Inmate Császy — An interview with a political prisoner of the Orbán regime

We last spoke in the summer of 2017. (See HFP’s piece here and here.) At that time, you had been sentenced to two and a half years in prison and your partner, Miklós Tátrai, received three years from the Curia for the Sukoró land swap deal of 2008. When I interviewed you with Christopher Adam at this time, you came across as strong and as someone who had prepared himself for prison. It appeared as though the knowledge of your innocence gave you hope even in this time of hopelessness. As of September 19, 2017, you have been an inmate of the National Correctional Facility in Tököl. How bearable has this period been for you?

Losing one’s freedom is the most serious punishment. But Tököl is relatively civilized compared to other prisons in Hungary. A significant number of inmates here are serving lighter sentences, thus the “tougher guys” do not disturb those who are more peaceful. I received virtually the same “service” as everyone else and I worked in the same library as one of my predecessors from the intelligentsia, namely the rector of the Zrinyi University of National Defense. It could have been rougher and I would have probably survived that too. But fortunately, they did not strive to make my life endlessly miserable. First and foremost it was my family life that suffered during this period. My own fate worried me less than what was happening to my family and my wife in specific. They found my imprisonment very difficult to bear. Naturally, during this wasted time it would have been better to learn a language, to write a book or to do other important tasks.

What were your tasks in prison?

We had to wake up at 5:00 a.m. and I began work at 7:00 a.m. I was assigned to clean the library and the school. It is not required, but it is strongly recommended to work in prison. But I find it inappropriate that there is only physical labour available.  My whole life I was engaged in intellectual work and I was not accustomed to cleaning. I did not experience degrading situations and the prison staff did not abuse their power. But what is the purpose of work and of prison programmes if not to assist in the reintegration of inmates? I never received an answer to this question. As such, I understood my work as forced labour, rather than work, as such.

How many hours did you spend per day with cleaning?

Eight hours each day, from 7:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.

How did you eat during the day?

Like a partisan. At the start, we were given a lunch break, but this was cancelled. In the morning we took with us a cold, light meal and we were given lunch after 3:00 p.m., after returning to the correctional facility. Dinner was served at 6:00 p.m. So, meals were not properly timed, but it was bearable.

Did you ever serve as a soldier?

No, but I did serve as a defense expert with Fidesz during the early nineties. Life in prison does, indeed, seem to resemble the life of a soldier. At age 30, I almost completed military college, so that I could have proof of my credentials. But just to spare myself this type of basic training, I declined the opportunity–which I have now essentially received, at age 56. As I have mentioned, there was no abuse on the part of prison staff, but the experience for me was still very strange. My biggest problem was that official papers seemed to be lost in the system for a while. But I should note that we did not experience physical abuse.

Did you experience any indignities?

No–or more appropriately: I did not tolerate these. The worst, perhaps, was the behaviour of a young female officer, who delivered the mail. At the start, she spoke to me as if I were a dog. She was condescending, called me Császy all the time. I told her once: pardon me, but I am called Dr. Zsolt Császy. I don’t use my title in normal circumstances, but if we have arrived to this point, I am not simply Császy to you. To this she replied that to her, I am no doctor, because if I were, I would be above her. I told her that this is not up to you, because I received this title from the university and it is my right to use this, even in prison. She didn’t like that, but I also did not appreciate how she was treating me.

Did the young female officer stop calling you Császy?

No. She did try to hold back a little, but she spread the word that I was conceited and demanded that people address me as doctor. Those prison staff of a higher rank did not behave this way nor did the very experienced older professionals either. Corrections is a profession. Some people have mastered it, while others have not.

Did you ever see a prison psychologist? Did you need to see one?

One the one hand, I did not need one. But while I was in pre-trial incarceration, I decided to try the full “services” of Hungarian corrections and I asked to meet with a psychologist. Later, in Fidesz, the line was that we turned to a psychologist, because we had fallen apart so much. The psychologists were relatively young and there was one who had returned from Canada. They were absolutely cultured and civilized. Their offices were in the school. As such, in the school there were training programmes, a library and a gym, as well as the offices of psychologists. One might say that this was a cultured place.

