“I ask that this court and the prosecution service rise to the task it is supposed to serve and open cases which restore the Hungarian nation’s sense that justice is being served, that they bring those who steal and oppress the Hungarian nation here to this spot where I stand” – Márton Gulyás, at his trial for allegedly conspiring with others to breach the peace and commit vandalism
“Public life has sunk to the point that is no longer tolerable” – Gergő Varga, at his trial for allegedly conspiring with others to breach the peace and commit vandalism
Civil activists Márton Gulyás and Gergő Varga were sentenced to a total of 500 hours of public work by a first-level court Thursday evening after admitting to throwing open bottles of paint at the palace of the Hungarian president in Buda’s Castle District Monday night during a protest.
The protest developed spontaneously after President János Áder signed a modification to the law on higher education, commonly known as “Lex CEU”, which would essentially force Central European University to close its doors.
Gulyás was arrested on the scene after attempting to throw an open bottle of water-based orange paint at the presidential palace (orange is the official color of governing party Fidesz). Varga was arrested at his home hours later. Both were held in police custody for the better part of three days before being transferred to a Budapest courtroom early Thursday afternoon to take part in an expedited criminal procedure.
The defendants were tried together, each with their own legal counsel making arguments before the judge. A third protester allegedly filmed throwing a bottle of paint remains at large and has yet to be identified.
At the start of the trial, both defense attorneys made it clear to the judge that the circumstances surrounding the arrest of their clients, and the conditions of their subsequent detention, had violated their rights. Furthermore, they argued that the manner in which the prosecution pushed for the expedited case prevented them from adequately preparing for the hearing – the defense attorneys received a 100 page evidence file and witness testimony from prosecutors just half an hour before the start of the trial.
Under Hungarian law, if three suspects act in concert to commit a crime it can be qualified as conspiracy. Although the alleged third perpetrator has yet to be arrested or even identified, prosecutors charged Gulyás and Varga with conspiracy to breach the peace and vandalize a landmark building.
Varga’s girlfriend, Maria Koosh, told reporters that police entered their home late Monday night and took Varga away. According to Koosh, a native of Georgia and CEU graduate, the police assured her Varga would return home within hours. Instead, Varga was held for the better part of three days without the opportunity to contact Koosh.
Koosh recounted the interaction with the police in an interview published by 444.hu. (The interview is English with Hungarian subtitles.)
Despite prosecutors subsequently dropping charges of “blatant breach of peace,” both Gulyás and Varga were held in pre-trial detention for nearly 72 hours before being transferred to a packed courtroom under heavy police escort in handcuffs.
When Gulyás and Varga entered the packed courtroom, they were greeted with cheers and thunderous applause by the audience. “This is a court, not a circus,” the judge reminded attendees. When the judge ordered the handcuffs removed, former SZDSZ-MSZP politician Imre Mécs, who spent 8 years in prison for his role in the 1956 uprising, applauded, for which he subsequently asked the judge’s pardon.
The police involved in the incident did not consent to their voices or faces being recorded by the media. Gulyás separately requested “government propaganda outlets” not be allowed to film him at trial.
Gulyás opened his testimony by saying that he had been deprived of adequate food and rest in jail, something he attributed to the prosecution’s desire to break him down before the proceedings.
Gulyás claimed he did not disturb the peace by attempting to throw paint at the Presidential Palace. In Gulyás’ opinion, it was President János Áder who broke the peace when he signed into law Lex CEU.
“Lex CEU was not the first or last step in the government’s quest to strip people of their rights,” Gulyás said. “All I did was point out that the institution of the presidential palace lost its function, and has become subservient [to a political party]. It is a Fidesz party institution.”
Questioned by judge Szabolcs Hornzák, Gulyás admitted to buying the paint on his way to the protest. He said he got the idea to throw paint at the Sándor Palace after hearing senior Fidesz politician Lajos Kósa speak on TV2 on Monday. (The Fidesz deputy chairman and parliamentary delegation leader said that the attack on CEU was just a “side theatre of war” in the dispute between the Hungarian government and the “empire” led by American entrepreneur and philanthropist George Soros over the migration crisis-ed.)
Gulyás explained that he bought water-based paint because he wanted to avoid doing any lasting damage to the building. After buying supplies, he went up to the Castle District where protesters were already assembled outside Sándor Palace.
At the protest, he ran into his friend, Gergely Varga, who then tried to help put paint into balloons that Gulyás had brought. After realizing they could not fill the balloons with paint, the two decided to unscrew the caps of the plastic paint bottles and throw those instead.
“I don’t have experience doing things like this,” Gulyas said, referring to act of throwing paint bottles. He said he tried to fling the open end of the bottle at the wall by running and jumping over the cordon separating protesters from the police surrounding the walls of Sándor Palace, but apparently slipped.
“Two police caught me in the air and put me on the ground. Twisted my arms behind my back. And detained me,” Gulyás said. When asked what became of the remaining bottles of paint, Gulyás responded, “I left the paint on the ground so others wouldn’t miss out on the fun.”
