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A judge’s approach to the vandalisation of Horthy’s statue

October 1st, 2012

Right-wing commentators are appalled by the statement of a judge who convicted but at the same time praised a protester for damaging a statue recently erected to Hungary’s interwar ruler. Left-wing analysts welcome the judge’s position and disagree with the Vice President of the Supreme Court, who scolded his colleague for expressing a personal opinion when issuing his verdict.

On September 26, the Siófok Court reprimanded Péter Dániel for having poured red paint on Admiral Horthy’s wooden statue after it was erected in the nearby settlement of Kereki. In his explanation of the mild first instance sentence, Judge István Kovacsics said Dániel’s act was morally justified, for in the late nineteen-thirties and the early forties Admiral Horthy did nothing to prevent the anti-Jewish legislation which progressively deprived Hungary’s Jewry of their rights and property, until most were sent to death camps operated by Nazi Germany. Modern Hungary officially and legally branded those acts criminal when the laws on compensation to surviving victims were passed. Thus, the judge argued, the Head of State who did not use his veto power against any of the anti-Jewish laws, was clearly also legally condemned by modern legislators. Judge Kovacsics has been severely criticised by István Kónya, Vice President of the Supreme Court, who said opinions on history should not be part of court verdicts.

In Magyar Hírlap, Zsolt Bayer thinks the judge in question should be dismissed. He argues that Miklós Horthy, who ruled Hungary from 1920 to 1944, is still revered by a large portion of the population, including Hungarians living in neighbouring countries whose areas were reunited with Hungary from 1938 to 1942, until 1945. Other Hungarians “consider him the devil in person”. These two feelings are irreconcilable, for they stem from opposing historical experiences. And since these emotions are passed on within the families from one generation to the next, Bayer continues, we cannot hope for that opposition to disappear any time soon. He believes the judge “brought us back to 1952”, i.e. the darkest period of Communist dictatorship, for “that was the last time when court rulings included political declarations”.  Judge Kovacsics, Bayer contends, is unfit for his job, “and should be sacked immediately”. Then, he suggests sarcastically, Mr Kovacsics could make a “splendid career” in the Socialist Party. In a hint at the criticism the recent reform of the judiciary has been subjected to in Hungary and abroad (See BudaPost, December 1st, 2011), Bayer concludes that “if the reforms have only got us this far, then we really are in deep trouble.”

In a poignant piece in the same right-wing daily, Péter Szentmihályi Szabó admits that he must be extremely old fashioned, for the idea of defacing or smashing up statues has never even crossed his mind, but now that Péter Dániel has been praised by the court, he starts to feel awkward.  He believes the case reflects Hungary’s moral degradation and explains why society is dissatisfied with the judiciary. There have hardly been any faultless politicians in history, therefore all their statues “could be defaced on moral grounds”. Szentmihályi Szabó thinks it is right for historians to question whether a historical figure deserves a statue, but courts are not competent in such issues. He hints at the possibility of a counter-attack against Count Károlyi’s statue. The President of the first Hungarian Republic (1918) later became a communist but spent his last years in exile. He was then “rehabilitated” by the Kádár regime, which erected his statue near the Parliament building. That statue has recently been removed as part of a plan to restructure the area, and has been “adopted” by the city of Siófok. Szentmihályi Szabó warns against the temptation of that statue “regaining dramatic significance”.

In Népszava, editor Péter Németh finds it surprising that the Vice President of the Supreme Court has proved to be “so sensitive”, after the Siófok judge, “showing admittedly uncustomary courage, refused to join the chorus of Horthy’s whitewashers”. So far, the Supreme Court has never criticised judges in public, although there have been plenty of opportunities to do so “after a few mistaken sentences, for instance”. Now it has, only because a judge “refuses to falsify history”. Németh also blames the Supreme Court for tolerating the fact that successive sentences in favour of Klub Radio “are consistently ignored by the Media Authority”. In the latest verdict in the case of the opposition radio station, the Budapest Court declared null and void the authority’s decision to consider the competitive bidding for Klub’s frequency invalid, but the two sides have drawn diametrically opposing conclusions from the ruling.

In Népszabadság, Károly Lencsés remarks that the courts apparently make their decisions independently from what might suit the government or its supporters. His first example is the verdict on Klub Radio, but he also mentions the case of the former Socialist mayor of a Budapest district who has been cleared of corruption charges; another has only been condemned for petty abuses instead of the mafia-style crime he was accused of. Lencsés does not explicitly claim that the government was hurt by the Siófok sentence, nor that Judge Kovacsics’s ruling is part of the series of sentences he mentions, he just believes the Siófok judge also reached his decision on a firm ethical basis. It was obvious that he had to condemn the defendant, which he did, but he thought it was important for him to declare how a democrat feels about Admiral Horthy. Lencsés disagrees with the Vice-President of the Supreme Court, who said “judges should not tackle the moral and historical motivation of a deed.” The left-wing commentator thinks that judges cannot take the right decisions without uncovering the social background and consequences of a criminal offence. “For instance by keeping in mind, whose statues are normally erected in democratic countries and whose are not”.

In Heti Válasz, Bálint Ablonczy argues that courts should not become akin to the Op-ed pages of the newspapers, for it would be unacceptable if verdicts, their wording and argumentation depended on the taste or political affiliation of the judges. The Siófok ruling cannot decide what we should think about Horthy, for that is a matter courts are not competent to decide. Ablonczy continues explaining that personally he believes “cherishing Horthy’s memory and idealising his era leads Hungary’s right wing into a blind alley and reflects dangerous ignorance about history”. But a judge who finds excuses “for a clown”, rather than providing historical justice, “is missing the point and missing his own role”.

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