Let’s return to your work in the prison.

I mopped the library, sometimes I organized the books and if on the rare occasion people borrowed books, I checked them out for them. I was also allowed to borrow books and while in the cell, reading was my main activity. I re-read the memoirs pertaining to show trials that were first published around the change of regime.

It is a widely known fact that the state did not suffer any harm and that the “infamous” Sukoró land swap never actually happened. Yet the Orbán government still deemed both of you guilty. The Sukoró casino investment project was a major initiative of the Gyurcsány government. Is there still pressure on you today to testify against Ferenc Gyurcsány?

Those in the political world who ordered this verdict against us see this as a closed file. But we beg to differ. Until there is not a just and legitimate verdict, this issue remains open. Even though the verdict is final, Justizmord can only occur where there is a legitimate verdict. The most startling was the approach taken by the Curia–I found numerous irregularities. But at the foundation of this case is the fact that the court and the prosecution decided to deliberate on a matter pertaining to economic politics. This is a very problematic practice. At the time, my colleague and I were tasked with representing the Hungarian state on this issue and we did nothing else but carry through the decision of the government. During the trial, every single member of the former government confirmed this, including the former ministers of finance and the economy. The court cannot overrule this. In addition to having made professional blunders in the verdict, he who condemned me in his capacity as a judge of the Curia started teaching at the same time as I did in ELTE’s Faculty of Law, but in a completely different field. He taught correctional law, yet there were elemental problems with the approach he took. For instance, he made amendments to the  second degree judgment and he did not have the right to do this. As well, several aspects of our trial had only passed through the first degree and no ruling had been handed down. Ours was a special situation. We were acquitted in the second degree judgment and thus certain aspects of our original appeal were not even considered. But after the third degree judgement led to our conviction, aspects of our appeal still remained untouched by the court. In other words: we were essentially convicted based on the first degree judgment, for which we submitted appeals. But key elements of the appeal were never considered. We then turned to the Constitutional Court, but over the years the court’s composition has changed to such a degree that it remains what it once was in name only. But we are at least able to demonstrate that the Constitutional Court does not even abide by its own rulings. All we have left is the appeal in Strasbourg. This process will wrap up at the end of this year or early in 2019. In terms of the international process the communications phase has at least been completed and we are now only awaiting the ruling. In this international arena, the Hungarian Ministry of Justice, representing the Hungarian state, conceded in writing that in the case of Sukoró, my right to due process was violated. This is formally recognized, in writing.

What do you see as the fundamental problems of this criminal process?

For one, a few questions pertaining to constitutional law arise. Can the judicial branch overrule decisions taken by a government, based on studies by professionals in the relevant field, when this branch of the state does not have the professional knowledge to take such decisions? In court, many foolish decisions were made. For instance, in relation to the lands associated with the Sukoró file, they argued that we should have been guided by the book values. But we proved that the book value was merely one twentieth of the market value. We recently had a retrial which oddly enough was put on hold right when we pointed to the data appearing in the ruling, which showed that what we wanted to sell for 1.1 billion forints was listed as having a value of 300,000 to 400,000 forints. We responded by noting that it was the court that claimed we knew of the book value and that we wanted to sell the asset for less than this amount, so how was 1.1 billion less than 400,000? They responded that the actual number is not significant, because all we thought about was that this is how we can cause harm. So the accusation of a thought crime made its way into the verdict. The numbers do not matter, nor did the numbers that we brought in response. The response was that this did not matter. The only thing that was important was what we had thought. This is why I said that if they are more aware about what I am thinking than even myself, then let’s switch places and perhaps they should convict themselves. I won’t try to hinder this.

You often refer to the concept of political prisoners and you emphasize that you were convicted on political grounds. To what extent did the media help the public to better understand this term? Has society grasped the implications, namely that there are people who are victims of political persecution in Hungary–in a member state of the European Union?

