Viktor Orbán’s hold on Hungarian courts threatens rule of law, judge warns | Hungary

Viktor Orbán’s government is “constantly overstepping” its authority to influence the courts, a senior judge has said, in an intervention that will heighten concerns about the rule of law in Hungary.

In rare comments that lift the lid on the Hungarian government’s assault on judicial checks and balances, Csaba Vasvári, senior judge at the Metropolitan Court in Budapest, told the Observer that he and his colleagues on the bench “witnessed attempts at external and internal influence” for several years. Vasvári, who worked as a judge for 18 years, is a spokesperson for the National Judicial Council, an autonomous body that has been fighting to defend the independence of judges for more than a decade.

“We just want a transparent and meritocratic system,” says Csaba Vasvári. Photography: Máthé Zoltán/MTI/MTVA

Vasvári said political excesses come from all sides of the political spectrum, but his comments are an indictment of the ruling Fidesz party of Orbán, which has held a super-majority for much of its 12 years in power.

A “clear internal influence attempt” cited by Vasvári was a discussion between senior court officials and a prime suspect in a corruption case about firing the investigating judge or making their life “uncomfortable” at work, according to redacted secret documents leaked to Hungarian media. The case centers on Fidesz MP and former deputy justice minister Pál Völner, who has been accused of accepting bribes – charges he denies. Völner was not involved in discussions to fire the investigating judge.

In an unusual move, a senior judge appointed by the Fidesz-controlled parliament ruled that a judicial inquiry into the case would remain secret, not only from the public but even from other judges.

Vasvári also lamented the lack of transparency in judicial appointments made by the president of the National Judicial Office (NJO), a position created by Orbán’s party which has been criticized by international rights organizations for putting too much power in the hands of the executive. .

The president of the NJO is responsible for running the Hungarian judicial system, but the European Commission and the Council of Europe have said that this person, a political appointee, holds too much power and is subject to too few checks. and counterweight. There are also concerns about nepotism, as relatively unqualified friends and family members of well-connected politicians hold senior positions in the justice system.

Fidesz deputy Pál Völner in a suit and glasses speaks in court while holding papers
Fidesz deputy Pál Völner, former deputy justice minister, denies the accusations of accepting bribes. Photo: Kovacs Tamas/MTI/MTVA

The Observer learned that in June, the wife of the president of the Hungarian Supreme Court was appointed to a post of senior magistrate despite having obtained fewer votes than her rival in an election held by judges. Documents seen by the Observer show that Helga Mariann Kovács, married to András Zs Varga, was appointed head of a judicial panel dealing with politically sensitive cases at the Budapest Court of Appeal, despite receiving less than half the vote of his rival.

Concerns about political interference in Hungary’s legal system come as Budapest tries to release billions of euros in EU funds currently frozen due to rule of law concerns, including the independence of the judiciary.

A former judge who wished to remain anonymous said the vast majority of cases proceed fairly but politically sensitive cases would be heard in the Supreme Court by a “loyal panel of judges who will make decisions in favor of the government”.

They said, “In normal court [as a judge] you may struggle, you may try to be independent, you may do your best, but you know there is a leak in the system where water is coming out. You can pour so much water, but it always comes out sideways.

Áron Demeter, Program Director at Amnesty International Hungary, said: “If you go against the government or if your case interferes with political objectives, there is certainly a chance that [the government] can exert formal or informal pressure on the court.

He said those at risk of trial under political influence included asylum seekers, LGBTQ+ people, NGOs and independent media – groups that have been targeted by hostile legislation from the Orbán government.

In 2019, Hungary’s Constitutional Court upheld a law that threatens people who help asylum seekers with jail – provisions later found to be incompatible with EU law by the European Court of Justice. In 2021, one of Hungary’s last independent broadcasters, Klubrádió, was forced to cease broadcasting after a Hungarian court ruling. The European Commission said the initial decision by a Hungarian regulator was a “discriminatory” breach of EU telecoms law.

Amnesty, which is appealing to the courts after being fined for campaigning against the government’s anti-LGBTQ+ law, said it no longer expects justice in Hungary but is turning to judges in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. “We don’t really consider the [Hungarian] constitutional court an appeal at all,” Demeter said.

Protesters on foot and on bikes gather in the sun to block Budapest's Margit Bridge
Demonstrators block Budapest’s Margit Bridge on July 12 to protest against a proposed tax amendment that will affect small business owners. Photograph: Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images

The history of Hungary’s politically influenced judiciary dates back to 2011, when Orbán created the position of NJO President, placing unparalleled powers in the hands of an appointee. The first incumbent was Tünde Handó, godmother to her eldest son, who called some judges “traitors”. While his successor has taken a less confrontational approach, observers say the changes are superficial.

In the meantime, the government has decided to take control of the Supreme Court (Kúria). In 2021, András Zs Varga took charge of the Kúria despite fierce opposition from the judges. Described as a ‘proven loyalist to the Fidesz-led government’ by an independent NGO, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Varga called the interpretation of the rule of law in the EU ‘tyrannical’ and ‘totalitarian’ .

A former deputy prosecutor who had never served as an ordinary judge, Varga got his nine-year term after the Fidesz-dominated parliament changed the rules governing election to the Kúria, which is Hungary’s last court of appeal. for criminal, civil and administrative cases.

“We just want a transparent and meritocratic system,” Vasvári said.

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