Tag Archives: Hungarian Constitutional Court

The Hungarian Constitutional Court delivers a blow to the central bank

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on last week’s news: the unanimous decision of the Constitutional Court regarding the status of the Hungarian National Bank’s recently established foundations.

I have followed and reported on the bank’s highly unusual “business activities,” which included the purchase of valuable real estate with the presumed purpose of making a profit. The best example was the purchase of Budapest’s most valuable office building, the Eiffel Palace.

But the most spectacular venture of György Matolcsy, chairman of the bank, was giving away 250 billion forints to five “educational” foundations. That is a tremendous amount of money, about 2% of Hungary’s yearly GDP. It was especially galling that the National Bank refused to divulge any financial details of these foundations. A year ago, after being rebuffed by the bank on the issue, Bertalan Tóth, an MSZP MP, brought suit against the bank. Tóth won both in the first instance and on appeal: the verdict was that these foundations must give a full account of their operations and finances because their activities are financed with public money. The case then moved up to the Kúria, which agreed with the verdicts of the lower courts.

It was at this point that Matolcsy, most likely with Viktor Orbán’s blessing, made a fatal mistake. With incredible speed a bill was presented to parliament that made the financial details of the foundations a state secret. The reason? Knowledge of the financial activities of an affiliate of the bank might cause financial loss to the National Bank itself. When pressed, Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, explained that the money that had been put into the foundations was no longer public money. It had morphed into private property.

Fidesz’s decision to push this very dubious bill through parliament was in vain. The legislation got into trouble as soon as it reached the desk of President János Áder. He and his legal team decided that the amendments attached to the Law on the National Bank (Law CXXXIX of 2013) were most likely unconstitutional and decided to send them to the Constitutional Court. In cases like this the court has only 30 days to decide. On March 31 they handed down a unanimous decision: the bank’s money didn’t morph into private funds once it was deposited in the foundations. The 250-300 billion forints are still part of the national wealth and as such must be transparent.

The case was so clear cut in my opinion that it would have been close to impossible for the judges, even if most of them are in the Fidesz camp, to give their blessing to this outrageous bill. But the court could have ruled much more narrowly than it did.

The Hungarian media’s primary concern in this case was always the lack of transparency, and therefore the reports that have appeared about the decision usually emphasize this particular aspect of the decision. They rejoice that from here on they will have access to information on these very suspicious foundations without even having to ask for it. From here on these foundations must make all their transactions public on their websites.

I, however, wonder whether some of the Constitutional Court’s observations on the “job description” of the Hungarian National Bank aren’t more important than the transparency issue. The court, among other things, states that the National Bank serves the common good and that it is not part of the private sector. Therefore it cannot pursue commercial activities intended to generate a profit. Whatever extra money accumulates in the coffers of the central bank is the result of changes in exchange rates. But this is not profit in the traditional sense of the word, as Péter Róna pointed out on ATV Friday night. Perhaps the best description of the money thus accrued would be “gain.” In Hungarian, he called it “eredmény.” If, however, a central bank tries to manipulate exchange rates for its own financial benefit, Róna continued, it would most likely be harmful to the country’s economy and would also most likely be illegal.

exchange rate

What is devastating to the present leadership of the Hungarian National Bank is that in its decision the Constitutional Court spelled out the competence of the National Bank: monetary policy and supervision of financial institutions. Its primary goal is the maintenance of price stability. Its capital comes from the state and its shares are also owned by the state. All this makes Matolcsy’s transactions in the last two or three years illegal.

The question is whether there will be any consequences of this reiteration of the mandate of the Hungarian National Bank. It took the bank a long time to chew the verdict over: it was only this afternoon that its spokesman reacted to the March 31 decision of the court. He said that the foundations, even without this court decision, were moving toward greater transparency. But, he added, “these foundations have been separated from the bank and it will be their decision how they will provide the necessary transparency.” This signals to me that the National Bank is planning to continue to play its old games as far as its foundations are concerned.

So far only LMP made public its party’s reaction to the Constitutional Court’s decision. Erzsébet Schmuck, LMP PM, today demanded “the liquidation of the foundations” and expressed the party’s opinion that in view of the Constitutional Court’s verdict the Hungarian National Bank in the past few years has been operating illegally. LMP earlier submitted a proposal which would obligate the central bank to return all gains accrued over 20% or at least 10 billion forints of the total to the central budget. Apparently this is the German practice.

I find LMP’s suggestions logical and appropriate. They most likely reflect the opinions of Péter Róna, who has been active as an economic and financial adviser to the party. It would be a good idea for the politicians of the other opposition parties to support the LMP position.

April 3, 2016

Chief Justice Lenkovics on the Fidesz Constitutional Court, Part II

Yesterday I tried to summarize the legal philosophy of Hungary’s new chief justice, which I found shocking and totally at odds with our understanding of the rule of law in a democratic society. Viktor Szigetvári, chairman of the opposition party Együtt, in an impassioned Facebook note, called Barnabás Lenkovics morally unfit for his post. Szigetvári doesn’t spend much time on the topics I covered yesterday but instead bases his condemnation of the chief justice on some currently relevant issues such as the status of churches, the refugee issue, human rights, same-sex marriage, and the Orbán government’s latest attempt at limiting access to public documents. On almost all of these issues Lenkovics holds not conservative but outright undemocratic views.

