The anatomy of a show trial — Zsolt Császy’s imprisonment (Part 1)

Zsolt Császy, a lawyer, university professor and a former spokesperson and parliamentary expert for Fidesz during the early nineties, is heading to prison in the coming weeks, after being the victim of what is widely seen to have been a show trial targeting former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and people who served in prominent positions during his government. Mr. Császy was implicated in the Sukoró affair, when the possibility of a foreign investor developing lands along the shores of Lake Velence and spearheading one of the largest tourism industry-related investments in Central Europe was on the table. The controversy focused on a proposed land transfer, where the state would hand over the land in question along the lake, in exchange for land returned to the state elsewhere in central Hungary. At the time, Mr. Császy was the director of the state holding department, where he was responsible for a portion of the state’s assets. The land that was proposed to be returned to the state was estimated to be of inferior value by the state prosecutor’s expert. In fact, the land transfer agreement was contested by the government of Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai in an unusual trial. As such, the Hungarian state suffered no loss whatsoever, yet criminal charges were laid nonetheless. Mr. Császy was taken into custody in 2010, and he published prison memoirs, entitled In the Prison of the Orbán Regime. He was released when the court deemed his imprisonment illegal. Earlier in June, he was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison and must begin serving his sentence within a matter of weeks.

Mr. Császy spoke with Eszter Garai-Édler of the Kanadai Magyar Hírlap and Christopher Adam of the Hungarian Free Press shortly after he received his sentence. The full interview is available in two parts and in Hungarian on YouTube. (The first part is available here.) Below, we are sharing some of the highlights with our readers.

Zsolt Császy. Photo: Eszter Garai-Édler.

An unavoidable question in any such interview with Mr. Császy is his past connection to Fidesz–the party that now appears to be using the judiciary, no longer independent in Hungary, to persecute him. Mr. Császy left Fidesz in 1993, noting people in Fidesz started behaving like “political businessmen, who treated the political sphere like a business, where intellectual or ideological convictions and foundations are, at most, political slogans…Money and power appeared and we could see this as early as 1991.” While this was the case with all political parties, Mr. Császy emphasized that this was far more striking in Fidesz, which attracted the youth, because at the time the fledgling opposition party was more democratic and transparent in its operation than other parties, and also because Fidesz occupied a comfortable position in the opposition, not having to exercise power.

In late August 2010, a mere four months after Fidesz took power, Mr. Császy was arrested. The real target, however, was former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. This was already apparent during the interim government of Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, which experienced remarkable pressure from Fidesz, widely expected to win the upcoming elections in a landslide, to go after the previous Gyurcsány cabinet. Whilst preparing the way for a show trial, Fidesz–and in particular Viktor Orbán–had no concerns meeting with the American investor initially involved in the infamous Sukoró project, and he held private talks with the businessman in the private home of János Martonyi, the future foreign affairs minister. Also present was George Pataki and Ronald S. Lauder. Mr. Orbán reportedly reassured the investor that Hungary was not a banana republic and he had no reason to fear retribution. “Frankly, I would be quite happy if Hungary today was a banana republic, because that would signify a level of development,” remarked Mr. Császy in the discussion with our publications, showcasing a remarkable level of humour, despite his difficult predicament.

Eszter Garai-Édler and Zsolt Császy. Photo: Christopher Adam.

In spite of Mr. Orbán’s friendly meeting with the investor, Mr. Lauder–a man close to the Republicans, and Mr. Pataki–charges were brought against Mr. Császy. Meanwhile, the news of these charges sparked the Hungarian far right’s inherent anti-semitism, with many referring to the case as an attempted “robbery of Hungarian land” by “Zionists.” Moreover, after he was taken into custody, Mr. Császy soon became the victim of anti-semitic provocations.

Mr. Császy described his initial arrest and imprisonment as a nightmarish ordeal, that would not be possible in any country where there is rule of law. He was imprisoned and not allowed the normal tools and resources to launch his defence. The state prosecutor did not provide the defence with the evidence that justified Mr. Császy’s arrest and imprisonment. In fact, later it was the state prosecutor that allowed for evidence central to the case to simply vanish. When Mr. Császy was finally released, the judge ruled that the preconditions of refusing his release and of taking the defendant into custody in the first place never existed, and that his imprisonment had been wholly unwarranted.

