Hungary's judiciary under threat, warns commission

Wed, Mar 21, 2012, 00:00

CONTROVERSIAL CHANGES to Hungary’s judicial system threaten the independence of its courts and the right to a fair trial, Europe’s main human rights and democracy watchdog has warned.

Legal experts at the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission raised grave concerns about judicial reform and reservations about new rules governing religions in Hungary, where prime minister Viktor Orban has introduced hundreds of laws since taking power in 2010.

He has used a two-thirds majority in parliament to push through a new constitution and legislation that he and his right-wing Fidesz party say are long overdue, but which critics claim amount to a dangerous power grab that threatens the future of Hungarian democracy.

Many of Mr Orban’s new laws tighten the control that he and his allies enjoy over public life and previously independent institutions. A National Judicial Office (NJO) has been given sweeping powers to appoint and sack judges and choose which courts hear which cases.

The president of the NJO is Tunde Hando, a friend of Mr Orban and the wife of Jozsef Szajer, the Fidesz politician who reputedly wrote Hungary’s new constitution.

“While the commission identified a number of positive provisions . . . the reform as a whole threatens the independence of the judiciary. It introduces a unique system of judicial administration, which exists in no other European country,” the Venice Commission wrote.

It stated that “the essential elements of the reform – if they remained unchanged – not only contradict European standards for the organisation of the judiciary, especially its independence, but are also problematic as concerns the right to a fair trial.”

The report for the 47-nation Council of Europe found that “the main problem is the concentration of power in the hands of one person, ie the president of the NJO . . . in no other member state of the Council of Europe are such important powers . . . vested in one single person . . . The very long term of office [nine years] adds to these concerns.”

The European Union is threatening Hungary with legal action unless it changes laws governing its central bank, judiciary and data protection authority. Until those issues are resolved, the EU and IMF will not discuss Mr Orban’s request for a €20 billion loan.

The Venice Commission also said rules that have cut the number of officially recognised churches in Hungary from more than 300 to 32 were “excessive and based on arbitrary criteria”.