At the moment the Hungarian government is taking its sweet time drafting an entirely new law on the recognition of churches. The original law of 2011 stipulated that only churches approved by the Hungarian parliament could partake of the benefits churches usually enjoy in democratic countries. Smaller, less traditional churches or congregations, including some following reformed Judaism, were stripped of their church status. In February 2013 the Constitutional Court, which at that time wasn’t yet packed with Fidesz loyalists, found the law to be discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. The Orbán government’s answer was to change the constitution and leave the objectionable law unaltered.

Since all remedies at home had been exhausted, sixteen small churches decided to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to seek justice. In April 2014 the court ruled in the churches’ favor: the law was unconstitutional, so it should be scrapped and the churches compensated. The Hungarian government decided to appeal the decision. Five months later, on September 9, 2014, the court turned down the appeal. At the moment the government is apparently working on a new version of the law. They are in no hurry to compensate the churches for their financial losses between 2011 and 2015.

Barnabás Lenkovics in the middle of the upper row

Barnabás Lenkovics in the middle of the upper row

It was this case that came up in the conversation between Lenkovics and the journalist from Mandiner.hu. Keep in mind that the constitution itself was altered to make an unconstitutional law constitutional. Lenkovics, who was a nominee of the then opposition parties Fidesz-KDNP and MDF in 2007, and four of the five Fidesz justices who were appointed after 2010 found nothing wrong with the church law. Consistent with that view, Lenkovics sees no reason to amend the constitution in light of the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. It is enough if “the law is rewritten or at least significantly altered.” But he still thinks that the 1989 law on churches “gave too much freedom in the establishment of churches … who, in turn, abused it.”

Well, if the churches abused their freedom, the same is true of civil rights activists whom he labelled “hobby civil rights activists” and “professional revolutionaries.” He added that “probably there is need for them, otherwise they wouldn’t finance them.” Who are these “they”? I guess the trouble-making foreigners who would like to know what the members of the government are up to. In any case, Lenkovics finds it “strange that they [the activists] exercise their own rights at the expense of the community.”

When the reporter noted that the corruption of officials and politicians may be much more costly to the community than photocopying a few hundred pages of documents, Lenkovics came up with this gem: “We assume that those who decided to serve the common good and who took an oath will not abuse their power and will not take advantage of the public purse for their own use.” The reporter was so stunned that he could only mutter: “That is what the Constitutional Court assumes? That’s all?” At this point Lenkovics realized that he went too far and quickly retreated: “Everybody is entitled to the presumption of innocence. I believe in civil control.” A little later he even sang the praises of investigative journalism, bemoaning the fact that there are not enough reporters who can ferret out the sources of corruption.

There was a brief exchange on same sex-marriage, in which Lenkovics resorted to the old natural law argument which claims that “certain rights or values are inherent in or universally cognizable by virtue of human reason or human virtue of judicial recognition or articulation.” In his view marriage has “traditional and natural legal foundations … and it is the basis not only of European and Christian civilization but of the whole human civilization.” He compares changing the current law on marriage to creating a law that would state that “a child can be born of a man by a man.” One could write such a law, but that doesn’t make it possible.

Lenkovics wove into the topic of same sex marriage a couple of intriguing sentences. “It is an interesting absurdity that while among heterosexuals the number of marriages is decreasing and more and more existing marriages break up, among homosexuals the demand to be able to get married is growing. Did anyone try to compare them?” I suspect that this intellectual giant thinks that homosexual “propaganda” is making headway and actually has an impact on the sexual behavior of the society in favor of homosexuality.

Finally, there was an exchange on the refugee question, which came up as a corollary to Lenkovics’s distinction between “legal” and “political” constitutionality. The latter in his opinion considers reality while the former is too abstract and unworkable. So, Lenkovics thinks that

It is a great problem that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes universality while in reality something very different is going on. The world, the United Nations, the European Union signed a blank check about universal human rights but that check is uncovered.

These people now, as refugees flood the world, declare their human rights and the duties of Europe. Not the duties of their own governments to look after them, but those of the West.

My take on this is that human rights as such should be thrown out of our legal arsenal.

This interview, I believe, tells us more about the nature of the Orbán regime than hundreds of pages of analyses by political scientists. The chief justice opened the door to the workings of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state.

Bálint Magyar on the failures of the socialist-liberal governments

After two edited volumes on the post-communist mafia state (Magyar Polip, 2013 and 2014), Bálint Magyar came out with a book of his own, A magyar maffiaállam anatómiája (2015), which offers a brief but penetrating analysis of the failings of the socialist-liberal coalition government that led to the “revolution in the voting booth.” His thoughts on the matter are especially significant since Magyar himself was a member of three of these governments. He was minister of education between January 1996 and June 1998 in the Horn government and again in the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments between May 2002 and June 2006.

