Béla Biszku

Lex Biszku: Charge of homicide and high treason but can it be proven?

I have been planning to write about the so-called Biszku case for quite a while, and this is as good a time as any. It provides something of a break from day-to-day politics. It was way back in the summer of 2010 that Jobbik went to the police to demand an investigation into Béla Biszku’s denial of his allegedly murderous communist past that by then was a criminal offense. The Orbán government insisted that if the legislature passes a law on the denial of the Holocaust this piece of legislation must also include a reference to the genocide committed by the communists.

biszku then

Béla Biszku then

Who was Béla Biszku? No question, he was a hard-line communist who had a rather short but spectacular career in the Hungarian communist party, especially after 1956. Prior to the revolution he was among the lower-ranked party apparatchiks. He served as party secretary in several Budapest districts. Not really high positions. But after the revolution, he had a meteoric rise. First, he became party secretary of the whole of Budapest, a member of the Central Committee, and later of the Politburo. At the same time he was chosen as minister of interior (1956-1961) and later deputy prime minister (Sept. 13, 1961-Sept 27, 1962). His eventual dismissal stemmed from his opposition to János Kádár’s new, more moderate policies. For a number of years he remained the secretary of the Central Committee, a position that carried no real weight. In 1978 the party sent him into retirement at the age of 57.

For at least fifteen years or so no one was especially interested in Béla Biszku, who has been living in Budapest as a pensioner. How did he suddenly become the center of attention? Sometime in the spring of 2010 two associates of Mandiner, a more moderate right-wing online paper, had a lengthy interview with Biszku which was subsequently made into a film. They got permission for the interview under false names and identities. They claimed that they came from Márokpapi (pop. 460), the birthplace of Biszku, as representatives of the village leadership. They would be thrilled if Biszku would come visit them and talk to the people of Márokpapi. The old man was so moved that he agreed. During the interview he called the 1956 revolution a counterrevolution and showed no remorse about the very harsh reprisals while he was minister of interior. Otherwise, he denied any direct involvement in  individual cases that ended in death sentences or very long prison terms.

Béla Biszku now

Béla Biszku now

It was sometime after the release of the film that Jobbik decided that Biszku was guilty of a denial of the sins of communism. In my opinion, Jobbik either misread the law or misinterpreted Biszku’s statements in the film. The only thing Biszku did was to claim that the revolution of 1956 was a counterrevolution, which is no more than an opinion, whether we agree with him or not. So it’s no wonder that Zoltán Fleck, a liberal legal scholar, hoped that in case prosecutors bring charges against Biszku, the panel of judges would acquit him in the name of freedom of expression.

This was not the only attempt to get Biszku’s case to the point of indictment. Another suit charged him with crimes against humanity, but this was thrown out by the Budapest prosecutor’s office because according to Hungarian law one cannot be charged with a crime that was not part of Hungarian jurisprudence at the time. Crime against humanity is a new addition to the Hungarian juris corpus.

In October 2010 Ádám Gellért, a young legal scholar, brought different charges against Biszku. He claimed that Biszku was responsible for multiple homicides. Gellért specifically mentioned Pál Maléter, József Szilágyi, Miklós Gimes, and Imre Nagy for whose deaths Biszku was at least indirectly responsible. That charge was taken seriously by the Budapest prosecutor’s office and Gellért’s brief was sent to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office for an examination of the charges.

So by late 2010 there were at least two pending charges against Biszku: a denial of the revolutionary nature of the October events and homicide. The Orbán government decided to make the task of the prosecutors and the courts easier. They submitted a law to parliament that made it possible to charge Biszku and perhaps a few dozen other people with crimes against humanity by making it retroactively valid. This law, which of course was enacted, would allow Hungarian courts to treat these cases as war crimes that have no statute of limitations. The law has since been nicknamed Lex Biszku.

Throughout 2012 one could hear all sorts of speculations about what kinds of charges would eventually be leveled against Biszku, but it was only recently that the details of the indictment became known. As we found out, it took a whole year to come up with an indictment that might be able to stand on its own. It looks as if the prosecutors relied on one of Jobbik’s many charges which claims that Biszku as minister of interior was an accessory before the fact in several cases involving homicide. In addition, he is guilty of high treason, illegal imprisonment, and abatement.  These crimes if proven might carry a life sentence.

As time went by, more and more surprising charges emerged which, according to legal experts, will be practically impossible to prove: for example, Biszku’s connection to the firing at civilians in Salgótarján and in Budapest at the Western Station. A total of 50 people died in the two incidents. The connection between Biszku and the Salgótarján-Western station massacres was already investigated once in the early 1990s. At that time prosecutors turned the archives upside down but couldn’t find any direct link between Biszku, who at that time wasn’t even minister of the interior but a member of a temporary committee of the party handling the immediate work of getting things back to “normal,” and the two massacres. As far as we know, no new documents have surfaced since.

Although Biszku is an unsavory character who most likely committed an awful lot of crimes, there must be proof of these crimes. Unless the Hungarian prosecutors have come up with some new evidence that can link Biszku to these massacres or can prove that Biszku ordered the justices to condemn Imre Nagy and his close associates to death, this whole Biszku case will go nowhere. Even the Lex Biszku will be impotent if the prosecution fails to prove its case.

Finally, a brief note. It was only a few days ago that I read that a leading prosecutor might be dismissed for incompetence.  We don’t know who the person is, but the suspicion is that he was involved in those high-profile cases which the prosecution lost, one after the other. All were politically motivated, like the Hunvald case involving the former MSZP mayor of one of the Budapest districts. Or former Budapest Deputy Mayor Miklós Hagyó’s case. And these were not the only ones where the prosecution showed complete incompetence.

This Biszku case seems to be heading toward the same fate, that is, if Biszku lasts that long. I’m not even sure whether the prosecution or the Hungarian government believes or even cares whether Biszku’s wrongdoings can be proven. Most likely their only goal is to show how seriously they take crimes against humanity, especially if they involve the communists. Their eagerness in the case of László Csatáry who was charged with crimes against Hungarian Jews in 1944 was a great deal less visible. I think that the main aim is to show to Jobbik and its followers that they take all this very seriously and that their anti-communism can be translated into deeds. Otherwise, the outcome of the trial doesn’t interest them very much.