Why Just Now?

Béla Biszku and János Kádár at the Hungarian Parliament Building

Béla Biszku and János Kádár at the Hungarian Parliament Building.

On October 16, 2013, the Budapest Investigative Prosecutor’s Office submitted an indictment to the Budapest Court of Justice accusing former Kádár-régime official Béla Biszku of war crimes committed during the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The indictment charges that as a member of the Hungarian Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government’s Provisional Executive Committee (Ideiglenes Intéző Bizottság) that exercised political power in Hungary following the Soviet army’s defeat of revolutionary forces in early November 1956, Biszku is guilty of ordering pro-communist militia to fire upon demonstrators in Budapest on December 6 and in the city of Salgótarján in northern Hungary on December 8 of that year, killing a total of 52 people. The prosecutor’s charges against Biszku are based on crimes defined in the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, which the communist Rákosi régime enacted into Hungarian law in 1954 (source in Hungarian). The indictment does not accuse the 92-year-old Biszku of crimes related to the execution of several hundred people, including revolutionary Prime Minister Imre Nagy, as punishment for their actions during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution while he served as the Kádár régime’s interior minister between March 1957 and September 1961. Biszku faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if found guilty of war crimes pursuant to the massacre of civilians in December 1956.

The question is: why just now?

Why is Biszku to be put on trial for crimes committed during the Kádár régime’s retribution against participants in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution nearly 25 years following the fall of communism?

Out of Obscurity 

Righteous imposters: Crime and Impunity directors Fruzsina Skrabski and Tamás Novák

The (self-) righteous imposters: Crime and Impunity directors Fruzsina Skrabski and Tamás Novák.

Biszku lived the quiet life of a pensioner in the upscale Rose Hill district of Budapest for two decades following the System Change. Most Hungarians assumed that Biszku, as all other high-ranking Kádár-régime officials, had died long ago until two young journalists posing as members of the non-existent Bereg Youth Association tricked him into conducting interviews with them under the pretext that they were making a documentary film about notable people born in his home village of Márokpapi in eastern Hungary.  The journalists, Fruzsina Skrabski and Tamás Novák of the pro-Fidesz website Mandiner.hu, then used the interviews, during which they enticed Biszku into talking about his political role in the communist restoration that took place in Hungary following the 1956 revolution, to make a documentary film about him called Crime and Impunity (Bűn és büntetlenség). In the film, which premiered in June 2010, Biszku declares that Imre Nagy “deserved his fate” and that he feels no guilt for the post-revolution executions, claiming that as interior minister he exercised no influence over the courts that pronounced the death sentences (source in Hungarian, including film trailer).  

Statute of Limitations

Communist militia of the type that massacred demonstrators in Salgótarján

Communist militia of the type that massacred demonstrators in Salgótarján.

A few months after Crime and Impunity vaulted Biszku back into the public spotlight, a private individual submitted a complaint to the Budapest Chief Prosecutor’s Office charging him with complicity in murder following the 1956 revolution. However, the prosecutor’s office rejected the complaint on the grounds that Hungary’s statute of limitations had expired on the alleged criminal offenses and that the latter did not constitute crimes against humanity as defined in international law (source in Hungarian). 

The prosecutor’s finding contradicted the 1995 verdict of the Budapest Court of Justice condemning two members of the 1956-1957 communist militia each to five years in prison based on the Fourth Geneva Convention for the killing of 46 pro-revolution demonstrators in Salgótarján on December 8, 1956. The court declared that the war crimes were not subject to Hungary’s statute of limitations (source in Hungarian).

The Orbán government took two measures in order to ensure that the statute of limitations would not serve as an impediment to the prosecution of war crimes committed in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution: on December 30, 2011 it adopted (with the support of the opposition) a law, the so-called Lex Biszku, declaring that the statute of limitations does not apply to crimes against humanity, including war crimes (source in Hungarian); and it stipulated in the Fundamental Law that came into effect on January 1, 2012 that the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party and its predecessors “were criminal organizations and their leaders shall have responsibility without statute of limitations for maintaining and directing an oppressive régime and for the breaches of law committed and for the betrayal of the nation.”  

With this obstacle removed, in February 2012 the radical-nationalist Jobbik party submitted another complaint against Biszku to the Budapest Chief Prosecutor’s Office accusing him of crimes committed during the suppression and aftermath of the 1956 revolution (source in Hungarian). The office initiated proceedings against Biszku based on these charges on February 29, 2012 (source in Hungarian). 

The Reprehensible Scapegoat 

Biszku speaking on Duna TV

Biszku speaking on Duna TV.

Béla Biszku has steadfastly denied that he bears any guilt in connection to the massacres and executions that took place as part of the Kádár régime’s consolidation of power following the 1956 revolution. On January 27, 2011, the Budapest Chief Prosecutor charged Biszku with violating the law adopted in June 2010 declaring public refutation of national-socialist or communist crimes to be an offense punishable by up to three years in prison (source in Hungarian) as the result of statements he made during an interview on Duna TV the previous summer. After clearing a legal hurdle in the Constitutional Court, this case is also headed to court (source in Hungarian). 

The prosecutors are going to have a difficult time gaining a conviction of Biszku on either the charge of war crimes or public denial of communist crimes. Former Budapest Chief Prosecutor Endre Bócz, who oversaw the proceedings in the mid-1990s against the militia members found guilty of shooting demonstrators in Salgótarján in December 1956, has stated that he did not bring charges against Biszku at the time because there was no evidence indicating that as part of the Kádárist Provisional Executive Committee he had ordered the use of lethal force. Bócz told the website Origo.hu that “None of the perpetrators said that the committee or anybody else had told them to start shooting. They just started to shoot” (source in Hungarian). The charge of public denial of communist crimes during his August 4, 2011 interview on Duna TV appears to be based on his reference to the revolution as a “counterrevolution” and his assertion that in 1956 “the struggle on behalf of the [communist] system was just” (source A and B in Hungarian). It will be difficult to prove in a court of law that these statements constitute denial of any sort.  

Biszku leaving the Budapest Municipal Court after being charged with war crimes

Biszku leaving the Budapest Municipal Court after being charged with war crimes.

But the outcome of the legal proceedings launched against Biszku don’t really matter, because the point of prosecuting the old communist, the living ghost of the Kádár régime, is not to bring him to justice. The point is to provide the Orbán government with the means to mobilize political support through the incitement of popular indignation against portrayed enemies of the Hungarian state and nation. If Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party are primarily interested in justice, why did they not initiate the prosecution of Biszku during Fidesz’s first term in power between 1998 and 2002? Why, then, did Orbán and his party oppose the Hungarian Democratic Forum-initiated 1991 law, subsequently annulled by the Constitutional Court, eliminating the statute of limitation on crimes that remained unpunished for political reasons during the communist era in view of bringing Biszku and other members of the Kádár régime who were still alive at the time to justice (source in Hungarian)?

The prosecution of Biszku—notwithstanding his true moral corruption and complicity in perpetuating communist dictatorship—represents a political device aimed at further consolidation of the Orbán government’s power.