Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000
C S A R D A S:
A Law Unto Themselves? White Collar Crime, the Police and Corruption in Hungary, Part Two
The very nature of a corps such as the police predisposes it to close ranks against the outside world and to protect its honour and its own no matter how serious the charges. In this, the local officers could, in theory at least, count of the support and assistance of anyone whose name could be linked, however tenuously, to the scandal, including businessmen and politicians in the local authorities.
As for Karancsi himself, it seems odd that, if he were entirely innocent, he stuck around in the restaurant on 17 October instead of making a discreet exit. His credibility is undermined. His detractors cast him as unfit for duty, a man incapable of distinguishing between his own fantasy world of delusion and the more prosaic world of a reality that fails to satisfy his vanity, whereas he doubtless regards himself as the embodiment of righteous indignation, a lone and courageous voice crying in the wilderness.
We must choose between a wilful liar and skilful manipulator piqued by his dismissal and seeking to blame his own incompetence on others or a sincere individual caught up in a web of corruption and intrigue whose motives are laudable. The latter does not confer sainthood upon him, absolving him of any human shortcomings or flaws, squeezing him into the mould of the screen hero so familiar to the mass media audiences of today.
Shades of grey make us uncomfortable in our search for the holy grail of a quiet and uncomplicated life, we do not enjoy confronting the incongruities between the ideals spoon fed to us and the anecdotes of our friends or reports confirming our more pessimistic suspicions. So journalists make a career out of defending collective virtue and expressing the outrage of the public conscience whilst the consumers of their products sit in placid resignation behind the broadsheets at the breakfast table, washing down the morning coffee with tales of doom, gloom and despair.
Similar questions spring to mind in conjunction with Pallag's proposal for a Committee of Enquiry. That he has to defend his reputation is clear, but what of the other Members of Parliament? Were they allowing themselves to be swept along by the tide of indignation, turning it to their own best advantage? Were they taken aback by the lively interest shown in the whole affair and afraid of falling foul of their electorate were they to be seen as indifferent or complacent? Were they appropriating Karancsi's role as guardians of justice and morals in the public service?
What the people thinks
In order to gauge the impact of the oil scandals in Békés county on public opinion, Magyar Nemzet commissioned two polls from the Hungarian Gallup Institute (on 7 to 10 October and 4 to 7 November respectively). A representative survey of 1000 adults indicated that confidence in police propriety had waned. In October, 86 per cent of the individuals surveyed had heard of the oil-related scandal and the accusations levelled against leading police officers, whilst in November the corresponding figure had risen slightly to 88 per cent.
A similar increase could be observed in respect of the truth of these accusations: in October, 55 per cent of respondents believed that they were true, whilst the tally for November was 69 per cent. In both polls, a constant four per cent sided with the police. (That public trust in the police had hit rock bottom was given further confirmation by the results of a similar poll, published in another Hungarian daily, Népszava, where the police scored a lower confidence rating than the government and the Parliament).
When consulted about the political dimension, 39 per cent of people polled felt that the government was trying to establish the truth, whilst 34 per cent believed that the government's role was more sinister, namely that it was interested in a cover up and ensuring that the individuals responsible were never brought to justice. Of these, predictably enough, 82 per cent of Fidesz voters subscribed to the former and 57 per cent of MSZP supporters to the latter view.
Nor did the pollsters miss the opportunity to sound the general public out about related issues. As to public safety, 46 per cent stated in the October survey that it had deteriorated under the Orbán administration as compared with that of his predecessor, the Socialist Gyula Horn, whilst 32 per cent thought it had improved. In November, the ranks of the pessimists had swollen to 51 per cent and those of the optimists dwindled to 26 per cent. The numbers of those who felt that there had been a major decline in public safety went up from 14 to 18 per cent between the polls.
As far as the effectiveness of the police's struggle against organised crime was concerned, the results showed that in October 21 per cent felt that it was effective against white collar crime, compared with 56 per cent who felt that effectiveness was low and 23 per cent who classified it as very low.