As Magyar says, although “the Third Republic wasn’t killed by the left and the liberals, they had a share in adding to its vulnerability.” After listing the usual reasons for their failure–corruption, loss of credibility, overspending, and strategic mistakes, Magyar concentrates on the deeper reasons for the current sad state of the liberals and the socialists. He points to a “loss of identity” due to a lack of recognizable symbols associated with the left. “The democratic forces had neither a public ethos nor a modern vision of society.” (p. 39)

One reason that the democratic forces couldn’t come up with an identifying symbolism was that the socialists and the liberals “didn’t speak the same language,” and therefore they couldn’t formulate a common policy. The socialist politicians didn’t understand the importance of creating a spiritual link to their electorate. In times of plenty, perhaps such a link can be dispensed with, but in times of trouble only those politicians can ask for “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” who themselves have a vision over and above the promise of a slightly higher standard of living. By contrast, Fidesz, after 1993, easily revived the old “ideological instruments of the right”: God, country, family. These were simple phrases that could offer a framework in which the Hungarian everyman could find solace and hope.

There were few meeting points between the socialists and the liberals, but there was at least one question on which they could easily agree: the separation of church and state. Both considered religion part of the private sphere. But Gyula Horn’s decision in 1998 to negotiate with the Vatican, resulting in special privileges for the Catholic Church, put an end to that accord. In Magyar’s opinion the leaders of MSZP looked upon the church the same way that politicians did in the Kádár regime–as “an institution that can be influenced and bought.” The socialists didn’t realize that by the 1990s the Catholic Church was no longer fighting for its survival; it strove for a more prominent political and social role. Because the Church’s leaders had been compromised by virtue of their cooperation with the Kádár regime, they had no intention of cooperating with the democratic socialists. Horn hoped that the Church would stand by the socialists in the election campaign as a result of his generous financial settlement. Of course, they didn’t. They helped Fidesz with its “God, country, family” slogan, which fit the Church better anyway.

Already in 1990 the liberals and socialists lost the parliamentary debate over the concept of a modern, democratic nation. The conservative parties made August 20th the national holiday, a day that emphasizes events eleven hundred years ago:  the arrival of Hungarians in the Carpathian basin, the establishment of the state, and the acceptance of Christianity. The liberals and socialists wanted March 15th to be the national holiday, the day when a modern, democratic Hungary was born. They lost. They also lost the debate over the question of the coat-of-arms, which was the heraldic symbol of the Kingdom of Hungary. Eventually the left even lost the battle for the left-inspired 1956 revolution, which in the interpretation of the right has since become “the revolution of right-wing radicals.”

Not only the socialists but also the liberals “were deaf” when it came to the necessity of symbols in political discourse. Members of the democratic opposition, including Bálint Magyar himself, were suspicious of anything that might limit the freedom and autonomy of the individual. This secular intellectual elite’s self-assurance seemed like an “arrogance of rootless individuals.” The socialist-liberal government even missed the opportunity to support women’s issues and work out a concept of a modern family where women can be useful members of the national economy. In brief, they failed at the reinterpretation of spiritual, national and familial communities, and therefore “the road to national populism was wide open.”

imagination

Meanwhile Hungarian society went through some very rough times after the change of regime. Instead of the hoped-for welfare state came high unemployment and inflation. Neither the socialists nor the liberals had any viable answers. The socialists could offer only paternalistic solutions while the liberals clung to their belief in the invisible hand of the markets. They looked insensitive to the hopelessness of those who were victims of the change of regime.

Another problem was the quality of the personnel in the ministries. By the second half of the Kádár regime the quality of the higher echelon of the ministries was high in comparison to the other socialist countries. Since then, the quality of the leading government officials has deteriorated. In addition, every four years each new prime minister decided to reorganize the whole government structure. Magyar is especially critical of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision in 2006 to eliminate the position of “administrative undersecretary,” the person who was in charge of the everyday running of the ministry. Gyurcsány also made the mistake of placing the police under the ministry of justice, which “the doctrinaire liberals” liked because it fulfilled their desire to have control over the police, but in the fall of 2006 the minister of justice, a former professor of law, turned out to be unfit for the job.

Finally, Magyar bemoans the weakness of the Hungarian system of institutions that were supposed to provide those checks and balances that guarantee the democratic functioning of the state. Way before 2010, racist talk and action became commonplace and was tolerated. And, Magyar asks, didn’t László Sólyom’s silence after the formation of the Hungarian Guard in 2007 contribute to the increasing acceptance of racism? Or, when he reacted far too late to the serial killing of Romas in 2008 and 2009? Or what about the courts that waited until the Hungarian Guard had grown into a sizable force and then took years to disband it?

The Constitutional Court also played a role in the demise of the Third Republic. Magyar mentions two milestones in the twenty-year history of the court. The first, when in 1995 the court ruled against a large portion of the austerity program of Finance Minister Lajos Bokros, which wanted to put an end to the populist policies practiced in Hungary. With this act the Court made “equitable and rational political discourse” impossible. And in 2008 the Court gave its blessing to a Fidesz referendum question on the annulment of college tuition fees and co-payments at doctor’s offices. Some members of the “independent” Constitutional Court were politically motivated in this case. Their decision heightened the population’s “unrealistic expectations and paralyzed the government’s capacity to act.” Indeed, this was the last nail in the coffin of the Third Republic.

