Spies like us in Hungary

By bne IntelliNews July 20, 2011

Thomas Escritt in Budapest -

In July, two former heads of Hungary's intelligence service and a former security services minister were taken into custody for questioning on charges of committing crimes against the state, which appears to implicate these three people with close links to the previous government in spying for a foreign government. The move comes shortly after Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister, promised to make good on a campaign promise to bring to book those with ties to the previous government accused of political corruption. But it is also the latest in a string of cases that raise questions about the independence of prosecutors in Hungary from political influence.

It is impossible to say what exactly Sandor Laborc, who ran Hungary's National Security Office until 2009, his predecessor Lajos Galambos, or Gyorgy Szilvasy, who was minister in charge of the security services until 2008, are accused of. A fourth man arrested in connection with the same charges has not been named. The parliamentary committee responsible for the security services was briefed on the accusations, but the committee, in which the ruling populist-conservative Fidesz party has a majority, voted on July 4 to classify the minutes of the meeting for 80 years, meaning the press will be free to speculate on the nature of the accusations for some time to come.

At court hearings a few days later, two of the men were released from custody pending trial, against the wishes of prosecutors, while Galambos was placed under house arrest, suggesting that whatever the three men are accused of, the judge wasn't convinced they represented an immediate danger. (Galambos has since been taken back into custody).

One opposition member of the committee told the news portal Hirszerzo: "The story we heard was extremely serious. If it is true, then all sorts of things over the past few years will have to be seen in a different light." The MP added, however, that if the accusations were true, then it was hard to see why the three men had been released.

While the public could learn more if the affair ever comes to trial, there is a legal possibility of the trial itself being heard in camera, in which case the head-scratching could continue for some time.

Old scores

Since taking office in a landslide victory 18 months ago, Fidesz has promised a "settling of accounts" against those members of the Socialist-Liberal coalition that were in power between 2002 and 2010 who are accused of corruption. There have been few successes. Gyula Budai, a Fidesz politician tasked with investigating the "corruption" of the previous government, has spent more than a year trying to stand up his claim that former Socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany ordered that land be sold on the cheap to a foreign investor in an ill-fated casino venture: in this case, prosecutors have requested that Gyurcsany's parliamentary immunity be lifted, though this hasn't yet happened.

In a July 19 blog post, Gyurcsany said the charges against the two spies and the politician were part of a campaign directed at him personally. "I'm waiting for the moment when they reach me in the political and moral horror that is known as the spying affair... Of course, I've no doubt that Fidesz's leadership is interested in these almost entirely unknown security services leaders."

With Szilvasy seen as Gyurcsany's right-hand man, it is tempting to link these latest arrests to that settling of accounts, especially since PM Orban promised at a recent party retreat that he would turn his attention to the matter after the Hungary's presidency of the European Council ended in June. The government has nonetheless denied having any specific knowledge of the charges against the three men.

Much of the speculation in the press has focused on the possibility that the three men may have been working for Russian state interests. Heti Valasz, a pro-government weekly, has claimed, for instance, that Laborc, a career spy who studied at the KGB's elite Moscow academy in the 1980s, commissioned a private company with Russian links to carry out polygraph tests on employees of Hungary's counterintelligence service as part of a campaign to stem leaks from the organisation. The test results could have fallen into Russian hands, the magazine claims. If these are indeed the charges, then it would be hard to justify the decision to keep them secret.

But this is not the first run-in between Laborc and the prosecutors. In 2008, Laborc resigned as head of the National Security Office saying that prosecutors had failed to fully investigate his claim that employees of a private security company had attempted to place spyware on the agency's computers and had taken commissions from members of the then-opposition Fidesz party to track his movements. Recordings of telephone conversations were posted anonymously on YouTube that showed the company's directors discussing dirty tricks against a prominent opposition politician with Fidesz politicians as well as with Sandor Csanyi, chairman of Hungary's OTP Bank.

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