Guilty until proven innocent
The negative response was ascribed in part to the media's depiction of the affair, linking it to similar abuses in the past where the police had been exposed for collaborating with criminals. For example, the former chief of police in Hajdú-Bihar who had held office at the beginning of the 1990s confessed to taking part in illicit oil-trading. The verdict: the police are guilty until proven innocent.
In the full knowledge that there had been a breakdown in communication between ordinary citizens and the police force, László Ferenczi (49), recently promoted from chief of police of Somogy county to deputy national chief of police agreed to be interviewed by HVG [20 November, 1999]. When quizzed about the widespread belief amongst lower-ranking police officers that their superiors are virtually immune from prosecution in conjunction with corruption charges, Ferenczi drew attention to the ORFK's internal affairs department and to the activities of the so-called mobile monitoring service attached to it. Although he did not feel that the aim of these activities was for one half of the force to perform continuous surveillance operations against the other.
However, he recognised that having police officers responsible for carrying out enquiries into the suicides of their colleagues could raise certain dilemmas, regardless of how unbiased and professional such investigations might be. The public prosecutor's offices would represent a feasible alternative, as was the case ultimately with the Békés affair.
Reminded of the pledges by the Prime Minister and national police chief concerning the eradication of organised crime, expelling the foreign Mafia from Hungary and making the streets safer, Ferenczi refused to comment on the promises of others. Having voiced scepticism about the existence of a home-grown Hungarian Mafia, but he went on to doubt that organised crime could ever be wiped out entirely no matter where in the world it plied its evil trade.
He expected that there were still many battles to be fought by the police in Hungary, but results of the clamp down could already be discerned. There had been fewer incidences of fatal shootings and of explosions and more arrests of persons thought to play a key role in organised crime.
Towards the end of November, József Lajtár, deputy under-secretary of state in the Ministry of Home Affairs, presented the official statistics on police corruption, which, needless to say, dido not dovetail with the generally held view of the extent to which the representatives of the long arm of the law may be influenced. Up to October of 1999, 446 cases of bribery and 41 of using influence to gain profit were recorded. 14 police officers had accepted bribes.
This was a PR exercise on the part of Mr Pintér in conjunction with the adoption of a new package of measures designed to clamp down on corruption, albeit one that focuses almost entirely on the "small fry," officers on the beat. Presumably they were targeted due to their visibility, the immediacy of their contact with ordinary citizens. Traffic police, for example, responsible for spot checks and enforcing speed limits and so on are legendary for their propensity to "see reason" and show "leniency" with the help of a little palm grease.
Indeed, on 24 November, a few days before the Ministry announced its tougher stance, two officers in Fejér county were suspended from duty for dispensing instant fines against speeders on a main road. Naturally, the sums that changed hands made their way straight into the officer's pockets.
Equal before the law
As a judgement passed in Nógrád county reveals, however, some officers are more equal than others [see HVG, 27 November 1999]. The accused were let off after paying a fine of a few ten thousand forints and, although the verdict might adversely effect their chances of promotion, the wrongdoing will not necessarily be noted as a conviction on their records.
In March of last year, a traffic policeman carrying out routine checks stopped a car whose driver turned out to be one of the department heads in the county police headquarters. The man in question reeked of alcohol, and, when asked to step out of the vehicle, swayed visibly. The officer and his colleague contacted the duty officer in charge at the police headquarters, who passed the buck on to the head of the criminal investigation department.
In the latter's opinion, the two hapless officers were merely mucking about a superior and refused them permission to breathalyse or take a blood sample from the driver (in Hungary, there is zero tolerance of drinking and driving, consumption of one drop of alcohol is forbidden and subject to severe penalties under normal circumstances, such as immediate withdrawal of the driving licence). Instead, the patrolmen were ordered to take the offender home together with his car, a flagrant application of double standards.
The package aims to eliminate the likelihood of corruption from the word go: when new recruits are drafted, their finances and networks of friends, relatives and acquaintances are held up to scrutiny. The primary target of monitoring is to be the ordinary coppers on the beat along with the activities of their hierarchical superiors. Where corruption features as the motive for the enquiry, not only the suspect must be questioned, but also everyone in his immediate surroundings in order to ascertain whether they were aware of the abuses or even mixed up in them themselves.