When the defence tried to access files central to the case, they were told that all documents would be released to them after the investigation phase was closed. When some forty thousand pages of chaotic and meaningless files were handed over, the defence noted a reference to documents that had allegedly been provided to the judge. When Mr. Császy went into the courthouse to ask for this document, pointing to the confirmation of its existence in the records, he was told that no such documents existed, but this story was then modified by the clerk to indicate that some sort of document had, indeed, existed, but had been sent back to the prosecutor. Mr. Császy then asked to see a written record of this transfer, which must always be produced when the state hands out or moves documents in its possession. Mr. Császy was told that no such record existed.

“To put it plainly: it was not possible to reconstruct the rationale and foundation for our arrest in August/September 2010. It is absurd, within the context of the rule of law, that someone is stripped of his freedom and then later it is impossible to reconstruct what they based this decision on…All of this created a strong feeling that one remains behind bars and is not released until he confesses to something incriminating,” remarked Mr. Császy. He added that the line between the party in power and the judiciary has been washed away to such an extent, that Fidesz moved to put in place political inquisitors. These people were visionaries, in that a year earlier, they were already able to determine what kind of evidence the prosecution would find. This is the very basis of what we call show trials.

Zsolt Császy and Christopher Adam. Photo: Eszter Garai-Édler

Mr. Császy was informed, that if he testifies against former Prime Minister Gyurcsány–this would have been false testimony–he could expect the criminal process to be dropped. He noted that he experienced several types of pressure tactics. He was also not permitted to attend his stepmother’s funeral, for which the European Court in Strasbourg ruled against the Hungarian state. On the one hand, law firms closely tied to Fidesz were given the task of working on the case for the prosecution. As well, while in prison, Mr. Császy, was implicitly offered the opportunity to have a “chat” with the prosecution. In a state built on the rule of law, this is an absurdity. A suspect does not “chat” with the prosecution. If a meeting takes place, the discussion is effectively an interview. Yet based on information from some prison guards, this actually happens in Hungary. Suspects think they are going for a formal interview with the prosecution, but they are surprised to learn that the meeting is an informal chat, where no official transcript is produced.

“The prosecution is in a very difficult position in Hungary and many prosecutors have been forced to leave the field because of this,” noted Mr. Császy.

The pro-Fidesz propaganda papers provided their readers with salacious stories during the trial and they appeared to be doing this to bolster or cooperate with the prosecution. These agit prop publications pedalled the narrative that Mr. Császy and co-defendant Miklós Tátrai, were fall guys for Ferenc Gyurcsány.

“From a professional legal perspective, this is an artificially created case. Secondly, the process was conducted in a way that contravened existing laws. Thirdly, they ignored the decisions of the Superior Court,” summarized the situation Mr. Császy.

What makes it clear that Ferenc Gyurcsány was the target the whole time is that the FBI, at the request of the Hungarian prosecution, interviewed the American investors of the Sukoró project, and at the time, the rationale for the interview was that this served as a case against Mr. Gyurcsány. The problem is that conducting such an investigation against Mr. Gyurcsány at that time was illegal, as the former prime minister enjoyed parliamentary immunity.

In addition to showing an utter lack of respect for the rule of law, the case also demonstrated an anti-semitic and racist streak in the system. Mr. Császy confirmed that Mr. Lauder had planned something that is entirely standard when foreign investors come to a country: he decided that he would produce a presentation on the project and on the investors for the local population. These investors all had a respectable background and rich experience in the business world. Yet the more extreme elements of the Hungarian right immediately began speaking about “foreign capital.” While in the past, the narratives were about “Aryan capital” vs. “non-Aryan capital,” in contemporary Hungary, the narrative was almost based on the same trope. The far-right even began spreading lies about mayors who were transported to Israel and the narrative built around the case took on an implicit, but clearly understood anti-semitic undertone.

Mr. Császy recounted how two of his relatives–including his uncle, under Rákosi–were imprisoned for political reasons in previous dictatorships. Now, Mr. Császy is set to continue this unhappy family tradition on Hungary’s twenty-first century dictatorship, the Orbán regime.

Part 2 to come.


Verdict from Strasbourg (in English)

Eszter Garai-Édler and Christopher Adam

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