Sándor Laborc

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 / wikimedia.org

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Senlis / wikimedia.org

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.

From a fair verdict to an unfounded accusation: Fidesz and the Roma murders

Today is a landmark in the history of Hungarian jurisprudence. The court found four men guilty of various crimes, including murder motivated by racial hatred. Three  men received life imprisonment without parole, the maximum sentence that can be meted out in Hungary, and the fourth received a 13-year sentence without the possibility of early release.

I wrote many times about the murders when they happened between July 21, 2008 and August 3, 2009. A group of men injured several people and killed six. The incidents occurred in villages located in three counties: Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén, Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg, and Pest. The first two are located in the northeastern corner of the country where there is a large concentration of ethnic Roma. As it turned out, the perpetrators lived in Debrecen.

It would be too long to catalog all the mistakes the police and the medical authorities made during the investigation which resulted in a less than complete discovery of all the details. It is very possible that in addition to the four sentenced today there might have been others involved. But despite the sloppy police work there was enough evidence to find these four men guilty. Although members of the victims’ families complained that the fourth man’s sentence was too light, most people think that the judge did a good job and that the sentences are fair and deserved.

Fidesz reacted to the resolution of this case, which took three years of investigation and 186 days in court, by hinting darkly about the “true culprits.”

By now Fidesz has so many spokesmen that it is hard to keep track of them. Viktor Orbán not without reason considers communication a vital, perhaps the most important part of politics. One could be malicious and say that since governing is not Viktor Orbán’s forte he puts all his efforts into propaganda about his nonexistent accomplishments. And when the talk is not about “we are doing better,” then these spokesmen concentrate on attributing the greatest crimes to Fidesz’s political opponents. The spokesman today was Róbert Zsigó, one of the newer appointees.

I must admit that I had never heard of Róbert Zsigó before he became a Fidesz spokesman although he has been a member of parliament ever since 1998. His educational background is meager: at the age of eighteen he finished a course that qualified him to become a pastry chef and for ten years he worked as an employee in a confectionery shop. Most likely because he was planning a political career he decided to finish gymnasium at the age of 29. According to his biography, he is currently a student at the University of Pécs. A Fidesz spokesman, member of the Baja city council, member of parliament, and a student at Pécs. What a multi-tasker!

Zsigó is not very careful with his words when he viciously attacks Fidesz’s political  opponents. Only a couple of months ago he hurled all sorts of abuse studded with lies against Gordon Bajnai who promptly sued him. And I’m sure that many more law suits will follow if Zsigó keeps up his usual way of handling news.

Róbert Zsigó one of Fidesz's  spokesmen

Róbert Zsigó, one of Fidesz’s spokesmen

So, let’s see what Zsigó came up with on the occasion of the sentencing of these serial murderers. Instead of dwelling on the importance of this verdict, Zsigó talked about the unanswered questions still lingering around the case. One of these questions is “why did these murders occur in 2008 and 2009, during the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments?” It would also be good to know, he continued, “in whose interest” these murders took place. “Who are those whose skins were saved and whose names will remain hidden forever?” It is a good thing he didn’t go any further than that. As it is, these sentences border on accusing two Hungarian prime ministers of hiring hit men.

Zsigó immediately added that Sándor Laborc, head of the National Security Office, György Szilvásy, minister in charge of national security matters in the Gyurcsány government, and Ádám Ficsor, his successor in the Bajnai government, are responsible for what happened. Zsigó called Laborc and Szilvásy “central figures of the mafia Left whom Gyurcsány, Bajnai, and Mesterházy as one man defended. ” You may recall that it was a month ago that I reported on the secret trial of Szilvásy and Laborc on espionage charges. Orbán, after being unable to put Ferenc Gyurcsány behind bars, settled on his friend and minister, György Szilvásy.

This reaction by one of the spokesmen of Fidesz was carefully prepared. It is likely that the script Zsigó delivered was written a long time ago to be delivered at the time of the announcement of the verdict.

Not surprisingly in the wake of such an official pronouncement, Magyar Hírlap came out with the following headline: “Why did the murders occur under Bajnai?” Magyar Nemzet went even farther with this headline: “Roma murders: [Fidesz] would like to investigate the responsibility of Gyurcsány.” The article tried to interpret some of the comments of opposition politicians as an attempt to divert attention from the alleged criminal involvement of high government officials in covering up the real story behind the Roma murders.

The most outrageous accusation involved Ágnes Vadai whom the reporter asked about Viktória Mohácsi, an SZDSZ member of parliament, EP MEP, and Roma activist who is currently seeking political asylum in Canada. Viktória Mohácsi claimed in an interview with CBC that the Gyurcsány government withheld documents and information in order to cover up the fact that government employees had something to do with these crimes. Vadai very politely said that she doesn’t know anything about this because by the time the matter was discussed she wasn’t a member of the parliamentary committee on national security. Interestingly enough, Magyar Nemzet and other right-wing papers normally have nothing but scorn for Mohácsi and her claim of political persecution in Hungary. But now for obvious reasons she became a handy source of information trying to implicate Gyurcsány in the serial murder of Gypsies.

The whole thing is disgusting. I understand that politics can be dirty. But that dirty? Suggesting, almost accusing, one’s political opponents of hiring hit men for unknown and unspecified reasons in some unnamed people’s interest? It boggles the mind.