From January of this year, lower-ranking officers are obliged to wear a badge to facilitate identification. Both the mobile monitoring service and the RSZVSZ were to receive a considerable boost in numbers (the exact number of staff in the RSZVSZ is a closely-guarded secret, adding to its mystique).
One of the root causes of corruption in the police force is low wages. As one officer indicated whilst interviewed on MTV's main evening news programme, net earnings of HUF 43,000 [USD 170] a month are simply not enough to live off decently, particularly where a family has to be supported. Underpaid policemen often have to resort to supplementing their incomes by taking on a second job, most commonly as security guards or bouncers at the type of establishment they might otherwise be called upon to raid in the line of normal duty. Although Péter Orbán, national chief of police heralded a pay rise for 2000 on 3 December last year, the eight per cent put on offer is hardly likely to persuade bent cops to clean up their act.
In March of 1999, new rules regulating the hire of police services (with a sliding scale of costs depending on the details of each engagement) by members of the public and private companies led to a surge of requests for officers to attend weddings and parties resplendent in dress uniforms [see Magyar Nemzet, 9 June 1999]. Of course, there are limits to what officers may be contracted to do: under no circumstances may they take part in unlawful activities, such as settling scores with the object of the client's grudge or escorting drivers at a speed of 200 kmphkm/h down the motorway.
Most frequently, police officers help out with security at rock concerts or sporting events, but mounted police, police motorboats and even a station cell have been rented (the cell was used by a German film crew whose search for Third World conditions ended at Gyorskocsi utca!). One interesting aspect of the system is that political parties may not avail themselves of these services. For officers on foot, the hourly rate is HUF 2000 plus VAT [USD 8], whilst for officers on motorbike, fuel and other costs have to be added and the services are provided in the officers' free time.
What the law says
Forms of corruption other than bribery do not feature in the statistics mentioned above. This is because countless cases are linked to other passages of the Criminal Law Statute. For example, forging public documents, a potentially lucrative pursuit for police officers, falls under a different category to corruption. One notorious example involved an officer who was apprehended with a stash of over 800 blank passports and car registration documents in his vehicle.
The Criminal Statute also lists a set of offences under the general heading of malfeasance, which, by definition, can only be committed by officials, extending beyond the police to include members of the government, judges, lawyers, local government representatives and so on [for this and the following section, see HVG, 5 August 1995]. The main misdeeds of relevance to police conduct are:
abuse of authority (paragraph 225), defined as a breach of official duty, overstepping a mandate or otherwise abusing an official position in order to put someone at an unlawful disadvantage or gaining an unlawful advantage and carrying a penalty of up to three years' imprisonment;
assault in the course of official proceedings (paragraph 226), regarded as a misdemeanour, with a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment;
forced confessions (paragraph 227), an official extorting a confession or statement by means of violence, threats or similar methods may be punished with a prison sentence of up to five years and, finally,
unlawful detention (paragraph 228), with two possible tariffs depending on degree. For a straightforward case of depriving the injured party of his freedom, the maximum sentence is five years in jail, whereas if malice or torture compounded the gravity of the crime, the maximum penalty increases to eight years.
The law governing the police force entered into force on 1 October 1994. Former Home Affairs Minister Péter Boross boasted that his goal had been to make the Hungarian police force more "resolute and masculine." A number of elements contained in the new legislation set the alarm bells ringing, for example, the wording of paragraph 17, according to which officers should avoid "as far as possible... the extinction of human life", a statement that sounds ominously like a blank cheque for murder.
The change in mentality reflected in the law may also be illustrated by the fact that police headquarters are no longer under any obligation to inform individuals against whom secret service methods of investigation are being used that they are under clandestine surveillance, even if previous operations of that type had failed to yield any evidence of wrongdoing, nor must the information thus compiled be routinely destroyed. Moreover, the new provisions permit officers to commandeer the vehicles of private and legal persons even for purposes of crime prevention and widen powers to enter private dwellings.
Most worryingly, the law - in direct contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights which Budapest ratified in 1992, which only allows for intervention where suspicions are well-founded - stipulates that even the slightest suspicion of having committed a crime is enough to entitle the police to detain a suspect for a total of 12 hours.
