Viktor Orbán’s grip on Hungary’s courts threatens rule of law, warns judge

·5-min read

Viktor Orbán’s government is “constantly overreaching” its authority to sway the courts, a senior judge has said, in an intervention that will deepen alarm about the rule of law in Hungary.

In rare comments that lift the lid on the Hungarian government’s assault on judicial checks and balances, Csaba Vasvári, a senior judge at the Budapest metropolitan court, told the Observer that he and his colleagues on the bench “have been witnessing external and internal influence attempts” for several years. Vasvári, who has worked as a judge for 18 years, is a spokesperson for the National Judicial Council, a self-governing body that has been battling to defend judges’ independence for more than a decade.

Vasvári said political overreach came from all sides of the political spectrum but his comments are an indictment of Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party, which has held a super-majority for much of its 12 years in power.

One “clear internal influence attempt” Vasvári cited was a discussion among senior court officials and a prime suspect in a corruption case about firing the investigating judge or making life “uncomfortable” for them at work, according to redacted secret documents leaked to Hungarian media. The case centres on Fidesz MP and former deputy justice minister Pál Völner, who has been accused of accepting bribes – charges he denies. Völner was not involved in discussions to fire the investigating judge.

In an unusual move, a senior judge appointed by the Fidesz-controlled parliament decided a judicial investigation into the case would remain secret, not only to the public but even to fellow judges.

Vasvári also lamented a lack of transparency in judicial appointments made by the president of the National Office for the Judiciary (NJO), a post created by Orbán’s party that has been criticised by international rights organisations for putting too much power in the hands of the executive.

The NJO president is responsible for running Hungary’s court system, but the European Commission and the Council of Europe have said this person, a political appointee, holds too much power and is subject to too few checks and balances. There is also concern about nepotism, as relatively unqualified friends and family of well-connected politicians take senior posts in the court system.

The Observer has learned that in June the wife of Hungary’s supreme court president was appointed to a senior judicial job despite getting fewer votes than her rival in an election held by judges. Documents seen by the Observer show that Helga Mariann Kovács, who is married to András Zs Varga, was appointed to lead a judicial panel dealing with politically sensitive cases at the Budapest court of appeal although she had fewer than half of the votes of her rival candidate.

Concern about political meddling in Hungary’s legal system come as Budapest tries to unlock billions of euros in EU funds currently frozen over concerns about the rule of law, including the independence of the judiciary.

One former judge who wished to remain anonymous said the vast majority of cases proceeded fairly but politically sensitive matters would be heard in the supreme court by a “loyal panel of judges who will make decisions in favour of the government”.

They said: “In the normal court [as a judge] you can struggle, you can try to be independent, you can do your best, but you know there is a leak in the system where there is water coming out. You can pour so much water in but it is still coming out at the side.”

Áron Demeter, programme director at Amnesty International Hungary, said: “If you go against the government or your case interferes with political goals, there is definitely a chance that [the government] can put either formal or informal pressure on the court.”

He said those at risk of politically influenced trials included asylum seekers, LGBTQ+ people, NGOs and independent media – groups that have been targeted by hostile legislation from the Orbán government.

In 2019, Hungary’s constitutional court upheld a law that threatens jail for people providing help to asylum seekers – provisions later ruled incompatible with EU law by the European court of justice. In 2021, one of Hungary’s last independent broadcasters, Klubrádió, was forced off air after a Hungarian court ruling. The European Commission said the original decision by a Hungary regulator was a “discriminatory” breach of EU telecoms law.

Amnesty, which is appealing to the courts after being fined for a campaign against the government’s anti-LGBTQ+ law, said it no longer expected justice in Hungary but looked to judges at the European court of human rights in Strasbourg. “We don’t really deem the [Hungarian] constitutional court a remedy at all,” Demeter said.

Protesters on foot and with bikes gather in the sun to block Budapest’s Margit Bridge
Demonstrators block Budapest’s Margit Bridge on 12 July to protest against a proposed tax amendment that will affect small entrepreneurs. Photograph: Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images

The history of Hungary’s politically influenced judiciary can be traced back to 2011, when Orbán created the post of NJO president, putting unrivalled powers in the hands of one appointee. The first holder of the post was Tünde Handó, godmother to his oldest child, who attacked some judges as “traitors”. While her successor has taken a less confrontational approach, observers say the changes are superficial.

Meanwhile the government has moved to take control of the supreme court (Kúria). In 2021, András Zs Varga took charge of the Kúria despite fierce opposition from judges. Described as a “well-tested loyalist of the Fidesz-led government” by an independent NGO, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Varga has described the interpretation of the rule of law in the EU as “tyrannical” and “totalitarian”.

A former deputy prosecutor who had never served as an ordinary judge, Varga secured his nine-year term after the Fidesz-dominated parliament changed the rules governing election to the Kúria, which is Hungary’s last court of appeal for criminal, civil and administrative cases.

“We just want a transparent and meritocratic system,” Vasvári said.