Tag Archives: László Kiss

János Széky on secrets of the past well kept

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

♦ ♦ ♦

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

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

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

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

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

A nation of Olympic addicts

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

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

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

Out of prison, back to the elite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark non-secrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus ça change…

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

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

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

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

May 24, 2016

Scandal in the Hungarian Swimming Association

The whole country is in turmoil over a 55-year-old story. Three days ago privatkopo.hu, a blog specializing in true crime stories, discovered that the highly respected coach of the Hungarian national swimming team, the seventy-five-year-old László Kiss, was sentenced in 1961 to five years, later reduced to three years, for participating in the gang rape of a girl known only as Zsuzsanna. She was eighteen. During the summer when the crime was committed, she was studying for her college entrance exams. The judge found that Kiss and two other star swimmers lured Zsuzsanna into the apartment of one of the boys and gang raped her. Privatkopo.hu cited fairly long passages detailing the brutal act committed by the three swimmers. Kiss received amnesty in March 1963, alongside most of the political prisoners who had been in jail since 1957. All in all, he spent twenty months in jail.

Three years after his release Kiss became the swimming coach of the Budai Spartacus Club, to which both boys and girls belonged. For jobs that involve dealing with minors Hungarians need a “certificate of good behavior,” which in the case of former convicts cannot be obtained until five years after their release. Since Kiss received amnesty and since he was such a good swimmer, I assume he received special dispensation. It is a well-known fact that, especially during the Kádár regime, crack athletes had extraordinary privileges. Another possibility is that he was treated well in exchange for information. Some people, including historians, point out that the Ministry of Interior often made recruiting trips to jails in the hope of signing up agents who would be willing to report on their friends and acquaintances. Those athletes and coaches who were allowed to travel abroad were often used for such purposes.

Of course, all this is just guess work, and at the moment we know very little about the details of Kiss’s release. However, one investigative journalist who read the judge’s opinion indicated today to György Bolgár of Klubrádió that Zsuzsanna’s case was not unique in the lives of Kiss and his two fellow rapists. There was another case which the prosecution had to drop in the absence of conclusive proof. He also indicated that he is not finished with his research, alluding to the fact that more details will be available even about the circumstances of release.

This is exactly what Kiss was trying to prevent when he turned to Attila Péterfalvi, president of the Office of National Data Protection and Freedom of Information, who has begun his own investigation into whether any privacy rights have been transgressed so far by reporting on the court case. He asked the media to stop publishing any more details on the case. I doubt that the journalists will heed Péterfalvi’s request, or at least I would be very surprised if they did.

Since the scandal surfaced, the reaction of the Hungarian Swimming Association has ranged from full support of the beleaguered Kiss to less than forthright statements by both the spokesman of the association and its president, Tamás Gyárfás, especially with regard to how much the present leadership of the association knew about Kiss’s background.

This scandal also exposed some of the practices common in the competitive swimming world. Apparently, the association is still governed in a dictatorial manner, just as it was fifty-five years ago. László Kiss, being the top coach, could decide which athletes would attend important international meets that could decide their futures. A coach from Debrecen who is no friend of Kiss claims that the athletes were actually afraid of Kiss and that swimming coaches in general are a pretty savage lot who occasionally use whips to make sure that the swimmer’s posture is perfect.

Here the Hungarian Swimming Association supported Kiss (left) and Tamás Gyárfás / Source: blikk.hu

Kiss (left) and Tamás Gyárfás / Source: blikk.hu

Zsolt Bayer, the anti-Semitic writer for Magyar Hírlap, defends Kiss because “Kiss claims the encounter was consensual” and in any case, even if it were true, it can be forgotten due to the tremendous joy Kiss gave Hungarians by coaching youngsters who eventually became Olympic gold medal winners. Even so, Bayer, who as I learned from this article himself swam, tells terrible stories about life as a serious swimmer, especially if the coach was László Kiss. Then “life was even more horrid than usual.” He still feels the leather strap on his thighs. A similar but much more eloquent description of life in the water was offered by a writer and professor of literature, Noémi Kiss, who as a fourteen-year-old trained with the famed Krisztina Egerszegi. Five years ago she talked about her horrid experiences, about the all-pervasive sexuality that exists around the swimming pool and the girls’ vulnerability in these surroundings.

Kiss has resigned his position as coach of the national team. He is no longer deputy mayor and an honorary citizen of Százhalombatta. His name will be removed from the town’s swimming complex. He had to step down from the Hungarian Olympic Committee and thus will lose his 1 million forint a month compensation.

The public is deeply divided on the issue. There are those who think that Kiss’s life after his conviction was untainted, that no complaints were ever filed about his behavior toward his women athletes. The incident occurred such a long time ago that punishment at this stage is meaningless. Then there are a few, like Bayer and István Stefka, another far-right journalist, who either believe that the “gang rape” was actually consensual or that the girl herself was responsible for her fate. According to Stefka, “At the Császár pool, the girls were sitting in the bleachers watching the training and the beefy boys with great interest.” Often these girls initiated sexual relationships, Stefka claims. Unfortunately, Endre Aczél, a talented and knowledgeable journalist whom I hold in high regard, showed his worst side by accusing Zsuzsanna’s parents of making a victim of their over-sexed daughter. Since then Aczél has apologized and taken down his comment from his Facebook page.

And, of course, there are those on the other side who argue that a crime as heinous as a gang rape cannot be forgiven, regardless of the number of gold medals and the fifty-five years. What I think bothers a lot of people is that Kiss, who even wrote an autobiography, never mentioned the time he spent in jail for rape. They are also bothered by Kiss’s attempts to blame the girl, who by now is not even alive and therefore cannot defend herself and her reputation.

I just heard on HírTV that sexual abuse is far too common in competitive swimming. Just in the United States 100 swim coaches have been banned for life from ever coaching. It might be an interesting undertaking to investigate the possible reasons for the prevalence of sexual crimes in the world of swimming. In Hungary there was already one revelation when Nikolett Szepesi came out with a book about “what’s going on around the pool.” I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the Kiss affair, we heard a lot more.

April 8, 2016

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.