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Former State Security Minister convicted in first instance

July 8th, 2013

Commentators agree that it is difficult to interpret a conviction where no information is available to the public, not even the precise nature of the charge. They tend to believe the sentence is either ill-founded or justified, according to their political affiliations.

Former State Security Minister György Szilvásy, as well as Lajos Galambos and Sándor Laborc, both former heads of the civilian counter-espionage service under Socialist governments, were convicted of espionage by the Debrecen Military Court, while one of the defendants, an independent contractor was found not guilty on July 5th. Details of the charges and the evidence were classified as state secrets and the trial was held behind closed doors. According to Hungarian media reports in 2006, Russian experts invited by leading officials to screen the staff of the Hungarian counter-espionage performed a series of polygraph tests to discover whether staff members were disloyal to their superiors. The IT system of the secret services was hacked, apparently during that same period. György Szilvásy was sentenced to 2 years and ten months in prison, as was Lajos Galambos, while Sándor Laborc received a one year suspended prison sentence. Fidesz party spokesman Máté Kocsis described the verdicts as proof of the misdeeds of Hungary’s “mafia-left wing”. Socialist party leader Attila Mesterházy said his party continued to trust in Szilvásy’s innocence. The case is under appeal.

Magyar Nemzet’s commentator calls the case ‘unprecedented’ – never before have a former State Security Minister or the head of any of the secret services been convicted of espionage. But why such a lenient sentence? And why was a  fourth defendant who did have ties with Russia acquitted? György Haraszti notes that although very little information is available about the specific charges, the accused were convicted by an independent Hungarian court, despite their claims that the investigation was politically motivated.  Now, he concludes, the faces of the convicted are pale because they realise they may have lost their impunity.

Népszabadság’s editorial, relying on the same sparse morsels of information, arrives at a very different conclusion. The relatively mild sentence prompts the left-wing daily to believe that the alleged acts of espionage cannot have been very grave. The charge, that a Minister of State Security should spy on employees of the secret service is indeed unprecedented in history and  Népszabadság wonders how a cabinet Minister could have spied on his own people. Nor does the author see where the involvement of a foreign power may be involved. The editorial does not mention the polygraph story, it focuses rather on a mutual tapping duel between the counter-espionage agency and a private security firm thought to be close to Fidesz. (Some of the data thus collected on several Fidesz luminaries was stored illegally by the authorities. That case, in which Szilvásy is a defendant, was recently returned to the primary court for re-trial.) If anything, such a case is of vital interest to the public, Népszabadság concludes, and should not be kept as a dark secret.

In his blog, cink.hu, László Szily, a popular independent journalist points out that although not much is known, and he suspects will never be made public in his lifetime – the case has been classified until 2041 – there is a striking disparity in the sentence. If the defendant who had actual contacts with Russia could walk free, that can best be explained by a plea bargain, he speculates. “Based on my spy novel experience”, he concludes, László P. must have implicated the others in his confession

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