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What happened in July? Hungarian watchdogs’ voice

Another try to get rid of the “Three strikes and you’re out” law

The “three strikes rule” was first introduced into the Criminal Code of Hungary in 2009. It means that assailants of adult age who commit three violent crimes automatically receives mandatory life prison sentence. Back in 2009, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), an NGO especially active in monitoring law enforcement with special regard to sentencing and prison conditions, challenged the rule before the Constitutional Court in order to have the sentencing scheme abolished, arguing that the “three strikes” rule excludes the individualization of the sanctions by making it mandatory for the courts to sentence suspects to life imprisonment if certain conditions are met. The Constitutional Court has never reached a decision in the matter, and the procedure was terminated in 2012 as a consequence of the new legislation on the Constitutional Court that denies the right to file “actio popularis” constitutional complaint. Nevertheless, HHC seeks to achieve change in the legislation to fulfill its own mission in line with the liberal values it promotes, that is less tough on sentencing and more like re-integration oriented system of punishments. One way to do so is to use the accessible legal procedures that can procedures remedy.

The new Criminal Code of Hungary (in force since 1 July 2013) upholds the “three strikes” rule. Since the possibility to submit actio popularis motions to the Constitutional Court was abolished, the HHC submitted a request to the Ombudsman on 18 July 2013 in which the NGO asked the Ombudsman to initiate the constitutional review of the “three strikes” rule by the Constitutional Court on the basis of the Fundamental Law (the new constitution of Hungary, in force since 1 January 2012).

In the petition, the HHC claims that the rule infringed the constitutional principle that criminal sanctions shall be individualized in accordance with the specific circumstances of the case and the defendant, because this is the only way in which the requirement of the sanction’s proportionality can be guaranteed. Mandatory life sentences violate the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment of defendants, and this prohibition is enshrined in Article 4 of the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. Interestingly, a recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights (Vinter and others vs. United Kingdom) declared the life imprisonment with “whole life tariffs” as inhuman and degrading treatment that can launch a series of application to the Strasbourg based court.

Enlightenment on HIV rights for employees of the health care system

Red ribbon.The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) initiated an actio popularis procedure against the Institute of Stomatology before the Equal Treatment Authority as the Institute denied dental and oral surgery service for patients infected with HIV. Back in April, the Authority declared this practice unlawful as it harms the human dignity and the right to physical and mental health, furthermore it contravenes the prohibition of discrimination. (These rights are equally granted by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights as provided by Article 1., Article 35., Article 21.) As a further positive outcome of the case, HCLU achieved this month to agree with Ministry of Human Resource, supervising the health care system, to edit and distribute a detailed protocol that will inform the employees of the national health care system on the legal rights of HIV patients, and additionally, it will present the necessary protective measures to be taken when such patient asks for medical help. The protocol – and the pamphlet – will be edited jointly with the Chamber of Infectology and HCLU. Hopefully, the protocol will help to prevent discriminatory practices in the future. The original case and the following agreement shows how one single strategic case and additional pressure by one NGO on public authorities can achieve major change for a disadvantageous group of people. The HCLU is committed to root out any form of discrimination of HIV infected people.

Mapping nuclear lobby in the Eastern European region

Energiaklub, with its international, regional partners (Terra Mileniul III – Romania; Za Zemiata! – Bulgaria; South Bohemian Mothers – Czech Republic) compiled an interactive map with the intention to introduce the recent activities of the nuclear lobby in the region. As this activity has been increasing in the last couple of years, the map introduces the existing and planned nuclear power plants, the radioactive waste sites and the existing and the planned uranium mining sites. The map shows not only locations, but it is completed with data, containing the most important economic, technical and environmental and other data regarding the sites and facilities. The green NGOs hope that the outcome of this awareness raising project will help to shift public attention to the equivocal nature and dangers of nuclear energy that is ultimately necessary for public discussion on the necessity of such source of energy. Citizens are not aware of the dangers and economic interest behind the nuclear power, therefore there is a great and urgent need to raise awareness.

NGOs on the new media initiative of the European Union

The High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism working group was set up by the European Commission to promote free and pluralistic media that is indispensable to sustain European democracy. The European Commission has released the working group’s first report for public consultation. The Center for Independent Journalism, the Hungarian Europe Society, the Mertek Media Monitor, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media – NGOs with long history of commitment to the freedoms of speech and press and extensive professional experience in this area – jointly gave their expert opinion on ’The Report of the High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism: A free and pluralistic media to sustain European democracy’. Hopefully, the expertism of the NGOs will influence the future decision making of the EU.

