car accident

Political interference with the Hungarian judiciary

Fidesz politicians have a penchant for creating situations that call attention time and again to the fact that something is very wrong with democracy in Hungary. We have discussed on numerous occasions the many unconstitutional laws enacted by the Hungarian government that have been criticized by both foreign and domestic legal bodies. I don’t think we have to repeat what Kim Lane Scheppele has so eloquently told us over the years about these issues. Instead I would like to talk about a much less complicated case, one understandable even by those who have no knowledge of constitutional law or the intricacies of the legal systems of Hungary and the European Union. I’m talking about the Rezešová case.

Eva Rezešová is a very rich woman of Hungarian extraction from Slovakia. Driving while intoxicated, she had a very serious car accident in Hungary on August 23, 2012. Her BMW ran into another car carrying four people. All were killed. The public outcry was immediate and widespread.

I must say that I didn’t follow the Rezešová trial because I didn’t think that it could possibly have political ramifications. After all, it was an ordinary, if tragic, car accident. But Fidesz politicians manage to muddy (or, better, taint) the legal waters even in seemingly straightforward cases.

Rezešová was brought to trial, found guilty, sentenced to six years, and placed under house arrest until the appeals court re-hears her case. The prosecutor filed the appeal since he believed the verdict was too lenient.

Public outrage followed the announcement of the house arrest. The Internet was full of condemnations of the decision. After all, this woman who caused four deaths while driving under the influence didn’t deserve to live in a comfortable apartment in Budapest. News spread that her two children, who are currently in Slovakia, will join her and will attend school in Budapest while she is awaiting her second trial.

Antal Rogán decided to join the outcry. He took along a cameraman and delivered a short message in front of Rezešová’s residence, which he placed on his Facebook page. He expressed his disgust and, in the name of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, called on the parliamentary committee dealing with legal matters and on the minister of justice to investigate the outrageous decision that Rezešová could spend her time between the two trials in the comfort of her home. That happened around 10 a.m. on December 4. A few hours later the announcement came from the court, which had originally ordered the house arrest, that they had changed their minds. Rezešová must return to jail because there is a danger of her escape. Observers were certain that there was a direct connection between Rogán’s demand for an investigation and the court’s change of heart.

Antal Rogán in front of Eva Rezešová's apartment house / mandiner.hu

Antal Rogán in front of Eva Rezešová’s apartment house / mandiner.hu

This may not be the case. The prosecutor appealed the case and also asked the court to reverse its decision on the issue of the house arrest. So, it is entirely possible that Rogán’s instructions to the parliament and the ministry just happened to coincide with the court’s announcement. Whatever the case, it doesn’t look good. It looks as if in Hungary politicians give instructions to the judiciary and these instructions are promptly obeyed.

Why did Rogán try to influence the court’s decision? Is he that ignorant of the notion of the separation of powers in a democracy? It’s hard to imagine. People consider Rogán one of the brighter politicians around Viktor Orbán. Perhaps as the national election approaches the Orbán government is ready to ignore the “fine points” of democracy as long as a gesture like Rogán’s is appreciated by the majority of the people. And, believe me, it is appreciated. On Facebook one can read hundreds and hundreds of comments thanking Rogán for “doing the right thing.” After all, if the judges don’t know what decency is, here is a man who does and who instructs them to make the right and just decision.

The Association of  Judges reacted immediately and pointed out that Rogán’s statement may give the impression of undue influence on the judiciary. The Association felt it necessary to defend the judges against any such interference. It announced that the Association cannot tolerate “expectations expressed by politicians in cases still pending.” The president of the Hungarian Bar Association found it “unacceptable that a politician expresses his opinion on a case before the final verdict.” He called Rogán’s action “without precedent.” And today even the chief justice of the Kúria (Supreme Court) alluded to the case without mentioning Rogán’s name or the Rezešová case. The issue came up in a speech by Chief Justice Péter Darák welcoming the new clerks and judges. He warned them never to fall prey to outside influences.

It is possible that Rogán’s ill-considered move  may have serious practical consequences. For example, what if Rezešová’s lawyer eventually decides to turn to the European Court of Justice claiming political influence in the verdict of the appellate court? It will be very difficult to prove that the two events occurring on the same day had nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

And there are other clouds looming over the Hungarian government with regard to its constant interference with the judiciary. Two days ago the Constitutional Court found the practice the Orbán government introduced of transferring cases from one court to another unconstitutional. This is not the first time the Constitutional Court ruled on the issue, but every time it found the law unconstitutional the government smuggled the same provision into either the constitution or some other law. Meanwhile the head of the National Judiciary Office (OBH), Tünde Handó, kept transferring practically all political cases at will to the far corners of the country to courts that she most likely considered to be partial to the government’s position. In 2011 thirteen and 2012 forty-two such cases were assigned to non-Budapest courts. These cases are still pending.