The state of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: An exchange of views

Today I’m republishing an exchange of letters between György Hölvényi, a Christian Democrat who is a member of the Fidesz European Parliamentary delegation, and H. David Baer, associate professor at the Texas Lutheran University. The reason for the exchange was an article that appeared in The Economist entitled “A slippery Magyar slope.” The article was about the “ill-named law on ‘the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations and Religious Communities.’” Hölvényi, who before becoming a MEP was deputy undersecretary in charge of the government’s relations with churches, national minorities and civil society, came to the defense of the much criticized law. Since the article in The Economist was republished by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), Hölvényi sent his reply to that organization, which subsequently included it in its newsletter. Baer, an expert on Hungarian religious affairs, decided to respond. His reply was also published in HRWF’s newsletter. I thought that this exchange of letters, which shines a light on the Orbán regime’s attitude toward religious freedom, was worth republishing.

First a few words about György Hölvényi. He comes from a devout Catholic family. His father was a Cistercian priest who eventually left the order and married. The young Hölvényi became involved with the Christian Democratic movement and in 1989 was one of the founders of the Christian Democratic Union. He spent many years in Brussels serving the parliamentary delegation of the European People’s Party in various capacities. As a result, his name was practically unknown in Hungary. That changed in May 2012 when he was named assistant undersecretary in Zoltán Balog’s Ministry of Human Resources.

Prior to that date the post was occupied by László Szászfalvi, who was a Hungarian Reformed minister just like Balog himself. Apparently the Catholics in the Christian Democratic Party raised a stink: two Protestant ministers were at least one too many. A Catholic must be found. Szászfalvi had to depart and came Hölvényi.

In the most recent elections for the EU parliament Hölvényi was number 12 on the Fidesz list. The party had to do very well for Hölvényi to get to Brussels. One reason for his low rank on the list was that certain positions were reserved for ethnic Hungarians from Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. But the size of the Fidesz victory was such that he made it, and now he is a member of the new European Parliament.

The article in The Economist pointed out that “getting recognition as an ‘incorporated church’ required a two-thirds majority in Parliament. So what should be a simple administrative decision was turned into a political one, in which legislators have to assess the merits of a religion…. As a result of the law, at least 200 religious communities, including Methodists, Pentecostalists, Seventh Day Adventists, Reform Jews, Buddhists and Hindus faced a downgrading of their status…. In February 2013, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that 67 groups had been deregistered unconstitutionally. However the government seems to have ignored the ruling. A government ministry rejected the written requests of at least four deregistered bodies to be added to the list of incorporated churches.”

Gábor Iványi, one of the victim's of the Orbán regime's church law

Gábor Iványi, one of the victims of the Orbán regime’s church law

With this introduction here is the exchange of letters. First, György Hölvényi’s letter written immediately after the appearance of the article in The Economist. David Baer’s letter was published only a few days ago in the HRWF newsletter.

 * * *

Response to the Erasmus blog post “A slippery Magyar slope,” September 25th 2014

The recent post of The Economist’s blog Erasmus on religious freedom in Central Europe (“A slippery Magyar slope”” by B. C., September 25th 2014) makes several misleading statements and offers a rather personal interpretation of the existing legal regulations on churches in Hungary.

Basic aspects on the registration process of churches have not been detailed in your blog post. Firstly, all associations dealing with religious activities are registered solely by the courts in Hungary. A politically highly neutral system. These communities operate independetly from the state, acoording to their own principles of faith and rituals.

The blog post makes references on “incorporated churches” in Hungary. It is crucial to know that the category of “incorporated churches,” as you call it, does not affect religious freedom at all. It is simply about financial aspects such as state subsidies for churches running social activities for the common good of the society.

It must be pointed out that many European countries apply legal distinctions between different religious organisations for various reasons. Quite often it is the Parliament who is entitled to grant them a special status (e.g. in Lithuania, Belgium). Besides, there are a number of European countries where the constitution itself places an established religion above the rest of the religious communities (e. g. in Denmark, Finland, Greece, Malta). For the record, it needs to be mentioned that the Parliament is involved in special recognition processes of the churches at different later stages also in Austria, Denmark, Portugal or Spain. In general, the European Union leaves the rules on the foundation of churches in the Member States’ competence.

As the post correctly recalls, the original Hungarian regulation on churches of 1990 was probably the most permissive in Europe. Uniquely in the world, more than 300 registered churches operated in Hungary for decades, enjoying the widest range of financial entitlements provided by the state, with no respect to their real social activities. The amended Church Act provides for a complete freedom of conscience and religion in Hungary, at the same time it eliminates errors of the uniquely permissive regulation.

