Hungarian National Security Office

A show trial in Orbán’s Hungary

Today, inspired by an anonymous piece of writing entitled “A kémügy” (The spy affair) that appeared online on September 16, I will revisit a case I have written about extensively in the past. In July there was a show trial in the military court of Debrecen where the accused were a former minister and two high officials in the Hungarian National Security office.  We will not know details of the trial or even the charges brought against these men for a very long time because the transcript of the trial and the material gathered by the prosecution will not be made public until 2041. Moreover, a gag order was imposed on the defendants. If they reveal anything whatsoever related to the case they will be charged with divulging “state secrets,” which may mean another trial and another sentence.

The last time a cabinet minister and high-ranking officials were accused and convicted of espionage in Hungary was during the Rákosi period. In 1949 László Rajk, minister of the interior, and several high-ranking army officers were accused of spying, found guilty, and executed. The charges were, of course, trumped up. Times have changed, at least in the sense that Viktor Orbán’s political enemies can no longer be physically eliminated. But even on trumped-up charges they can end up in jail for a few years, their lives ruined.

The defendants in this case were György Szilvásy, minister in charge of national security in the Gyurcsány administration, Lajos Galambos, head of the National Security Office, and Sándor Laborc, Galambos’s successor. The court procedures were conducted in the Debrecen military court instead of in a Budapest civilian court.

As I said, I have written a lot about this case, and I suggest that those who are interested in this trial should read some of the older entries. My first post on the subject appeared on July 2, 2011, with the title “More and more arrests, most likely on phony charges,” which was followed by two more in the same month, one of which I entitled “The case against György Szilvásy and the national security chiefs might be of historic importance.” I borrowed that title from Gábor Török, a political scientist, who argued at the time that if the charges turn out to be unfounded “the present government majority can’t escape political responsibility.” In a democracy, said Török, “no political power can use means that are considered to be illegitimate.” Török suspected that someone did use such means and warned that “it will be a black day for Hungarian democracy when we find out who he was.”

Reading this old blog post of Gábor Török from 2011, we can now understand Viktor Orbán’s fury, described by the author of “A kémügy,” when he found out that despite the assurances of Chief Prosecutor Peter Polt the prosecutors’ case against Szilvásy was so weak that a military judge named Béla Varga refused to initiate proceedings against Szilvásy. Poor Varga didn’t remain a military judge for long. In fact, he is currently under criminal investigation. But after Varga’s ruling Orbán realized that “his political career is at stake” and that this “mistake” must be corrected somehow. And the situation for Orbán didn’t look good. The prosecutors appealed and the appellate court agreed with the lower court.

It was at that junction, claims our author, that there was a meeting of Fidesz leaders, high officials of the Ministry of Interior, and top prosecutors. Fidesz leaders made it clear that the “problem” must be solved. A guilty verdict must be delivered, at least in the first instance. The burden eventually fell on the minister of the interior, Sándor Pintér, who just a bit earlier had received supervisory rights over a new national security organization called Nemzeti Védelmi Szolgálat (National Security Service). He managed to get bits and pieces of information from Laborc’s successor, László Balajti, about some of the cases Galambos and Laborc handled.

Since I already wrote rather extensively about the case, I will not dwell on the details. It is enough to say that Galambos hired an outside firm owned by a person whose father studied in the Soviet Union and whose mother was Russian to conduct lie detector tests on some of the people whom he suspected of being spies for Fidesz within his own office. That became the wedge used to build a case against these three men. The prosecutors concentrated on Galambos with the idea of breaking him. Initially, however, they were not successful and again the investigative judge released him from custody. Again, the prosecutors appealed the ruling and in the second instance the investigative judge sent Galambos back to  jail. But although Galambos was often quite incoherent, he did not accuse his minister of espionage.

It was at that point that Sándor Pintér’s new National Defense Service took over the investigation because the politician was worried that nothing would come of this not so well constructed phony case. But by law the National Defense Service is not allowed to engage in investigative operations. So, illegally the officials of the Service visited Galambos in jail and asked for his cooperation. Galambos could easily be coerced because he had another court case hanging over his head. They promised that if he cooperates they will drop the charges in the other case. By that time Galambos was in such bad psychological shape that overnight the prison guards checked on him every fifteen minutes. But still no tangible evidence came to light that would implicate György Szilvásy. Eventually, they asked Galambos whether they could “summarize” his testimony.

According to the document, Szilvásy, with the knowledge of Ferenc Gyurcsány, served Russian interests. He tried to pass MOL. the Hungarian oil company, into Russian hands and Szilvásy allegedly had something to do with the collapse of Malév, the Hungarian airline company. The lie detector tests were necessary to prevent leaks because the Russians wanted to be sure that no one learns the details of the planned Southern Stream gas pipeline. The anonymous author reminds us that these accusations are practically the same that Fidesz leveled against the Gyurcsány government. Mind you, even here the officers of the National Defense Service were sloppy. At the time that all these dastardly deeds were allegedly committed, in 2006 and early 2007, there were no talks about Hungary’s involvement in the Southern Stream project.

This so-called testimony, the linchpin of the whole case, wasn’t included with the other pieces of evidence because in that case the defense would have been able to read it before the trial. In which case they would have been able to deny the charges in writing. Moreover, evidence obtained illegally cannot be used in the investigative phase. On the other hand, the judges would most likely accept it as evidence because they were more interested in its content than the way in which it was obtained. So, the decision was made that during Galambos’s trial, Galambos himself would ask for the “summary.” Naturally, neither Szilvásy nor Laborc was present and therefore they had no way of knowing what Galambos’s testimony was all about. Therefore they couldn’t possibly mount a defense against it.

Galambos had to be found guilty because otherwise Szilvásy couldn’t have been charged with abetment and Laborc with complicity. Galambos and Szilvásy each received jail sentences of two years and ten months, Sándor Laborc a suspended sentence of one year.

This is what we can glean from this anonymous document. How much of it is true we cannot know now and perhaps never will. But espionage is certainly a very serious offense. According to ¶261§(1) of the Hungarian Criminal Code, someone who gathers intelligence for a foreign power will receive a sentence of from two to eight years. ¶261§(2) states that if the information passed to a foreign power happens to be top-secret then the sentence will be harsher, between five and fifteen years. Considering that Galambos received only two years and ten months, the alleged evidence was most likely very flimsy.

If political motivation played a role and the prosecutors, the military judges, the ministry of interiors actually conspired to send György Szilvásy to jail just because of his role in unveiling Fidesz politicians’ illegal spying on the National Security Office, then Orbán’s Hungary is no longer a country that respects the rule of law. A friend of mine made an observation that I think is absolutely brilliant.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Senlis /

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Senlis /

In classic show trials the victims were forced to cooperate and in a spectacular public trial they admitted their guilt. Once the authorities got what they wanted, the judges could announce the verdict and the victims naturally were found guilty. But what happens when the accused refuse to admit guilt as these three men did? How do the authorities manage to send them to jail? The Orbán government came up with the perfect solution. They made everything about this trial secret, including the exact nature of the charges. The persons involved are bound by a gag order. The victims cannot even deny their guilt in public. Thus we will never know what they were charged with and why they were found guilty. This is, my friend says, worse than the classic show trials. I tend to agree with him.