Yes and no. Yes, because this is how I sign my papers: “Dr. Zsolt Császy, political convict.” And no, because they do not understand this and in fact they cannot understand this.

Zsolt Császy in September 2018.

Why not?

Because our trial is a part of the current social condition in Hungary. What happened here is not an accidental derailment. It’s not a matter of them, exceptionally, rendering a bad ruling. What occurred is the norm and the default in today’s Hungary. A modern civil society has three elements: free market, free press and rule of law. In Hungary, all three have vanished.

In terms of what still remains of opposition media: did they report on your situation adequately?

Unfortunately, no. Opposition media, if for no other reason than professional laziness, does not place an adequate emphasis on this case. It is also possible that they have become wrapped up in this prevalent Gyurcsány-phobia–this is the narrative suggesting that everyone is guilty who ever was near or around Gyurcsány, independent of the fact that we never had anything to do directly with Gyurcsány. He was the prime minister, but we did not do things because he wanted something or wanted to avoid something. Before the prime minister had any knowledge of the initiatives in question, Minister of Municipalities and Regional Development Gordon Bajnai and later Finance Minister János Veres lay the groundwork for these plans. The prime minister only saw the initiative in its final stage. He supported it, only after six months of preparation. And there was nothing requiring us to strike an agreement. There were instances when we rejected an idea or proposal. Our case now, unfortunately, is part of a revenge campaign often erroneously referred to as a drive for accountability in politics. This does not only impact us, but thousands within the state apparatus. After the change in government, police and military generals, leaders of the national security establishment, state secretaries and ministers ended up among the accused in courts, based on false accusations of criminal activity.

What are the parameters of the term “political convict”? What is it that can turn prosecution into a political show trial?

Resolution 1900/2012 of the European Council provides a definition based on two criteria. The first is that the accusation of criminal wrongdoing is made-up, specifically based on political motivations. Our Sukoró affair fits into this category. The second is where there is, in fact, real criminal behaviour, but the state adds political motivation to it, so as to warp the legal proceedings. For instance, in connection to a murder, innocent people may end up being accused too. A classic case is that of the trial pertaining to the murder of István Tisza. During the trial, Prime Minister István Friedrich was seen as the instigator and was made to testify. Friedrich was a Catholic politician with monarchist views. Miklós Horthy’s people dragged him into this affair simply to discredit him. When Regent Horthy’s political position stabilized, the accusations against Friedrich were dropped. This trial took place in 1920. And, though this seems stranger than fiction, but thirty years later this same monarchist-conservative István Friedrich was part of Stalinist leader Mátyás Rákosi’s show trial against church officials. He was sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment and died in the Vác prison.  The accusation and verdict were only declared null and void in 1990. Abusing the legal process, the discrediting of political opponents through these means, their complete elimination, has been repeated many times in our history. But under the rule of law, this cannot happen. The political show trial is nothing more than a fabricated accusation, using fake evidence, aiming to serve political interests and goals, and which therefore warps justice. There is a technical aspect to this that I often reference.

Yes, I know what you are alluding to. Ferenc Vida, the infamous judge, who also presided over Imre Nagy’s trial, said this: “A conceptual* trial is conceptual, because there is a concept and the court considers facts that fit into that concept, whilst disregarding all others.” (*Editor’s note: the usual English term for the Hungarian “koncepciós per” is show trial, but we had to use the term “conceptual” for this direct quote to make sense.”) Is this what we are living today?

Yes, it is. In our case, the court did precisely this. For instance, even though there were several property evaluations, some with ten or twenty-fold variances, the court always chose extreme estimates that were disadvantageous for us. And these extreme, outlier estimates were always included in the professional assessments ordered by the prosecution. The court never explained why they did not consider the other estimates.