Fundamental rights.According to the NGOs, the link between media freedom and pluralism and EU democracy, in particular, justifies a more extensive competence of the EU with respect to these fundamental rights than to others enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Assessments of the Hungarian media laws, both at the European and the international level, have unequivocally concluded that numerous elements of the statutes involved violate the freedom of the press. Nevertheless – the expert opinion points out – the European Union’s authority only extends to reviewing the municipal laws in terms of their compliance with the Audiovisual Media Services Directive. The powers given to EU institutions at the European level fall short of controlling precisely those member state legal instruments that are most capable of exerting a long-term influence over the media market and the structure of the media system. The position of the NGOs is that community legal solutions need to be designed to regulate primarily media markets and the independence of media authorities, and they advocate for a media content regulations with a narrow scope that is sufficiently clear and unequivocal. Therefore, the NGOs agree with the proposed expansion of the European Union’s margin of appreciation with regard to media. Additionally, the opinion emphasizes that there is a need to provide for the monitoring of member states’ media policies in order to ensure an ongoing tracking of the adherence to the Copenhagen Criteria even after EU accession – as the recent decrease of freedom of press in Hungary shows.

Homophobic hate crime after the Budapest Pride

Even though heavy police security ensured that the annual Budapest Pride parade, an alleged attack on three homeward-bound participants by far-right thugs has prompted a police investigation and expressions of concern from civil rights ombudsman. Three members of a small liberal party were assaulted at a railway station shortly after the official end of the event. When some neo-Nazis beat up their targets while shouting “Gypsy faggots”. Surprisingly, the victims were subsequently subject to ID checks while the perpetrators were allowed to leave the scene. The following day, however, an investigation was launched into an attack carried out against “members of a community” by a group of unidentified perpetrators. Hatter, an LGBT advocacy group, represents the victims in the criminal procedure making sure that the motive of hatred will be duly considered and evaluated by the investigative authorities and subsequently by the court. Protection for LGBT citizens is offered by the criminal code in the form of hate crimes, which draw heavy sentences. However, the police rarely applies these laws and usually launches investigation based upon less serious offences like rowdyism. This practice clearly undermines the protection enshrined in the criminal code. The goal of the NGO is to change the relevant application of the law in order to promote the right of our fellow LGBT citizens. The most effective way to do so in criminal cases is to represent victims of homophobic violence as legal representation grants access to the documents and possibility to channel into the criminal procedure the values promoted by the NGO.

An alternative way to exercise freedom of information

The government reorganised tobacco sale by redistributing the sale licences. The procedure was followed by series of scandals: former licensees complained that even though they satisfied all the conditions, they were not granted a licence and new faces with good connection to the local government and the ruling party got the right to start the lucrative business. One member of a local government recorded a conversation in which the major instructs the notary to grant licence to loyal local businessmen, but plenty of other examples circulated in the media for weeks. The documents of the tender were in the Ministry of National Development, however, in a bid to keep distance from the case and be able to refuse freedom of information requests, the Hungarian government started to return the rejected tobacco shop tenders to the applicants, after the state monopoly for the sale of tobacco came into effect on 1 July 2013. This sort of handling of public data endangers the effective exercise of the right to access to public information, granted by the municipal Fundamental Law and Article 11 of the EU Charter. Atlatszo.hu, an investigative journalism and transparency portal, reminded the government of the fact that the data custodian is not entitled to decide over how and for how long they store public information. If the aim of the datasets’ management ceases to exist, personal information should be redacted from the documents but information accessible under the scope of the Freedom of Information Act is to be kept for public access. Therefore the redacted tenders should be held by the Ministry of National Development, the authority supervising the activities of the National Tobacco Sales Nonprofit Ltd. Atlatszo.hu publicly asked former licensees and also the new licensees to send them the returned tenders in order to compare the rejected proposals and reveal the alleged abuse of power. The investigative journalism portal tries to mobilize the public to take action and impede the sabotage of transparency by the government in an extra-judicial way. This sort of action shows what an NGO can do if the legal remedies are impossible to be sought.

Round-table on homelessness and civil rights

The City is For All, an NGO that dedicates its efforts to promote the rights homeless and formerly homeless people and prevent harassment, and organised a round-table titled “Rights on the street”. The aim was to bring together the major players in the field of this socio-legal difficulty. Besides NGOs and caritative associations, the police, physicians and academics were present. The participants agreed that homeless citizens are often subjects of discrimination and repressive law-enforcement measures. There was a wide scale agreement that the current policy of the right wing administration which aims to criminalise homelessness is unacceptable from pragmatic and humanitarian point of view alike. However, the proposed solutions differed: some favours a liberal approach while other opinions promoted paternalism. Such round-tables are useful means to create an opportunity where experts can discuss certain socio-legal difficulty and start constructive dialogue in the issue. By organizing such events, NGOs function as mediators besides having a chance to speak up on their own aims.