A new political bomb: Did the Gyurcsány government spy on Fidesz politicians?

I’m in a real quandary.  Someone complained that I didn’t mention the very successful Walk for Life on Sunday while somebody else suggested that I should say something about the case of Miklós Hagyó, former deputy mayor of Budapest who went all the way to the European Court of Justice about what he considered to be his illegal detention for nine months without being charged.

But in addition to these two topics there are others that should have been talked about. For example, the anti-Semitic Patriotic Bikers whose ride across Budapest took place even though they had been forbidden to do so by the police at the instruction of Viktor Orbán. Or, that an amendment to the law was passed that forbids the use of symbols associated with right or left dictatorships. And there are the latest Eurostat figures that show that Hungary’s deficit is lower than anyone expected. It is 1.9%!

However important and interesting these topics are, I think I ought to write about the so-called Portik-Laborc affair although I’m somewhat handicapped here because I didn’t follow the police investigation of the case of Tamás Portik, a well-known figure in the Budapest underworld. However, I knew that something was afoot in government circles to connect György Szilvásy, former minister without portfolio in charge of national security in the Gyurcsány government, and Sándor Laborc, head of the National Security Office, to Tamás Portik. It was more than a year ago that stories began to float about these two government officials having questionable dealings with a known criminal. I wrote about the story at the time in a post entitled “Another ‘surveillance’ case is being hatched by Fidesz.” It took more than a year, but now the bomb has been dropped.

Magyar Nemzet, which by now can safely be called the official paper of the Orbán government, managed to get hold of an edited transcript of a tape recording of two meetings between Laborc and Portik. According to the article that appeared in yesterday’s edition of the paper, Tamás Portik in 2008 was so terribly concerned about Fidesz winning  the election in 2010 that he offered information on Fidesz politicians designed to help MSZP ruin Viktor Orbán’s party. According to Magyar Nemzet,  Portik was allegedly worried that a future Fidesz government would pursue some of his earlier crimes. The article claims that the transcript in the paper’s possession clearly proves that there was “an intimate connection between the Gyurcsány government and the underworld.”  A rather sweeping statement.

Today Magyar Nemzet published excerpts from the two meetings between Portik and Laborc. I should mention here that Szilvásy was told back in 2008 by a third person that Portik would like to get in touch with someone from the National Security Office because he had information about people who might be cause for concern. Szilvásy in turn got in touch with Laborc who pursued the lead. The excerpts Magyar Nemzet decided to publish are hard to follow. Most likely this was the paper’s intent. One doesn’t always know what the subject of the conversations between the two men really is. According to one reading of the text, Portik is offering dirt on certain Fidesz politicians that Laborc gratefully accepts; others view the conversation as an attempt on Laborc’s part to find out about the reliability of the informer.

Since then the text of the excerpts from the transcript has become available. This gives a somewhat clearer picture of what transpired at these two meetings between Laborc and Portik during the summer of 2008. The conversation begins with a discussion of the right-wing influence in the police force which “XXX directs.” Portik claims that the police are badgering him to give them incriminating information about leading member of MSZP. But at the same time he tells Laborc that he delivered cash to MSZP politicians, which might be true but might be merely a stratagem to establish his credibility. Let’s not forget that he is a criminal.

By the second conversation it looks as if cooperation between Portik and Laborc had been sealed. “It’s good that we found each other. Something serious may come of this,” says Laborc. This is followed up by an outline of the points of cooperation. “What interests us most is which politicians, judges, and prosecutors are under whose influence.” And, adds Portik, “perhaps the police.” Laborc agrees. On the surface this sounds fine. Laborc wants to find out about corruption and political influence in government offices. But when in the next sentence there is talk about catching people in a brothel it doesn’t sound so innocent. Laborc here gives the impression that he is trying to find dirt on men in the service of Fidesz.

Eventually Laborc even gave Portik his own secure cell phone number. Portik seemed to be very eager to cooperate because he was certain that he would end up in jail in case Fidesz wins the next election. Laborc interrupted him, saying that it is possible that “they will take me as well.” I assume he was thinking of the UD Zrt. case in which he ordered the monitoring of telephone conversations that included calls between Fidesz politicians and the men running UD Zrt. that was spying on the National Security Office’s activities. He was not far off in his prediction.

All in all, it looks pretty bad. The MSZP leadership seems to be split on the issue. According to Attila Mesterházy, “both the style and the content of the conversations are unacceptable.” On the other hand, Zsolt Molnár, MSZP chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, who seems to have more information on the case because of his position, claims that Laborc’s conversation with Portik contains nothing that could be considered illegal. He was just doing his job.

Szilvásy pointed out in an interview on Klubrádió that the transcript about whose authenticity we know nothing is being used for political purposes. After all, said Szilvásy, if Laborc considered his conduct illegal he wouldn’t have ordered the conversations to be taped and transcribed. Laborc’s lawyer seems to know that the transcriptions are edited. The transcript of the first conversation, which lasted an hour and a half, took up 41 pages while only 24 pages of the second one, which was two and a half hours long, were published. On his client’s behalf he will demand to see the complete transcript. DK considers the released text “a complete jumble-mumble without names.” I tend to agree. Without the complete text we don’t really know what happened.

The Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM) and LMP both demand setting up a parliamentary committee to investigate the case, but apparently Fidesz is not too eager to oblige. Only they know why.