Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 5, 26 July 1999

Crime and police corruption in Hungary C S A R D A S:
Blind Justice
Crime and police corruption in Hungary

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

The implementation of new rules pertaining to the punishment of minor offences has once again brought crime and its social costs to public attention. The new fines are higher, and there is nothing to stop the police from pocketing the proceeds. And the lawyers are even more corrupt than the police. The rule of law might very well prevail on Hungary on paper, but in practice a quite different picture emerges - one of arbitrary arrest, of incompetence and indifference. We are not confronted here with a few rotten apples spoiling the contents of the barrel, but with a system which tolerates corruption, where bribery is an accepted oiling of the machinery, where an appropriate ethos of professional pride is entirely lacking.

With effect from 14 July, the amounts that may be levied by police officers for on-the-spot fines have been increased, with the lower limit now standing at HUF 1000 and the ceiling at HUF 100,000 (about USD 400), twice as high as the previous maximum. The amounts were last adjusted to take account of inflation in 1993.

If the miscreant refuses to pay, the fine may be commuted to a prison sentence, though this may only take place upon the instructions of local courts within a fifteen-day period. Should such instructions be given, there is no scope for appeal. At the moment, fines are normally payable instantly in cash, though a payment slip for use at the post-office may also be requested. In March of next year, once the full package of measures clamping down on organised crime enter into force, use of such slips will become mandatory.

Specified types of crime that fall into different brackets include:

HUF 20,000 (USD 80) for being drunk and disorderly, libel or breach of domicile;

HUF 40,000 for rowdy behaviour or threatening with violence;

HUF 50,000 for advertising sexual services whether it be in writing, pictorial form or by using voice recordings;

HUF 60,000 for drink-driving, failing to pay compulsory motor insurance or possession of firearms without a licence;

HUF 100,000 for organising an unauthorised demonstration or operating a pirate radio station.

These price tags give an indication of more than just the degree of opprobrium attached to certain forms of illegal activity. They reflect the relative lucrativeness of, say prostitution. What would be the point, after all, of imposing huge fines if there were no likelihood whatsoever of being able to collect the money? They also show that there is a tidy profit to be made from corruption, should a police officer be so inclined.

Speaking on behalf of the police force, Mr Laszlo Galambos praised the new system [see Magyar Nemzet, 16 July edition], as it gave the officer on the beat greater leeway to differentiate between individual transgressors. This could enhance the force's prestige, he claimed, as well as dissuade would-be reckless drivers from committing offences.

At their discretion

Although it has been ushered in as a positive innovation, the new rules only represent a limited extension of what had gone before. As far as traffic offences are concerned, for example, there always had been a certain flexibility allowing officers to act as they saw fit. They could decide whether to let a driver off with a caution (if the driver had forgotten to fasten his seatbelt), to levy a fine on the spot or to report the offence officially, the latter being the norm where accidents involving injury had taken place, where the driver was visibly inebriated or where the speed limit had been flagrantly exceeded.

Police officers are also entitled to ask questions concerning family status and income levels in order to help them to make an assessment of how much the offender would be fined. Dress, the make of car and its condition could all be taken into account henceforward, allowing for greater humaneness to be shown. Mr Kazmer Kovacs, chief lawyer of the Hungarian Automobile Club, recognised that an officer might be more lenient on the driver of a 20-year-old Trabant accompanied by his wife and children than on a young man in a designer suit with a mobile phone behind the wheel of a flashy sports car, but expressed concern at the potential for increased corruption.

It is precisely the element of discretion that is worrying. The fines that may be levied are higher, and there is nothing to stop the police from pocketing the proceeds. One case that I was informed about concerned a foreigner of Hungarian origin, whose car had Belgian number plates and whose knowledge of Hungarian was sufficient to cope with everyday conversation. He was stopped by police and immediately breathalysed. He failed the test and was informed that he would be in severe trouble if the two officers decided to prosecute him. It was only after they repeated this for the umpteenth time that he realised that they would let him off the hook if he were willing to slip them HUF 30,000 (USD 120) or thereabouts. He obliged and was promptly given directions as to the route he should follow if he wished to avoid being caught out again.

This is the tip of the iceberg. If the long arm of the law has you firmly by the scruff of the neck, you are not in a position to bargain, and the prospect of being let off free can, indeed, be overwhelming. If you compound your guilt by bribery, you are hardly likely to turn yourself in out of remorse later on. This is what crooked officers count on.

Mostly unreported

According to criminologist Jozsef Vigh, latent crime, in other words, crime not reported to the authorities, is four times that of which the authorities are aware. Some 500,000 crimes are committed in Hungary each year, putting the real figure at the two million mark. Minister of Home Affairs Sandor Pinter painted a slightly different picture recently, saying that the number of crimes committed in Hungary this year had dropped by 80,000. 600,000 crimes had been committed in 1998, and he gave a personal guarantee that by the end of the year the 520,000 level would not be exceeded. He also announced with some satisfaction that there had been a 31% decrease in car thefts and a 15% fall in the number of break-ins.

