Hungary state security services surveilling law offices

June 10, 2015

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The Hungarian Bar Association has asked Hungarian lawyers to notify it if they believe their offices are under surveillance by the country’s security services.

According to a statement issued by the Budapest Bar Association, “entire law offices are under surveillance for the purposes of obtaining confidential information”. The association’s presidium believes “such activities cannot be employed without restrictions and has created a committee to uncover, investigate, and report such cases.”

Dr. László Réti, president of the Budapest bar association, told Hungarian newsite Index.hu that a member of the association has informed the organization that, according to unofficial but reliable sources, Hungarian law offices are under “total surveillance” by state services.

It is not known which state service is doing the surveillance as the culprits potentially include the police, the Constitutional Protection Office, and the Counter-Terrorism Center.

News of state snooping has caused outrage among bar association members because such activities clearly violate attorney-client privilege, and are therefore unlawful. Surveillance is legal only in cases where the targets are clearly identified and cannot be employed in a general manner.

The bar association’s special committee is comprised of three lawyers who are specialized in the field of surveillance. The committee is tasked with determining: whether there is any reason for lawyers to be concerned about being under surveillance, what the reason is for any such surveillance taking place, and whether state security services are breaking the law.

At a meeting of the special committee, a senior member of the bar association expressed his concern that the state is keen on simplifying the ease with which state security services can place law offices under surveillance. This same member also stated that the government is planning to change laws to accommodate this.

Dr. László Réti says the bar association would like to play a role in assisting the government in crafting such legislation because Hungarian lawyers are afraid the law will be drafted, circulated within the various ministries and quickly adopted without there being any meaningful debate on the merits of such legislation.

Péter Polt, Hungary’s chief prosecutor, said in a recent interview with Hungarian news site Nol.hu,: “It’s a well known fact that methods used by the clandestine services are employed to uncover corruption, without which it would very difficult, if not impossible, to investigate such crime. There are very strict rules governing how such methods are employed and the extent to which information obtained through such methods are handled.”

Polt believes the rules governing secret surveillance should be expanded and that the best way to do so would be to modify existing laws.

Réti said: “The country’s economic security and livability rely on the integrity of ensuring fundamental rights.”

He said governments around the world have become keener to use practices beyond what is legally permitted to obtain information.

“The state needs to return to its constitutional confines,” Réti said.

Referenced in this article:

Pánikban az ügyvédek, a magyar állam lehallgatásától félnek, Index.hu; 3 June 2015.