When looking at international commentaries of the issue let us focus on the facts again. The relevant opinion of Venice Commission on the issue of religious freedom in Hungary stated that the Hungarian regulation in place “constitutes a liberal and generous framework for the freedom of religion.” The resolution of the Constitutional Court in Hungary referred to in your blog post did not make any reference to the freedom of religion in Hungary. On the contrary, the government’s intention with the new legislation was widely acknowledged by the Court. The US State Department’s report on religious freedem of 2013 does underline that the Fundamental Law and all legislation in Hungary defends religious freedom. Facts that have been disregarded by the author of your post.

Last but not least, the alliances of the non-incorporated churches in Hungary recognised and declared in a joint statement with the responsible Hungarian minister that they enjoy religious freedom in Hungary.

In contrast to the statements of your article, incorporated churches in Hungary include the Methodists: the United Methodist Church in Hungary is a widely recognised and active community in Hungary, as well as internationally. The fact is that Mr Iványi’s group has not been included in the UMC itself and is not recognised at all by the international Methodist bodies. Describing it as a “highly respected” church is again a serious factual mistake, reflecting a lack of information on the issue.

Coming finally to the issue of the European Court on Human Rights’ decision: some of the member judges formed special opinions to the appeal of the affected churches. Although the Hungarian government is challenging the decision, at the same time it started negotiations with the appealing communities on the remedy process.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend that your blogger B.C. pay wider attention to the facts to better understand regulations on church affairs that have been in place in Europe for decades and centuries.

HÖLVÉNYI György
Member of the European Parliament for Hungary / EPP Group

 * * *

H. David Baer’s reply:

Mr. Hölvényi writes to defend a church law that the ECtHR has found to breach the European Convention and which the Hungarian government refuses to amend.  He would thus have us believe that religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom even as they are not protected by the rule of law.

Mr. Hölvényi urges that we stick to the facts. The fact is that in 2011 the government of Hungary retroactively “deregistered” religious communities already recognized as churches under Hungarian law.  The fact is that in 2013 Hungary’s Constitutional Court found this deregistration procedure unconstitutional.  The fact is that after 2013 the government of Hungary blatantly ignored the Court’s decision, refusing to treat unconstitutionally deregistered religious communities as legal churches.  The fact is that in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary’s unconstitutional church law also violated the right of religious freedom and the European Convention.  The fact is that the Hungarian government has still not, as of this day, acted to abide by the European Court’s decision.

Mr. Hölvényi knows these facts, because prior to being an MP in the European Parliament he was the state undersecretary responsible for dealing with the churches in Viktor Orbán’s government.  As undersecretary, Hölvényi worked closely with Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Capacities, to obstruct implementation of the Constitutional Court’s decision so as to deny deregistered religious communities their constitutional rights. Just this past month, Péter Paczolay, the president of Hungary’s Constitutional Court, lamented openly in a public address that the Court’s decision on Hungary’s church law had never been respected or implemented.  Mr. Hölvényi bears direct responsibility for this.  Thus, to listen to him aver that Hungary’s deregistered churches enjoy religious freedom is a little like listening to a man caught stealing his neighbor’s shirt and pants aver that his neighbor has the freedom to wear underwear.

Religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom the way NGO’s in Hungary enjoy freedom of association. Denied equality under the law and subject to opaque regulations, deregistered religious communities, like unpopular NGO’s, are subjected to arbitrary and expensive audits, hindered or prevented from raising money, attacked in the government controlled media, and harassed by local officials.  Mr. Hölvényi, a member of the European Parliament, should know that when citizens aren’t equal under the law they aren’t equally free.

Instead of defending Hungary’s indefensible church law, perhaps Mr. Hölvényi should encourage the government of his country to respect the rule of law, uphold its international commitments, and abide by the European Convention.

David Baer
Texas Lutheran University
USA

The statement of the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe on Hungary’s law on the churches

Every year the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) organizes the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). This year the meeting takes place in Warsaw. One of the participating organizations is the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (FOREF). They prepared an “intervention” which they will present on September 30 at one of the working sessions entitled “Tolerance and non-discrimination II/Intolerance against Christians and members of other religions.”

This is the text of FOREF’s recommendations and intervention:

* * *

foref

Hungary: New Religious Law at Variance with OSCE Standards and
the European Convention on Human Rights

Recommendations:

That the Government of Hungary, and specifically the Minister of Human Capacities, place back on the official registry of incorporated churches included in the appendix of Act CCVI (206) of 2011 those churches deregistered unconstitutionally and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by Parliament in 2011. Hungary should honor its international legal commitment to the European Convention and abide by the Court’s decision.

That Hungary should modify its church law so that legal recognition of churches is not determined by 2/3 vote of Parliament, something criticized in both the European Court and the Hungarian Constitutional Court.

That participating States to assist Hungary to harmonize its laws in accordance with the Helsinki standards and international human rights law.

Intervention:

The Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (FOREF) is an independent, secular, civil society formation dedicated to defending the freedom of religion in accordance with international law.  We wish to express our deep concern about policies of the government of Hungary that violate Human Dimension commitments undertaken by the participating States in the Helsinki Final Act and in the Madrid, Vienna, Copenhagen, and Maastricht documents.  These policies have resulted in arbitrary discrimination against religious communities, and have given the state illegal and inappropriate power to interfere in religious life.