By the summer of 1995, police brutality had been given so much publicity that Sándor Pintér, in his previous reincarnation as national police chief had appeared on television to patch up the force's battered image. The catalyst for this were two incidents had taken place on the same day, 16 July. The first was in Balassgyarmat, where officers beat up a conscript who had addressed a remark intended as a joke at one of them, the second in Marcali, where three officers handcuffed and assaulted in full view of passers-by an 18 year old youth, who had taken exception to a plain clothes policeman ramming into his stationery car.
The boy was subsequently escorted by uniformed officers to the local police station where the attack continued in a cell until the victim lost consciousness. According to the broadcast, the boy's father, who went to look for his offspring at the station, was also given a taste of rough treatment, likewise cuffed and beaten. Although the boy reported the police officers who had assaulted him, the plain clothes officer preferred charges against him for violence against an official. The plain clothes officer's wife (who had been seated in the car beside her husband when the collision occurred) was quoted in a newspaper as saying that the boy had assaulted her husband and had behaved threateningly against the uniformed policemen as well.
Only the day before (15 July) in Pászto, an even more serious assault ended in the death of a suspect, but Mr Pintér omitted to mention it in the course of the programme. Here, an unemployed man suspected of breaking into a pub had had some "gentle persuasion" applied to him by officers in the form of body blows and kicking. On 21 July, Pintér dismissed one officer and suspended his three companions before the official investigation into the affair had been concluded and the prosecutor's findings announced.
Miklós Vitéz, a lawyer attached to the Chief Prosecutor's Office, pointed out to Ákos Tomory of HVG that the statistics compiled on police abuses only represented the tip of the iceberg. Many injured parties might not report manhandling as they reckon that a slap or two is par for the course. Another factor dissuading victims from coming forward is the difficulty in proving that the crime actually took place, since beatings are usually administered in the confines of a closed cell in "intimate" surroundings. Even where an apparently open and shut case is involved, it can still be difficult to bring a prosecution.
In May of 1993, for example, in the police station of the eighth district in Budapest, a 26 year old man was taken into custody, to be released the following morning. He was admitted to hospital with several broken ribs and severe bruising, yet in the assessment of the Budapest Prosecutor's Investigation Office, no crime had been committed. The official version that emerged was that the young man had either been hurt when the policeman in pursuit had seized him or after he had left the station. Once cases do make it into the public domain, however, lawyers find an upsurge in the number of similar complaints lodged.
Although what I have described is no laughing matter, the police in Hungary have spawned an entire genre of jokes, rivalled in sheer quantity only by witticisms at the expense of mothers-in-law. In these, officers are depicted as unsophisticated, culturally-challenged individuals, completely devoid of a sense of humour or irony, in short, the embodiment of brute stupidity. I leave you with a selection of such pearls of contemporary Hungarian wit by way of light relief:
The police try to figure out where the light disappears to when it's been switched off. They have been fumbling around the pitch dark room for some time when one of them exclaims: "I've found it! It's in the fridge!"
Why does one policeman walk on all fours between the two others? Because their dog is on maternity leave.
Two policemen are overheard chatting. One turns to the other and says, "Hey Béla, I'm going to make it into the Guinness Book of Records!"
"How come?" asks Béla.
"I got a jigsaw puzzle as a present and on the box it said 'from two to six years', but I managed to put it together in one!"
Two policemen are on the beat in a canine patrol. Every few steps, one of them keeps bending down to examine the animal's private parts. His colleague, bemused by this strange display of curiosity can finally contain himself no more and asks "Why do you keep looking at the dog's penis?" "Didn't you hear the bloke a few minutes ago saying, "Look at that dog with the two pricks'?"
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 17 January, 2000.
The sources used in the preparation of this article were Magyar Nemzet, 9 June, 5, 12, 13, 14 and 19 October, 4, 5, 11 and 13 November and 4, 9 and 12 December and HVG, 5 August 1995 and 14 and 27 February, 9 and 16 October and 20 and 27 November 1999.
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