Police corruption was also mentioned. Mr Pinter promised that he would take a tougher line to stamp it out. 240 individuals had been discharged from the police force because of corruption. Low pay was not blamed for the phenomenon, as approval had been given for the single biggest pay rise in 20 years. He identified the cause as a set of shortcomings in the recruitment exams. Selection procedures did not yield a reliable psychological profile of applicants, and successful candidates did not always subsequently prove fit for duty. Not everyone had proven equally capable of resisting temptation. The minister did attempt to play down the gravity of the inadequacies that allowed unsuitable characters to slip through the net by emphasising outside social influences. "Policemen are not Knights Templar," he pointed out. They are not immune to the pressures of harsh reality.

Tragic mistake

A particularly tragic miscarriage of justice has revealed the lamentable state of the Hungarian police force and the unholy alliance it often has with lawyers [for the following section, see HVG, 24 July 1999]. The case in question began on 16 March 1994 when an 86-year-old woman was brutally assaulted in Ivad (Heves County). She died a month later in hospital without having regained consciousness. Her assailant failed in his frantic search for the paltry sum of HUF 10,000 (USD 40) she had set aside in a safe hiding place, leaving empty-handed.

One of the inhabitants of the village, Mr Denes Pusoma, a Roma, was called for questioning initially as a witness. The police, however, found his behaviour so suspicious (and he was labelled as suffering from a personality disorder following a psychological examination), that they decided to remand him in custody as a suspect.

The "evidence" that was used to justify the police decision consisted of sniffer dogs matching odour samples from Mr Pusoma with odours from the victim's kitchen. That the suspect had been seen there was confirmed by others, with a mentally handicapped neighbour testifying against Mr Pusoma. Mr Pusoma himself consistently denied that he had done any harm to the victim. A turning point was reached when a letter that had undeniably been written by the suspect and which contained a confession to having carried out an attack on the victim was found on the person of Mr Pusoma's former cellmate.

The County Court sentenced Mr Pusoma to six years' imprisonment on 19 March 1995. Since both the accused and the lawyer appointed to represent him took note of the verdict, it took legal effect. Mr Pusoma went to jail.

By a quirk of fate, however, the police force in Ujpest ended up proving Mr Pusoma's innocence. They arrested a gang for robbery and were told by two of its members that Alex Dano, one of their accomplices, had boasted of a more serious crime. In the course of investigations, Dano confessed to several crimes. Dano subsequently denied them, claiming that they had been extracted by the police under duress. Whatever the truth of the matter, Mr Pusoma was released from prison on 30 May 1996 and was declared innocent in December.

Mr Pusoma had spent 26 months behind bars, for which he justifiably felt he was owed compensation. But on 11 April 1997, he received a letter requesting him to fork out HUF 135,600 (USD 540) in administrative fees within eight days. This was the first occasion on which the authorities had bothered to contact him in conjunction with his claim. He sold his house to pay off the debts he had run up at local shops and, in August, took his own life.

The lessons

Several features of these appalling events need to be examined in order to grasp the true significance of what happened. Firstly, Mr. Pusoma was, as mentioned above, a Roma. This made him a particularly easy target for scape-goating. The Roma belong to the most socially deprived stratum in Hungary. They are the butt of jokes. Prejudices concerning them abound. According to the stereotype that lies buried in the murkier depths of the Hungarian collective consciousness, they are lazy, dishonest, dirty, thieving, stupid, uneducated troublemakers.

Gypsies are particularly prone to crime, the assumption goes. Mr Pusoma belonged to this minority of stigmatised "outsiders," and it was, therefore, only too easy to brand him as a deviant. Charging him with the evil deed killed several birds with one stone: it would reassure frightened locals that a maniac was not on the loose, that they could sleep soundly at night; it would satisfy the need for justice to be done; it would exonerate the non-Roma population from involvement and it would show that the police had done their duty swiftly and successfully. Once charges had been brought against him, no one would ever question his guilt. An open and shut case. Watertight.

Secondly, there is the issue of the difference between lawyers a client chooses for himself and those appointed to act in a client's defence where the client is too impecunious to be able to afford one or too uninterested in the outcome of the case to want to bother making the effort to find one. Mr Pusoma's original lawyer, Mr Balazs Bodnar, was asked about why he did not insist on pleading his clients' innocence when the verdict was given (Mr Pusoma asserted that there was no point whatsoever in appealing since no one believed him anyway). He replied that he had indeed tried in vain to persuade his client to contest the result but had to respect his client's wishes. What Mr Bodnar did not say is that, in such cases, if the appointed lawyers decide to pursue the case further, they face a thankless task which also happens to be poorly paid. The gross hourly rate for their services (advanced by the state) is a mere pittance. The time spent in consultations with the client does not count as eligible for remuneration.

