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Changes to penal code 'set stage for show trials', says opposition

Parliament this week approved legislation that allows the authorities to detain politicians suspected of abuse of power or corruption for five days without charge, rather than the previous three days, and choose the court where such cases are heard to “fast track trials,” Bloomberg reports.

The government has “set the stage for show trials,” Gergely Bárándy, a member of parliament from the opposition Socialist Party, said yesterday in an interview. “Orbán’s party always alluded to political vengeance, but they elegantly called it ‘holding to account,’” he said. “That prosecutors may now assist in this is horrendous.”

The changes were designed to “make rules applying to politicians and big financial crimes stricter,” after such abuse “fundamentally undermined public confidence in the past eight years,” János Lázár, the parliamentary leader of Fidesz, told lawmakers June 20. Ruling-party lawmakers initially sought to bar suspects from contacting their lawyers in the first 48 hours of detention, according to a draft posted on parliament’s website. They backed down before the final vote, approving language that allows defense lawyers to accompany suspects “even if the prosecutor bans contact between suspect and the lawyer.”

The changes may be unconstitutional and violate judicial independence, according to an opinion from the Supreme Court’s College of Criminal Justice, posted on the website of the Association of Hungarian Judges.

Freedom House, a New York-based organization that promotes human rights, has already evaluated Orbán’s leadership as the “most significant backslide” in Hungarian democracy since the end of communism in 1989.

Orbán’s government limited the power of the Constitutional Court and boosted the number of judges with ruling-party appointees, passed a new Constitution over opposition protests, and put party allies in charge of at least four independent institutions, including the audit office.

The new measures risk further undermining Orbán’s democratic credential.

“The government’s actions and rhetoric to date suggest that it intends to undermine liberal democracy in Hungary,” Freedom House said in its annual report published June 27.

A law approved last year empowered a council made up of ruling-party appointees to fine or shut down media outlets, drawing criticism from the European Commission, the European Union’s executive, the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.