From the prison of the Orbán regime, can you name a few “Ferenc Vidas”–judges who made you end up here, or such prosecutors? Or if this is not yet possible, will we be able to find out who they were by name, at some future date?

Yes, I feel this would be very important. I won’t give any names at the moment, but I am working on an academic book, in which I will process this whole experience. This is my profession. As a lawyer and university professor I know those experts who can assist in this. And I know this specific case enough, which are those parts that are legally unjustifiable. When the verdict was reached, Ferenc Gyurcsány said that these prosecutors and judges will have to be condemned. At the time, I ended up arguing with him, as it is inappropriate to declare in advance who is guilty or not. There are signs that these people did not operate based on their own intentions, as such serious errors are not committed by qualified legal experts. Such an unsubstantiated verdict cannot be born even after a brief, local court case pertaining to a mundane traffic violation. My case went on for years. Yes, something warped the justice system, people themselves were warped and we have to uncover who influenced this process. There was a decision to launch two parliamentary committees on the Sukoro affair, but they have not even started their work. I would have been very happy if this does go ahead, because it would have been possible to give account in front of the broader public. The shadow of show trials was always felt, even outside the courtroom. In this the media and mass communication played a role too. In the first trial, I expressed fear that a type of “media lynching” was in the air, rather than justice. And this is what happened. The courtroom was completely empty. Nobody read our rebuttals, nobody heard them.

If I understand correctly, the trial was not held in Budapest.

Yes, it was in small-town Hungary and this explains, in part, the empty courtroom.

Where did the trial take place?

In Szolnok and Szeged. They estimated that these cities were far and it was too expensive for the opposition media to send reports there. Of course the pro-government media did not send reporters, as the recording and documentation of the first and second degree hearings, in contrast to those of the Curia, would have forced them to face their own lies. We easily issued rebuttals to the lies and defamation of the pro-government media in Szolnok and Szeged, but the broader public did not ever find out about this. It was especially chilling that on the opening day of the trial in Szeged, in October 2016, Népszabadság, which all but alone took the case seriously, was among the registered media organs, but was not present. It was right after registration that the regime used powers at its disposal to shut the paper down. This is why I say that there is no free press. If there were media freedom, they would be interested in what happens in Szolnok and Szeged. Fidesz spokespersons speak often about us. Gyula Budai and his partners leveled all kinds of accusations against us and since we were in prison, we could not defend ourselves. The remainder of the opposition media was extremely restrained. We always provided them with information and data, we aimed for complete transparency. They did not make use of the opportunity.

Did they curtail your ability to appeal and to further defense while in prison? I am thinking about the possibility of a new trial, review by the Constitutional Court and the court in Strasbourg.

Yes, they essentially did just that. Even though I would have liked to join the request for a new trial by co-defendant Miklós Tátrai (the former CEO of the Hungarian National Assets Management Zrt.), I was unable to do so. In prison I was not even able to count on access to current laws and legal information.

This is illegal, is it not?

Of course it is. According to the law, what are avenues that an inmate cannot access? Only those things that endanger the security of the prison and other physical well-being of others- This is clear. But why can I not access the repository of laws managed by the Ministry of Justice? My access to this repository endangers the safety of the prison in what way, exactly? Inmates who have served time abroad told us how in Spanish and Swedish prisons there is a terminal, through which prisoners cam access laws. In Hungary this does not exist. Once per week, for a total of four hours, I was given access to a laptop, onto which the laws I had requested were downloaded. Since in the legal world everything is intertwined, this was of very little help. These documents are managed by the Ministry of Justice, which is not a private institution. It is the right of all citizens that we have access to the text of laws that are in force. I was not allowed to enjoy this right.  It was even difficult to contact the ombudsman. I was told to exhaust all avenues of appeal first. Two months were spent with appeals–I was hindered in my work the entire time–and only after this was I permitted to turn to the ombudsman. This too proved to be in vain, as I was then told to trust in the prosecution, because the prosecution oversees the legality of the correctional facility. The conundrum here is that earlier, I had already turned to the prosecution. At the same time, I had a civil court case against the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, which I won. In this case, the court transcript recorded what I said: I was not allowed to properly prepare for the trial, because as the defendant I was not able to gain access to the legal repository whilst in the correctional institution supervised, from a legal framework perspective, by the prosecution.