In 2011, the Hungarian Parliament passed a new law on “the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations and Religious Communities.”  The law abolished the previous practices of treating religious communities equally and registering them through the courts, and instituted a tiered system that discriminates between “incorporated churches” and others that enjoy fewer rights and privileges, and which refers determination of “incorporated church” status to a 2/3-majority vote in Parliament. The law resulted in the de-registration of at least two hundred churches, including, inter alia Methodist, Pentecostal, Adventists and reform Jewish churches, as well as Buddhist and Hinduist congregations.  It has exposed religious organizations to bureaucratic harassment.
In February 2013, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that 67 churches that had been deregistered unconstitutionally were therefore still churches.  According to point 217 of the Hungarian Court’s decision,

One of the requirements of possessing church status is that the minister must place religious communities that possess such status on the registry. Since, as a consequence of the Constitutional Court’s present decision, the provision is no longer in effect which stipulates the minister’s act of registration is tied exclusively to Parliament’s recognition of a church, there is no legal obstacle preventing religious communities, whose applications were rejected by the decision of Parliament, but who, as a result of the retroactive effect of this decision have not lost their church status … from reporting their data to the minister who can then register them.

Unfortunately, the government has deliberately disregarded the Court’s orders. The Ministry of Human Capacities has rejected the written requests of at least four deregistered churches to be placed on the registry of incorporated churches (Magyarországi Evangélium Testvérközösség, Budapesti Autonóm Gyülekezet, Isten Gyülekezete Pünkösdi Egyház, Fény és Szeretet Egyháza).   In a response worthy of a novel by Franz Kafka, the Ministry stated that it could not place the groups on the registry because according to the law, incorporated churches are already on the registry, and the churches making the request were not on the registry.  Of course, the reason they are not on the registry is because the government will not place them there. In yet an even more Kafkaesque twist, when these deregistered churches have turned to the Hungarian courts, the courts have consistently ruled that the Ministry should have placed them on the official registry. But because the courts can’t force the Ministry to register the churches, it has ordered that the churches should resubmit their request to the Hungarian Government, which can, of course, refuse again to comply with the written request ad infinitum.

Instead of adhering to the rule of law and abiding with the highest court, the Hungarian Parliament amended Hungary’s Basic Law in a way that explicitly grants Parliament the right to render arbitrary decisions concerning church registration.   The procedure by which Parliament determines the legal status of individual churches was also criticized explicitly by the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) as incompatible with the standards of due process (Opinion 664/2012 par. 76-77).  According to the European Court of Human Rights the scheme of parliamentary recognition “inherently carries with it the disregard of neutrality” (Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others v. Hungary, par. 102).  The Basic Law is thus in blatant violation of a fundamental principle of religious freedom and human rights.  No legislative body should have the power to rule over religious freedom.

In April 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that that Hungarian Parliament’s deregistration of legally recognized churches constituted an interference with those groups’ fundamental rights as secured by articles 9 and 11 of the European Convention (Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others v. Hungary). Hungary appealed the decision to the Grand Chamber.  The Grand Chamber rejected that appeal in September 2014, so the decision is now final and binding.
In light of the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, as well as our common Helsinki principles that uphold the freedom of religious communities from discrimination, and given the ruling by Hungary’s own Constitutional Court, FOREF respectfully asks that the Government of Hungary, and specifically the Minister of Human Capacities, Zoltán Balog, place those churches deregistered unconstitutionally by Parliament in 2011, in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, back on the official registry of incorporated churches included in the appendix of Act CCVI (206) of 2011. Hungary should honor its international legal commitment to the European Convention and abide by the Court’s decision.

Furthermore, Hungary should modify its church law so that legal recognition of churches is not determined by 2/3 vote of Parliament, something criticized in both the European Court and the Hungarian court.

We ask the support of participating States to assist Hungary to harmonize its laws in accordance with the Helsinki standards and international human rights law.  Thank you for your attention.

Ruling of the European Court of Human Rights: The case of Krisztián Ungváry v. Hungary

Today’s topic should resonate with readers of all political stripes. Any news about secret agents of the Kádár regime, especially because of the lack of full disclosure, always arouses a great deal of interest. In addition, tidbits about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s activities as KISZ secretary at the University of Pécs in the 1980s are highly sought after, especially in right-wing circles. Add to that a former “official/informal contact” between the university and the Ministry of Interior’s infamous secret service who happens to be today a member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court. Finally, a decision of the European Court of Human Rights that finds the Hungarian Supreme Court’s finding and judgment in the case of Krisztián Ungváry v. László Kiss irreconcilable with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prescribes that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

Krisztián Ungváry

Krisztián Ungváry

The story started in 2007 when Élet és Irodalom (ÉS) published an article by Krisztián Ungváry, a historian who is an authority on, among other things, the secret service and its agents during the Kádár period. The article was about an aborted student movement at the University of Pécs. In 1982 three young law students wanted to start a peace movement independent from the official Országos Béketanács. They never thought the authorities would find anything wrong with such a movement. After all, Kádár’s Hungary, like the whole Soviet bloc, made frequent references to peace as something desirable. The problem was that the inspiration for this particular movement came from Western Europe and wanted to banish nuclear arms from the whole of Europe, including Soviet arms that could also be found on Hungarian soil. Therefore, the authorities immediately reacted in order to squash the Dialógus program, as the movement was named by the students.