Freedom of information request unveils misuse of public funds

Atlatszo.hu has lately asked the Prime Minister’s Office to publish the details of the campaign ’Hungary performs better’. The requested information qualifies as public data, even so, not all of our questions concerning the expenses have been answered exhaustively. It turned out that the gross price of the costs of the campaigns on online and print media and on public posters will be expectedly 256.7 million HUF (930.000 Euro), a brochure promoting the success of the government cost altogether 91.5 million HUF (311.000 Euro).

The public data requests were sent out in two rounds: firstly, the investigate journalism portal inquired about the amount of money the government has spent on electronic (online and TV) and print media advertising and how many ads these contracts exactly included. However, since Atlatszo.hu did not receive a proper answer concerning the costs of TV ads, they submitted another, more detailed request specifically about the TV and radio spots of the campaign and the production and the distribution costs of the before mentioned brochure. The replies of the Prime Minister’s Office revealed that they contracted for about 150 million HUF +VAT (52.000 Euro) which could be raised with further 135 million HUF (41.000 Euro). The campaigns costs on TV spots were also included in this contract. They were at a price around 8 million HUF. Further questions on the details of the campaign’s costs remained answered. However, Atlatszo.hu has received the expenses of the requested governmental brochure. According to this, the production costs of the brochure was around 55,4 million HUF (gross price), the distribution which was carried out by the Hungarian Post cost approximately 32.5 million HUF.

Freedom of information cases of this sort helps the citizens to orientate their political choices in the future: obtaining the relevant date on the use of public funds and a subsequent well-published article via social-media might influence the electoral choice of many Hungarian.

Mobilize the youth to step of against corruption

As one of the most corrupt countries in the EU, Hungary badly needs a new generation of entrepreneurs and public officers who are capable and willing to fight corruption. Therefore, Transparency International Hungary (TI) aims to build a basis and raise the awareness among the youth on the danger of passivity and lack of fight against corruption. In order to shake youngsters up with the help of dance moves, the organization will again be present at the Sziget Festival, this time with a large-scale dance flashmob.

TI finds it important to address people directly and to motivate them to refuse corruption. As fresh findings of the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer report, majority feels the need for such efforts. 71% of the survey’s respondents believes that everyday people have means to fight corruption, but there are only very few of those who would actually report corrupt cases. Hence the importance to teach society how to recognize corruption and how to act against it, for instance by reporting it to the relevant places.

Same-sex couples and football

A boy with a ball.

The Hungarian Football Federation adopted a decision in August 2012 which established a family sector for families of 3-5 persons attending matches of the Hungarian national football team. According to the policy reduced-price tickets were available to the sector under the following terms: “the man is to pay a full price, the accompanying woman can enter for free, and (up to three) children are to pay a 25% price”. This clearly discriminative regulation was noticed by some activists and reported to the Legal Aid Service of Háttér Support Society for LGBT People. The legal aid service of the NGO provides free legal representation in cases related to discrimination based on sexual orientation. The association wrote a letter to the Federation requesting a change of the policy, but the proposal was subsequently refused arguing that the new Fundamental Law defines marriage as a union between a woman and a man. (This approach echoes the statements of the Christian Democratic People’s Party which is extremely hostile to homosexuality and LGBT rights.) Following the refusal, Háttér submitted an actio popularis complaint to the Equal Treatment Authority. Soon after the submission, the Football Federation changed its opinion and amended its policy to entitle two adult citizens and their children to enter at a reduced price. The official procedure at the Authority ended with a settlement, as the Federation changed its policy on its own initiative. The case shows very well the unintended consequences of the restrictive notion of marriage and family in the new Fundamental Law. The aim of the NGO is to alleviate the discriminatory effect of the Fundamental Law whenever it is possible by using the legal procedures. As such administrative remedy procedures does not necessarily need an individual to be represented, the NGO can represent the public interest. (Unlike in criminal cases where it needs to have a client for representation as seen above.).

Logo funduszy szwajcarskich, Ecorys oraz Euroregion Bałtyk.

This text is a result of a research prepared within the project “Powerful Watchdogs” supported by a grant from Switzerland through the Swiss Contribution to the enlarged European Union. The report aims to show the up-to-date information regarding activity of watchdog organizations in a given country. The author refers to the classification on watchdog functions, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the international concepts of the transparent governance.

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