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Biszku sentenced for war crimes

May 15th, 2014

Left and liberal papers question the wisdom of the prison sentence handed down to Béla Biszku, a former high ranking communist, for war crimes committed after the 1956 revolution. They echo the arguments of the defence that the trial was politically motivated.

92 year old Béla Biszku, a former communist hardliner, was sentenced to 5 years and 6 months in prison by a court of the first instance in Budapest on Tuesday. He was indicted for war crimes committed against civilians just after the 1956 revolution was crushed by invading Soviet troops, when Communist militias opened fire on demonstrators and beat up civilians. Biszku, who was one of the leaders of the Communist Party from 1956 to 1978, denied giving direct orders to shoot. The prosecutor quoted the minutes of the Interim Executive Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ (Communist) Party as proof that the defendant advocated ruthless violence “against counterrevolutionary elements”, a crime against humanity according to the 1949 Geneva Conventions which Hungary had also ratified by then. The defence argued that there was no evidence of Biszku giving direct orders to kill civilians and dismissed the prosecutor’s concept of “an ideological order” as flawed. The judge found Biszku guilty of war crimes and of “denial of Communist era crimes”, which is a punishable offence under Hungarian criminal law. Biszku never denied that he regarded the 56 revolution as a “fascist uprising” and thought that Imre Nagy, the unrepentant 1956 Prime Minister executed in 1958 “deserved his fate”. (See BudaPost October 19, 2013 .)

Népszabadság’s editorial asks if Biszku should be punished for all the violence perpetrated by Communist militias in 56 or only for acts that he committed himself. The author argues that the court did not “take one of the two plausible options”, either convicting Biszku and sentencing him for life, or acquitting him. Instead, it chose a sentence of 5 years and 6 months which Népszabadság regards as a symbolic gesture.)

In Népszava Róbert Friss flatly dismisses the sentence, calling the trial political gimmickry. He asks if it is right, in principle, to sentence someone for his political convictions and the actions that followed from those convictions, rather than for murder. He even argues, citing the historian Sebastian Haffner, that the Nuremberg defendants should have been  prosecuted for murder rather than hard-to-define “crimes against humanity”. Friss admits however that it is very difficult to prove the involvement of totalitarian leaders in the crimes committed by others who followed their general guidelines without receiving direct orders. He concludes that no court sentence can “save us from ideologies and lives burdened with ideologies”.

In an unsigned editorial, Magyar Narancs online calls Biszku “the last scoundrel who owes his political career to Soviet tanks” and is “guilty of treason”. Yet this is not enough to send someone to prison, they argue, because a criminal conviction is not a matter of what historians know but of what the prosecution can prove. They think Biszku‘s “real crimes” (such as his role in the retributions in 1957) will remain undiscovered because the court, “urged on by Fidesz”, wanted to convict him before he dies.

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