So the six months spent in prison held you back in moving your case forward?


Were you still incarcerated at the Tököl correctional facility during the 2018 national elections?

No, I was then at the Kozma utca facility.

I know that for some time you will not be able to engage in public affairs, but did you have some hope that it was possible to defeat Fidesz, which would have also led to your release?

I had no such hope. Hopelessness, as a result of physical vulnerability, is more oppressive in prison than elsewhere. It is multiplied. When on television I saw the hate campaign, all my illusions faded away. It was on April 4th that they decided to let me enter the reintegration programme. They could have released me the next day, had they wanted to, but they did not. They kept me in for another week, so I was released three days after the election. On the day of the election, I listened to the radio in my cell. And the breath of freedom touched me. I saw the first results, showing that turnout was very high. And I spoke with acquaintances and my lawyer on the phone who said that I would not recognize Hungary if released. It was completely clear in Budapest that Fidesz will lose. But when I heard that no results were forthcoming, I became suspicious that there is something wrong. After that all you could hear was everything is going very well, because the people want the government to remain in power. And then came the result that stunned me. I had to discover that I would not be free and that I have no choice but to fight for justice. And this is not only justice for me. The next day I called my friends again and asked them: should I come out of prison or should I just wait for them to be brought in too?

You left prison, but you are not free. 

This is correct. I am barred from public affairs, I cannot lead a private company and I cannot be the legal representative of any association. This curtails my legal work. Even now, invisible bars surround me. I had to get permission from the court to be permitted to work whilst in the reintegration programme. I can only reside and move in Budapest and I must return home each night before 7:00 p.m. On weekends, I can only leave my apartment for four hours.

Mandatory GPS monitoring device.

Mandatory GPS tracking device.

What are the rules of this reintegration custody programme and what do they mean in practice?

Reintegration custody is a new legal institution. The judge makes the decision and its maximum time-span cannot exceed ten months. Only inmates serving sentences of five years or less are eligible and their crime cannot be violent in nature.  Moreover, only first-time offenders are eligible. Those who have a good record in prison and who have a system of family support in place are given the chance to begin their reintegration before parole or conditional release. Both Miklós Tátrai and I were granted entry into this programme. As such, I can be with my family, I can work, but in essence this is a type of house arrest. Yes, I am still an inmate–one who is granted leave from prison. My reintegration expires in February 2019.

When does your entire sentence expire?

December 2019.

Does this mean that as of February you must return to prison in Tököl and remain there until December?

I hope not. After this program, they may choose to grant me conditional release. Everyone who does not cause problems during the reintegration is granted this. In our case, of course, this will not be automatic–in the case of political prisoners, nothing ever is. But perhaps by then, I will have the ruling from Strasbourg in my hands. It would be highly unusual, if they brought us back. But of course we live in Hungary! But at any rate, the ten months spent at home is a great opportunity for me to ease the pain caused to my family. I can work and for this I am grateful.  I now have two employers: the first is the foundation of a parliamentary party, where I offer expert legal advice and the second is the church community run by Gábor Iványi where I am also offering legal advice. I needed approval from the courts to engage in this work.

Permit to reside outside prison.

When do you expect the ruling from Strasbourg?

We cannot tell. It can be two months or even a year.

If I understand correctly, you turned to Strasbourg even before the start of court proceedings in Hungary.

That is correct. We turned to Strasbourg in the year before the first degree trial–so six years ago. Moreover, even before the first trial occurred, Strasbourg, in a similar case, already indicated that the process was unlawful. As such, we have no doubts about the content of Strasbourg’s eventual ruling. But given the government’s reaction to the Sargentini report, it is possible after the ruling from Strasbourg, we too will be labelled traitors.