Lack of motivation amongst appointed lawyers is a problem that was recognised by the Civil Rights Committee of the Hungarian Parliament in a report dating back to 1994. In their findings, the authors noted that appointed lawyers hardly come into contact with their clients. This represents a constitutional anomaly, as it undermines the right of the accused to a proper defence and creates legal uncertainty. The conclusion reached was that appointed lawyers afford no protection against abuses or errors on the part of the authorities.

The article in HVG goes on to reveal the extent to which the system is infected by corruption. In the name of mutual benefit, it has been alleged, there have been sporadic incidents in which the police have appointed a "friendly" lawyer to represent wealthy clients who have been remanded in custody on a legal basis which is flimsy, to say the least. The lawyer then makes sure the delinquent is released. The remuneration goes straight into the pockets of the lawyer and the news that an assertive, influential lawyer has arrived on the scene spreads through the detention centre like wildfire, guaranteeing further custom for the lawyer.

The most appalling variation on this theme (entirely unsubstantiated in terms of hard proof), is where the lawyer and the police agree on the hauling in of the sort of person who is not entirely beyond reproach, but who can nevertheless not merely be picked up without a pretext. After the release, the lawyer shares his fees with the police.

Apparently, this can all work in reverse: if the police want to be quite sure of obtaining the result they require, they make certain that the lawyer appointed is indifferent to the interests of his client.

The difference between an appointed lawyer and a lawyer selected by the client himself also becomes apparent from the Pusoma case: the claim for compensation would have been a complete non-starter had the Office for the Legal Protection of National and Ethnic Minorities not intervened to fund a lawyer picked by Mr Pusoma. Mr Elemer Magyar, the lawyer in question, made it abundantly clear to the judge that this type of proceeding is free of duties.

The third point of concern is that of the "proof" used to convict Mr Pusoma. His former cellmate was released surprisingly quickly after the "discovery" of the letter. Once again according to unofficial sources, the man was a police informant. In the course of the trial, no such allegations were confirmed, which meant that the police had not breached any regulations in obtaining the letter. As for the letter itself, it was indeed written in Mr Pusoma's hand. Even during the review proceedings which eventually lead to his acquittal, Mr Pusoma stubbornly refused to explain why he had written it. The terms trumped-up charges and fabricated evidence spring to mind.

As he repeated whenever challenged, Mr Pusoma was convinced that no one took his protestations of innocence seriously. He was in custody, at the mercy of his jailers, in a highly vulnerable situation locked away from the eyes of the outside world (and his fellow-villagers would not have shed even crocodile tears over the perpetrator of such a despicable deed).

It is tempting to speculate on why Mr Pusoma committed suicide. Village communities are small and tight-knit the world over. Mr Pusoma would have been highly visible and could easily be subject to police intimidation. Is it too great a flight of fancy to smell a rat here too?

Above the law and beyond

As we have seen, not everyone is equal before the law in Hungary. The lust for gain and the lack of brakes on the exercise of power on the part of the police are a recipe for disaster. Yet another flagrant abuse supplied to me on an anecdotal basis concerns an infamous local drug-dealer in a provincial town in Hungary. Everyone knew him, as he drove around in a brand new series seven BMW, rubbing the noses of law-abiding citizens in the sad truth that crime does pay with his conspicuous and arrogant display of prosperity. When he was finally arrested, he faced the prospect of serving a two-year custodial sentence. The narrator of the tale bumped into him before he was taken into custody, and quizzed him over whether he was worried that his beautiful car might be stolen whilst he was doing time. The reply came that it did not matter, as he would be free within a couple of days. His prediction was correct: a few days later he indeed resumed his normal routine, cruising through the dusty streets.

Mr Pusoma's distraught relatives have yet to receive compensation. On 3 July, they were informed by the court in Eger that, since he had failed to request an appeal. Both he and his state-appointed lawyer were guilty of negligence in this respect, and this disqualified him (or his next-of-kin) from an entitlement to compensation. To add insult to injury, his relatives are being invoiced for the legal consultation fees for the state representative.

The rule of law may very well prevail in Hungary on paper, but in practice a quite different picture emerges - one of arbitrary arrest, incompetence and indifference. This begs the question as to whether Hungary is truly fit or ripe to join the EU. We are not confronted here with a few rotten apples spoiling the contents of the barrel but with a system which tolerates corruption, where bribery is an accepted oiling of the machinery and where an appropriate ethos of professional pride is entirely lacking.

Citizens, whatever their faults, should not be regarded as prey, as easy game. Criminals should not be allowed to wander about unpunished. A remedy must be found. A friend of mine recently remarked bitterly that "Hungary is now more of a police state than ever before." A sad indictment.

Justice in Hungary is better off blindfolded. She would only weep at what she would see.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 25 July 1999

The following sources were used in the preparation of this article:
Magyar Nemzet 7, 16, 17, 20, 21 and 22 July
HVG, edition of 24 July.


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