. During the very first such gathering in 2010, Viktor Orbán strongly urged all the ambassadors to raise their voices every time they noticed any attack on Hungary in the country’s press.

Some of the ambassadors, especially the political appointees, took this advice seriously, perhaps not realizing that such an ambassadorial reaction, either oral or written, is unbecoming the official representative of a foreign country. I suspect that the old-timers in the foreign ministry were not too eager to follow Orbán’s ukase. Among those who took Orbán’s advice to heart were the ambassadors to Vienna and London. They have been very active and as a result, I’m sure, have made themselves singularly unpopular in the countries to which they are accredited. Now it seems that the newly appointed ambassador to Sweden, Lilla Makkay, who is actually a foreign ministry veteran, has joined them and subsequently received the treatment she deserved.

The occasion for the interference by Ferenc Kumin and Lilla Makkay was a half-hour program on the Swedish public television station about Hungary. The Hungarian government considered it to be one-sided because there were a lot of references to the growth of the Hungarian extreme right. Makkay called Kristofer Lundström, the man responsible for the series in which this particular documentary was broadcast, and complained. Moreover, she was annoyed that she hadn’t been consulted before the broadcast of the film. She invited him for a friendly chat at the embassy, I guess in order to enlighten him about the true state of affairs in Hungary.

Officials of Swedish Television (SvT) found the Hungarian reaction peculiar. They looked upon Makkay’s telephone call as “putting pressure” on them. Earlier, before the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, it was customary for reporters wanting visas to go behind the Iron Curtain to receive “invitations” by ambassadors. But by now western journalists are simply not accustomed to such heavy handed and undiplomatic reactions. Alas, it was not without reason that Lajos Bokros in his October 23 speech called Fidesz politicians “neo-communists.”

Magyar Nemzet, whose reporters supported the Hungarian government’s efforts to influence the independent Swedish Television, most likely found the Swedish ambassador’s answer incomprehensible: she sent them to SvT if they have any questions or observations. The article that reported on the case called it a shirking of responsibility. Obviously, for them, the true independence of Swedish TV is unfathomable.

Meanwhile Ferenc Kumin decided to get involved in the affair. On his Facebook page–because Kumin is also active there–he wrote an impertinent letter to the highly respected philosopher twice his age. Kumin described Ágnes Heller as a prominent philosopher who, “with a background in Marxist thinking … as her Wikipedia biography points out, has clear political sympathies and antipathies.” Thus Kumin “reached out to Dr. Heller to ask her to join [him] in protesting the Swedish documentary and to clarify some of her statements, which [he] felt were factually incorrect or distorting in the way they depict Hungary.” Moreover, he suggested that Heller quote the current government slogan: “Hungary is doing better!”

Ssource Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Source Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Ágnes Heller wrote back. Here is gist of the letter she sent to Kumin. She first thanked him for making her 40 years younger than she is because it was at that time that she was called to account by the Kádár regime for signing a petition alongside counterrevolutionaries. (Here Heller is referring to the  Charta 77 in which about 100 prominent people protested the crushing of the Prague Spring. She was one of the signatories and, if I recall correctly, the only one from behind the Iron Curtain.) She continued: she can give Kumin the same answer she gave to the authorities then. Everywhere, on every forum, she expresses her own views regardless of who is asking her, be it Swedish TV or the Hungarian Kossuth Rádió, that is, if the Kossuth Rádió would ever ask her for an interview. She certainly didn’t quote the slogan “Hungary is doing better” because she doesn’t think that it is true. Finally, she asked Kumin whether he really considers the programs of MTV or MR balanced. What’s going on in those programs is the talk of parrots. She suggested to Kumin: “forget what you hear and occasionally consider that other people’s opinion can differ from yours.”

Yesterday she followed up with an amusing interview on ATV. It is always a pleasure to listen to her. She is delightfully forthright. During the interview she responded to the government’s latest suggestion of jail sentences for investigative reporters who publish audio tapes or videos which turn out to be fakes: “Well, that’s something.” She then stopped for a bit and continued: “this is the last nail in the coffin of the freedom of the press.” I wish there were more brave men and women like Ágnes Heller. Admittedly, she is untouchable. They can ignore her but they can’t silence her, no matter how much they would like to.