Do the government’s labels influence you?

No. But I would like to get justice from Hungarian courts, yet the current ones are not able to offer this. For now, we can turn to Strasbourg, but if Hungary’s change in international orientation continues, then eventually all that will be left is the quality and redress offered by a People’s Tribunal of North Korea.

What do you plan to disclose in public?

Not my prison journal, but I would like to analyze and process my trial with academic rigour. This book would also have a more widely comprehensible version, which would show the social and legal reality, in which we find ourselves now. I have valuable experiences about how the legal framework can be abused in a systematic manner. The Sukoró land swap deal no doubt went against the interests of some people. Moreover, in this narrative, the ominous shadow of the 1930’s also appeared. It is instructive to see who can participate today in the world of the gambling industry and under what conditions. In contrast, if the Sukoro foreign investment project proceeds as planned, then the country would have gained a closely regulated, transparent new sector of the economy–one that would be significant from a national economic perspective.

During this process, were there any civil servants who saw what was happening and walked away from the table out of protest?

Yes, the were some. There was even a case where someone left the prosecutor’s office. There was even a case where someone started, but then stopped the investigation. And there was an instance where someone recorded in writing that it was not I who committed the crime, but those who accused me. This person wrote this down and then shook my hand, and congratulated me. Over the years I had been in contact with many in the prosecutor’s office and with many police officials. I felt that a significant number of them would have liked to stand up to the real criminals in this case. I hope that one day they will have a chance to do precisely this. In several cases I felt that these people knew that others had taken advantage of their professional decency.

To what extent do these gestures help you in your struggle?

They help a lot. In fact, much more than family traditions. I spent the last five days of my incarceration behind bars in the Kozma utca facility. This occurred because a rule states that you must be released to rehabilitative custody from a facility close to where you live. My uncle was the last person from my family to have been in prison. During the Rákosi regime, he spent five years in prison. Like us, he was convicted in a show trial, for what they then called “sabotage.” My uncle received a life sentence and was only released in 1957. When they took me to the Kozma Street facility, I asked to be given his old cell. Unfortunately, they did not agree to this.


In the eyes of the unrestricted, unsupervised regime, operating with the vilest motives, anyone can become Zsolt Császy. If the regime’s goal is to silence him, even his family history–which includes ties to the Horthy and Kölcsey families, and aristocratic ancestors–could not save him.

Eszter Garai-Édler

(Translated from Hungarian by Christopher Adam)


  1. To remind all:
    the sc Sukoró case was about the preparation to execute a land swap which allegedly would have injured the state by 1.5 bil. Ft ($ 5.3. mil.). The swap was not executed as the whole investment deal was abandoned.
    Compare this with the thousands (sic) of billions collectively accumulated by the members of the orban regime as a result of hundreds of such “overpriced” gov contracts.

  2. Very good article. The only problem with Sukoro was it was not Orban’s idea. If it had been his pet project, today he would been celebrated by his propaganda machinery day and night, for the project as a great achievement. And he would have pocketed billions out of this. The Sukoro deal as planned was a great deal, could have created thousands of jobs and a great resort close to Budapest. Even if the government would have been disadvantaged – as Orban says it would have – it is peanuts compared to the billions he routinely gives to practically all corporations who invest in Hungary. Luxury German car manufacturers receive on the order of 5 billion HUF when building a plant. This employs roughly a thousand people, less than Sukoro would have. This practically means that Hungarian taxpayers pay its workers salaries for close to two years, thus subsidizing the rich in Germany and elsewhere, so they can put their asses in this luxury. That is a bravado, while Sukoro’s dreamers, – which never happened – deserve prison. Welcome to Hungary.

  3. Good luck getting help from Strasbourg!!
    They returned all romanian Jews paperwork’s on reparations a few years ago stating: “ too many cases” in other words they throw the towel in – French compassion??? I’ll sell you the Eiffel Tower for 39 francs….

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