There are two possibilities now. One is to stop all the proceedings and start the cases over again, this time in the courts to which they by law belong. The second possibility is to proceed as if the Constitutional Court never spoke and have the courts hand down verdicts that will most likely be found null and void by the European Court of Justice. If I were the Hungarian government, I would opt for the former.

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The fate of the Radnóti statue in Abda

The name of Miklós Radnóti has been all over the news in the last week or so. Radnóti, who lost his life in the Holocaust, is considered to be one of the great poets of Hungary. He died on November 10, 1944, during a forced march of a Jewish labor battalion from Bor, Serbia, through Hungary toward the German-Austrian border. Most of the battalion died en route in one way or the other. Radnóti was most likely shot and buried in a mass grave in a small village, Abda, adjacent to the city of Győr. In 1980 a statue was erected in his honor at the site where he was killed.

Why all this sudden interest in Radnóti? First, because on November 15 in Miskolc a neo-Nazi group called the Hungarian National Front decided to make a bonfire of books that were not to their members’ liking. Among the books journalists on the scene discovered was a volume of the complete works of Miklós Radnóti.

The statue of Miklós Radnóti before its destruction

The statue of Miklós Radnóti before its destruction

Some people found that shocking enough, but two days later the country learned the sad news that an unknown perpetrator had destroyed the statue of Radnóti in Abda. A local paper, Kisalföld, first reported the news. When MTI picked up the story, the agency decided to be extremely cautious in its wording: “The Radnóti statue broke.”  Yes, just broke. I guess by itself. The decision makers at MTI liked this description so much that they repeated it every time the fate of the statue came up. Exactly three times.

Soon enough, however, it became known that the statue didn’t just break by itself but that a car hit it with such force that the statue actually broke in half. In fact, the damage is so great that it will have to be replaced by a replica of the original.

The Hungarian left immediately assumed that the destruction of the statue was deliberate and that the motive behind it was anti-Semitism. The politician who is the district’s socialist candidate for next year’s election expressed his opinion that the “guilty ones” will soon be found and that they will get what they deserve.

Meanwhile, the police began to investigate and came to the conclusion that it was a simple car accident. However, if it was an accident, why did the driver flee the scene without reporting it? 444.hu, an investigative Internet paper, immediately raised doubts about the police’s description of the likely events. The journalist pointed out that the statue is at least 10 meters from the main road. In order to run into it one would have to break through a guard rail and drive across a ditch. Here is a picture of the spot and a Google map of the same.

The highway and the evergreens that surrounded the statue

The highway and the evergreens that surrounded the statue

Radnoti szobor2Cink.hu, on the other hand, accused the left-liberal media of manipulation, which they said began already with the local paper that first reported the incident. After all, the reporter of Kisalföld called attention to the fact that this is not the first time that Radnóti’s statue was defaced. A couple of years back someone poured red paint all over it. So, their assumption was that it was a deliberate political act. Cink.hu also found fault with ATV’s reporting of the case and complained in general that the left-liberal media had already decided the case without having any concrete information of the circumstances. The reporter also mentioned that at the time of the accident, around 2 a.m., there was dense fog in the area and it was therefore quite possible that the driver accidentally drove into the statue.

Gépnarancs, a left-wing blog, is also certain that the destruction of statue couldn’t have been accidental. It must, the blogger surmises, have something to do with the Miskolc book burning.

This is what the statue looked like after the accident

This is what the statue looked like after the accident

Within a day the police found an abandoned and badly damaged black Mercedes in Öttevény, a village west of Abda. The next day, on November 19, Szabolcs P., a twenty-five-year-old from Pápa, went to the police and told the following story of accidentally driving into Radnóti’s statue. The car was not his, it was borrowed. He and a friend of his were on their way to Győr to a bar when in the fog he lost his way and accidentally drove across the evergreen shrubs behind the statute and crashed into it. He got scared and drove away, but then he ran out of gas, which is why he abandoned the car in Öttevény. He and his companion hitched a ride to Győr from where they took a bus to Pápa.

The abandoned black Mercedes with damaged left front

The abandoned black Mercedes with damaged left front

The Győr police  seems to be satisfied with this story. However, another local online paper,  inforabakoz.huhas serious doubts about the veracity of Szabolcs P.’s story. According to the driver of the Mercedes they were traveling to Győr, but what remains of the evergreen shrubs indicates that the car hit the statue traveling from the other direction–that is, it was hit by a car traveling away from Győr. From the direction Szabolcs P. claims he hit the statue there are no tire marks. Moreover, the car was found in Öttevény, which is not on the way to Győr where the two men were allegedly heading.

