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A time of guilt

June 26th, 2011

A bill submitted to Parliament broadening the rights of the prosecution against suspected criminal offenders has caused a major uproar in the left wing press. Even a conservative commentator describes the successive amendments to the bill as ‘hasty.’

Fidesz went too far this time” – suggests 168 óra, describing the bill as “intolerable”.

In an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure, István Balsai, former Minister for Justice, a Fidesz MP (from this summer a judge of the Constitutional Court) proposed increased rights for the prosecution in especially grave cases. The new measures include 120 hour detention without charge (instead of the current maximum of 72 hours), forbidding defence lawyers from being present at interrogations during the first 48 hours of detention (reduced to 24 hours in a subsequent amendment) and the right of the prosecutors to file the case to the court of their choice. The bill, with modifications, has now been cleared the Constitutional Committee of Parliament, and will now be the subject of a floor debate. In a televised interview last Saturday, Gergely Gulyás, a leading Fidesz MP said his party may not insist on the idea of allowing the prosecution to keep lawyers away from the first day of the detention.

The opposition press rejects the argument that such new rules will succeed in their professed aim of speeding up criminal procedures. In his weekly column in 168 óra, György Bolgár argues that interrogations in the absence of defence counsel are a violation of the defendant’s basic right to fair treatment. A similar practice in France was annulled by the Council of State, in response to a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights.

“The fact that this proposal is unconstitutional is not the only problem” – remarks Attila Gy. Fekete in Népszabadság. “Should the bill pass, anyone at any time might question the lawful and fair proceedings of the authorities. … Instead of promoting quicker jurisdiction, it will demolish the credibility of the judicial system”, Népszabadság comments.

“It does not matter [to Fidesz] that Hungary will break fundamental international norms. Voters want quicker judgements, so they will get them. Should the process be delayed by niggling lawyers, they will be elbowed into a corner.

This is a repeat of what happened when the Constitutional Court lost its right to supervise fiscal laws,” the left-wing daily concludes, – a reference to another, much criticised change introduced by the Fidesz government.

Heti Válasz concentrates on the concept’s political impact, suggesting that it might give the impression of not being thoroughly thought-through, leading to a loss of confidence among voters.

Editor-in-chief Gábor Borókai finds it discouraging that the author of an amendment to the bill has already amended his own amendment. Borókai praises the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration for having outlined new plans for a citizen-friendly public service, and contrasts its performance with the hasty bills submitted by individual MPs.

The main pro-government daily analyses the controversial amendment in the context of whether the judiciary is obliged to satisfy the desires of the citizens. András Stohl, a popular actor is on trial for drink-driving which resulted in a serious car accident. His friends and colleagues publicly appealed to the court not to send him to prison. Gábor D. Horváth, deputy editor of Magyar Nemzet says the court should only be accountable to the law. But law-makers should take public opinion into account. The public does in fact demand that perpetrators be brought to justice and condemned.  In recent Hungarian history, scores of well-known figures have managed to get away with their crimes, taking advantage of the loopholes in criminal procedure, Horváth remarks. The public wants swifter trials and for loopholes to be closed, which is how its proponents justify the proposed amendments, Magyar Nemzet concludes.