The details of this “storm in a teapot” are not interesting as far as our story is concerned, but the original article does shed light on many aspects of “gulyás communism” that were not evident to the passive majority of Hungarians. The thesis of the article is that very often it was not the secret agents who were the most important sources of information for the Ministry of Interior but the so-called “informal contacts.” In connection with the Dialógus affair Ungváry mentions eight people who served as “informal contacts,” most of whom he managed to identify. Among them was the party secretary of the law school, László Kiss, then associate professor and today a member of the Constitutional Court, a position he has held ever since 1998. At the same time Ungváry comes to the conclusion that, although Gyurcsány as a KISZ secretary was a link in the chain, his role was minimal and he was not one of the “official contacts” the Ministry of Interior relied on.

Kiss Laszlo

László Kiss

Ungváry had proof of Kiss’s reporting to the Ministry of Interior and therefore had no reason to believe that he might be the object of years of litigation in connection with this article. A few days after the appearance of his article, Kiss made an announcement that was published in ÉS in which he declared that he had never been an agent and “never worked with the persons of the secret service mentioned in the article. In fact, he didn’t even know them personally.” He threatened Ungváry with both civil and criminal legal proceedings and, as it turned out later, brought charges against ÉS as well.

Ungváry’s answer in the same issue pointed out that Kiss’s name appears in the folder dealing with the Dialógus affair as the source of information on the details of the case. That didn’t satisfy Judge Kiss, however, and he proceeded with the litigation that lasted over three years.

Ungváry was acquitted of the criminal charges, but he and ÉS lost the first round in the civil case. In March 2010, however, the appellate court ruled in favor of Ungváry and the weekly paper. Liberal groups were delighted, and SZEMA (Szabad Emberek Magyarországért, the party of Klára Ungár) called on Kiss to resign his post after the ruling. After all, Ungár argued, a man with such a past shouldn’t be a member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court. 

Naturally Kiss had not the slightest intention of resigning. Instead he appealed to the Supreme Court, which promptly reversed the appellate court’s decision. Again liberal groups were up in arms, especially since the court fined Ungváry 3 million forints and ÉS 2 million for publishing the piece. But even Mandiner, a group of young conservatives, stood by Ungváry; in fact, they collected money so he would be able to pay the stiff fine. But Ungváry is not the kind of man who gives up easily. Shortly after the ruling of the Supreme Court in June 2010 he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. On December 3 the Strasbourg court ruled against Hungary. Thus Hungary will have to pay 7,000 euros to Ungváry and, 3,000 to ÉS over and above the amount the paper had to pay in fines after the ruling of the Hungarian Supreme Court.

The decision was a narrow one and the Hungarian government has the right to appeal, which would initiate another round of legal proceedings at the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. The Hungarian government hasn’t responded yet but László Kiss certainly has. He is planning to sue Ungváry for distorting the verdict of the court when he announced that the finding of the court “validated” his claims about Kiss’s activities. Kiss went so far as to claim that the Strasbourg court “announced that Ungváry was unable to prove his claims,” which were no more than “speculations” that lacked any corroborating evidence.

I checked the published judgment of “Case of Ungváry and Irodalom Kft. v. Hungary.” Since Kiss referenced the word “speculations,” I decided to check the text of the judgment. I found only one “speculations,” and not where I would have expected it to be if one believed László Kiss. No, the word was found in the description of the Hungarian Supreme Court’s judgment that the Strasbourg Court found wanting. Let me quote.

53. The Court notes the finding of the Supreme Court according to which the first applicant [i.e., Ungváry] was unable to prove that Mr K. had been in regular contact with the State security, often anticipating and exceeding its expectations. The Court finds that these expressions exceeded the limits of journalism, scholarship and public debate. In the present case, it is not the –arguably excessive – form of the expression but the defamatory content of these speculations, which the Court finds objectionable as being without sufficient factual support. …

The Court notes that the article intended to demonstrate that collaboration, that is, the activities of “official contacts” meant cooperation without specific, express operational instructions from the State security. Limiting its analysis to this kind of direct cooperation with the State security, the Supreme Court failed to consider that Mr K.’s reports had been in any case available to the authorities of the Communist regime, nor did it attribute any particular relevance to the fact that the first applicant’s undeniably offensive and exaggerated statements were made within the context of the broader presentation of the workings of the oppressive mechanism of a totalitarian regime. It did not consider relevant, either, that the first applicant had indicated the sense in which he had used the term informing (see paragraph 8 above). Indeed, the article was written in order to demonstrate how closely the Ministry of the Interior and the “social organisations” had worked together, and especially, how tight the relation had been between party functionaries and the Ministry of the Interior.

