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Attorneys are being snooped on like it’s no one’s business

Panic spread among Budapest lawyers last year when it was reported that law offices were being surveilled. It was not clear who was doing the snooping but the state’s security apparatus (which includes the police, Constitutional Protection Office and even Counter Terrorism Centre TEK) couldn’t be ruled out.

This prompted the Budapest Chamber of Lawyers to call on all its members to report whether anything dodgy is happening in their offices. The reports began to trickle in to an investigative committee set up by the chamber, and the chamber’s president received a report from the committee on April 4, reports Index.hu.

According to Index, a large number of formal and informal reports were filed. One case was of such great import that it even wound up in front of the National Assembly’s Committee on National Security.

In September 2015, Dialogue for Hungary (PM) MEP Benedek Jávor was on the phone with Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) lawyer Tivadar Hüttl when the line was cut. On Jávor’s end of the line the conversation he had just had with Hüttl started to re-play. The re-playing continued when Jávor called Hüttl on his other telephone.

Hüttl officially called on Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister János Lázár, Defence Minister István Simicskó and Minister of the Interior Sándor Pintér to open an investigation into their respective security apparatuses and find out whether any clandestine information gathering had occurred. Simicskó denied that the Military’s National Security Service had been performing any surveillance, and Lázár and Pintér said no unlawful surveillance had been performed.

Hüttl ended up taking the issue all the way to parliament’s national security committee where the ministries in question gave testimony during closed session. The outcome of the committee hearing prompted opposition MPs to call for an investigation into the matter, but the ruling party used its majority in the committee to shoot down an investigation.

According to Index, the Budapest Chamber of Lawyers says further investigation into whether the state is snooping on lawyers has been thwarted due to the fact that only a few lawyers have come forward with stories in which they can prove that it was the state’s security services that were surveilling them.

Based on the feedback provided by the lawyers, it turns out that several lawyers were being surveilled during criminal investigations into their clients or because the lawyers themselves were suspected of being engaged in criminal activities. Lawyers were able to find out they were being surveilled lawfully.

There were, however, other instances in which the surveillance was being performed unlawfully. In one such case, an unnamed attorney complained that the surveillance warrant issued was based on false information. The surveillance took place and information was gathered that was completely unrelated to the warrant, as well as other unrelated attorney-client privileged information. The attorney also claims to have no information regarding whether the state’s security services destroyed the unlawfully obtained information.

According to Index, there appears to be no shortage of stories regarding the surveillance of lawyers. Some have found older surveillance devices in their offices that are no longer in use — and some that may have worked longer than the duration provided for by the warrant (assuming a warrant was obtained to plant the bug).

Other attorneys claimed that investigative authorities had asked them loaded questions that could have been premised on information collected through backlogs of already gathered information, through the surveillance of their offices or bugging of their telephones.

In some cases, the chamber’s committee points out, some attorneys even collaborated with the state’s security services, allowing them to plant bugs in their offices.

The Budapest Chamber of Lawyers will forward its report to the president of the Hungarian Chamber of Lawyers and recommend  the president urge Hungary’s chief prosecutor to propose legal modifications to guarantee that the state’s security services’ mountain of unlawfully obtained attorney-client privileged information be destroyed.

Benjamin Novak :