I would also like to add my own observation concerning the damaged car. As one can see, it is the left side of the Mercedes that had to come into in contact with the statue. But if Szabolcs P. was driving toward Győr, it should have been the right-hand side that got damaged.

Interestingly, the website of the Győr police which, by the way, has very little useful information on the accident itself, has a small news item asking people whether the future replacement statue should be surrounded by some kind of barrier, like an iron railing. The article also says that members of the Győr police driving at 50 km/h reached the place where the statue once stood in 7 seconds. And, yes, they were driving from Győr toward Abda and not vice versa as Szabolcs P. claimed he was driving. So, perhaps the police after all know something that they haven’t bothered to share with the public.

These delaying tactics of the Hungarian police are regrettable. It would be much better to inform the public of police findings as soon as possible. Otherwise doubts remain, just as they remain in the case of the Baja video.

The “ethics” of a car accident

Today’s topic, a car accident, is not the usual fare of this blog. Admittedly, one of the people injured in the accident was the Hungarian minister of defense, Csaba Hende, but that wouldn’t be sufficient reason to blog about it. (Fortunately no one died and the minister’s Audi wasn’t even a total loss.) I decided to write about it because I think it reveals more about Hungary and Hungarians than most scientific analyses of social conditions in the country. It offers anecdotal evidence of Hungarians’ general disregard of the law. It also says something about the arrogance of Hungarian politicians.

Csaba Hende, along with an adviser, was traveling to a meeting with local inhabitants where he was supposed to tell his audience about the blessings of lowering utility prices. Of course, the first question is: What on earth is a minister of defense doing at such a function? The short answer is that in Orbán’s Hungary all members of the cabinet are expected to spread Fidesz propaganda. Several ministers and undersecretaries have already spoken at such propaganda meetings. Viktor Orbán obviously considers lowering utility rates a key point in his election campaign and has enlisted members of his government to sing its praises and thus win over voters.

Hende was heading toward Szécsény, a smallish town near the Slovak-Hungarian border between Balassagyarmat and Salgótarján. Although according to reports the minister’s car didn’t exceed the speed limit, it is likely that they were in a hurry because instead of taking the better road the driver, who also acts as Hende’s bodyguard, chose a sparsely traveled secondary road that shortened their travel time. It is a twisting, winding road. As it turned out, this road is a favorite of race car drivers who don’t have much opportunity to test their cars before rallies. The driver brings along two of his friends who act as flagmen. They ask other drivers to wait a bit until the practice is over. Naturally these guys don’t pay attention to speed limits. The driver of that particular race car was executing a serpentine curve at a speed of 100 km or 62 miles an hour. This practice is illegal but, as I found out from several articles I read on the subject, it is a common practice without much interference from the police.

strong manBut let’s not assume that the driver of Hende’s car was any more law abiding. He traveled with his emergency siren on and the blue light on the top of his vehicle flashing. Under normal circumstances the use of the siren and light is strictly forbidden. They can be used only in emergency situations. And surely going to a meeting to sell the idea of lowering utility prices is not one of those.

As for the events prior to the accident, they are not at all clear. According to some descriptions, the driver of Hende’s car simply ignored the flagman. According to others, he did exchange a few words with him but refused to wait until the race driver finished his run. In any case, a second later there was a fairly serious accident in which five people were injured.

Both sides disregarded the law. I was actually surprised to hear that Hende and his companion had used their seat belts. Not like Viktor Orbán who in the March snowstorm could be seen on the video ignoring the seat belt law that was supposed to be strictly enforced.

But that’s not all. There are also the reporters who offered up all sorts of fanciful explanations for why the driver of the minister’s car actually did the right thing when he ignored the flagman. Here is perhaps the most interesting one: “Origo learned from non-official sources that there was no physical barricade that could be construed as a road closure. Moreover, the driver of a person under special protection according to protocol cannot just stop because a person on the roadside waves at him.” Another “expert” advanced the following explanation: “Obviously the driver [of Hende’s car] had to suspect a trap and surely must have wondered what this man wanted.” Whatever the experts say, if a flagman warns of danger ahead, it’s a good idea to stop and inquire about the details. Or, as most people do, simply stop until your car is waved through.

Why didn’t the driver stop? Was he really afraid that on a secondary road in the middle of nowhere someone wanted to set a trap for that very important personage? Or is it perhaps the case that “those idiots on top,”  as a commenter described Hungarian politicians the other day, simply ignore ordinary mortals? I suspect it was the latter. After all, the driver had the blue light, the siren, and the almighty minister. These trump some guy waving on the roadside. The minister’s car will proceed. Unfortunately, hubris doesn’t always pay. In fact, it seldom pays, a lesson the Orbán government has yet to learn.