And finally:

The Court notes that the Supreme Court interpreted the first applicant’s description of these officials as one portraying them “guilty by association” – which, in that court’s view, could not prove that Mr K. “actually cooperated” with the State security (see paragraph 19 above).

The Court cannot agree with the deduction of the Supreme Court.

The Court finds that although the first applicant did not prove that Mr K. and his reports had actually been commissioned by the State security, it was nevertheless an undisputed fact that he, as a party secretary, had produced reports on the Dialógus affair. (p. 15)

If I read the decision of the Strasbourg court correctly, I don’t think that Judge Kiss has a chance. Unless, of course, the Hungarian judges are intimidated by the almighty judge of the Constitutional Court.

The plight of the homeless in Hungary

Perhaps I haven’t spent enough time on the plight of the homeless in Hungary. The United Nations estimates the number of homeless people in Hungary at 30-35,000, of whom about 8,000 are in Budapest. Some of them live in homeless shelters; others, afraid of being robbed, refuse to go there. In any case, there are only about 5,500 places, which is not enough. Some of those counted as homeless managed to build primitive huts in the mountains in Buda.

It was clear from the start that this government was not going to try to find a humane solution to a growing problem. Instead, its goal was to hide the homeless from sight.  Surely, they are not good for tourism. So, let’s expel them by force of law from the most frequented places.

István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest, was one of the first who decided “to solve” this problem. The Fidesz majority on the City Council passed a local ordinance that banned the homeless from public places. Some people in the central government liked this idea so much that they proposed a law that extended the ban to the whole country. Offenders could have been jailed or fined up to $650. Fining people who can barely keep body and soul together is naturally a ludicrous idea. Punishing somebody with a jail sentence because he has no shelter over his head is inhumane.

Last November the Constitutional Court found this law unconstitutional. (Today such a verdict would be unimaginable. By now the overwhelming majority of the judges were nominated by the government and voted in by Parliament with a two-thirds Fidesz majority.) That something is found unconstitutional never bothered the Orbán government, which considers itself the paragon of democratic virtue. Since due to pressure from the European Union the Hungarian government had to change some sections of the new constitution anyway, they smuggled in an entirely new provision that allowed municipalities to declare living in public places illegal “in order to protect public order, public security, public health and cultural values.”  Both the European Parliament and the United Nations condemned the law.

Kristina Jovanovski wrote a long article about the plight of the homeless in Hungary for Al Jazeera and interviewed Magdalena Sepulveda, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, who told her that Hungary wasn’t the only country that bans behavior linked to homelessness, but “what makes Hungary stand out … is that such a law has been put into the country’s constitution.”

So, let’s see what the new law says. The law decrees it a misdemeanor if a homeless person frequents places designated as “world heritage” sites. In Budapest this is quite an extensive area For example, the whole Andrássy út, the region around the Gellért Hotel in Buda, the castle area, the area around the Chain Bridge, the Gellért Mountain, the Royal Castle, Szabadság tér, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Parliament building, and the buildings on the Pest side of the Danube all the way to the Petőfi Bridge.

It is unlikely that the law will apply only to “world heritage sites” for long. In Budapest the mayor of Budapest has the right to designate any area taboo that he feels needs such protection. Moreover, the district mayors can request additional sites, which István Tarlós must grant. Those homeless people who are caught in the forbidden parts of the city can be forced to perform public work. If the person refuses, he will be fined 300,000 forints or $1,300. If the authorities catch him twice within half a year, the person will be automatically jailed. Moreover, as the result of a last-minute amendment, the law became even more punitive. Building a hut in some far-away wooded area situated either on public or on private land without permission is also considered to be a misdemeanor.

Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP), a member of the parliamentary committee on human rights, released a communiqué in which she calls attention to some provisions of the law that at first glance might not be obvious to everyone. In the areas designated as “world heritage” sites, a homeless person doesn’t have to do anything in the least criminal. It would be enough if someone who looked like a homeless person walked along peacefully, for example, on Andrássy út.  These sites are now declared to be “homeless-free zones.”

In the future if this fellow is cut his hut will be destroyed and he thrown to jail

In the future, if this fellow is caught his hut will be destroyed and he will be thrown in jail

Kristina Jovanovski got in touch with a government official who explained that the law was adopted “to enable local governments to handle the issue of homelessness, and so to assure order in public spaces and increased public safety.” Furthermore, the government spokesman admitted that permitting the homeless in public spaces “poses problems from a cultural point of view when it comes to the … accessibility of certain public areas, including areas frequented by a large number of people and also in terms of the protection of historical buildings.”

So, this is where we stand now. A dictate on how to handle the homeless is part of the Hungarian constitution. One would think that a democratic country’s constitution would be designed to defend the rights of its citizens and not contain punitive measures against certain segments of the population. But, of course, Hungary is straying farther and farther from democratic principles.

Soon enough the constitution will be a motley assortment of bits and pieces of legislation. Control of utility prices will also be included in the sacred Basic Law of Viktor Orbán. This is the constitution that Viktor Szigetvári and Gordon Bajnai of Együtt 2014-PM want to “improve.” No, this constitution must be thrown into the garbage as soon as this government is gone.