Based on the testimony of the witnesses – all police officers summoned to testify by prosecutors – no definite case could be made that Gulyás had succeeded in hurling the bottle at Sándor Palace. Neither of the police officers who grabbed Gulyás could say with any certainty when or how their clothes became stained with paint.
After the testimony of the police officers, Gulyás apologized for getting paint on them. The police officers all accepted his apology.
Articulate and calm yet defiant to the end, Gulyás said his only regret was that he had “waited this long.” He promised to continue similar acts if released “until this government is out because there is nothing else we can do at this point.”
Varga, too, complained he had been kept in custody for much longer than they told him when he was originally detained, and that he had not been allowed to sleep for 20 hours.
In response to questions aimed at determining whether he conspired with Gulyás beforehand, Varga told the judge he had not. He said he decided to attend the protest after learning about it from thirty or so friends, and that hundreds of people had already gathered in front of the presidential palace when he arrived. He told the judge that Gulyás arrived later, showed him the paint and asked him to help pour it into balloons, but they were unable to because the paint was too viscous. Although he denied that Gulyás instructed him to throw paint at the presidential palace, he said “there was a tacit agreement that this should happen,” and that they threw their bottles at the same time. While he saw his fly over the heads of the officers, he did not see where it landed.
In defense of his actions, Varga responded sarcastically “they’re going to paint Sándor Palace orange anyway next year,” and pointed out that the police themselves admit they were able to wash the paint off.
In the closing arguments, the prosecutor argued that the case against Gulyás and Varga was not a case concerning the freedom of political expression. According to the prosecutor, the behavior of the activists was “aggressive and disorderly,” and instilled “fear and shock in the public.” He further argued that it made no difference that the paint used in the act was water-soluble, because any altering of the appearance of historically protected building can be considered vandalism. According to the statement released by the overseers of Sándor Palace, the damage done to the palace amounted to some HUF 23 thousand (USD 78). The prosecutor called on the judge to render suspended prison sentences for the activists.
In their closing arguments, both defense attorneys objected to the manner in which their clients were arrested, the conditions of their detention, and the lack of adequate time to prepare for their defense. Both attorneys argued that neither criminal offense had actually taken place as no permanent damage was done, and the demonstration was already underway when the defendants arrived separately.
Varga’s lawyer argued that the activists’ actions should be viewed as an exercise of political expression recognized throughout Europe. She rejected prosecutors’ claims that the accused had conspired beforehand to breach the peace and damage public property, pointing out that the paint could easily be removed “with a bucket of water and a sponge.”
Upon learning that witnesses sent out of the courtroom earlier were watching a live stream of the proceedings, the judge ordered those attending the trial to stop broadcasting it over the internet. But the broadcast continued, with as many as 15,000 people watching the live stream appearing on Slejm’s Facebook page.
After closing arguments, both defendants had an opportunity to make closing statements.
After thanking the journalists and supporters who attended the trial, Gulyás said that the judge can render a guilty verdict against him, but that verdict would not be enough to satisfy the public’s sense that justice has been done.
According to Gulyás, Hungarian society has been struggling with the sense that they have been deprived of justice for decades, and a guilty verdict against him will do nothing to improve that. In his opinion, certain individuals and interest groups have abused their power and have engaged in the theft of public funds, and Hungary’s prosecution service has never been as proactive in trying those cases in court as they were with him.
Gulyás implored the judge to consider whether the decision rendered in his case will really satisfy Hungarians’ sense that justice has been served because “Hungarian society is not just a congregation of idiots.” He said he would gladly spend the rest of his life in jail if it brought about meaningful change, and if it meant prosecutors would start investigating crimes committed by government officials.
“I agree with the prosecutors that it is already a bad situation when citizens are forced to, say, throw bottles of paint as a way of expressing their political opinion…But will convicting me along with Gergő Varga resolve the current situation or create a more democratic, dialogue-based order? Or will that require that prosecutors finally do their job and go after the real crimes which today limit the ability of much of the citizenry to exercise their basic rights?
“I ask that this court and the prosecution service rise to the task it is supposed to serve and open cases which restore the Hungarian nation’s sense that justice is being served, that they bring those who steal and oppress the Hungarian nation here to this spot where I stand,” said Gulyás.
The courtroom erupted in applause to the dissatisfaction of the judge, who threatened to order the removal of everyone from the courtroom if it happened again.
For his closing speech, Varga told the judge that the fundamental right to freedom of expression is only guaranteed if people use it and constantly test its limits. According to Varga, that is exactly what he and Gulyás were doing, “because public life has sunk to the point that is no longer tolerable.”
Varga said that the charges against them did not take into consideration the fact that tens of thousands of people have been marching on the streets of Budapest, concluding as follows:
“The fact that prosecutors forcefully detained us antagonized so many people that there were two sympathy demonstrations. There are so many people present at this hearing that perhaps you are breaching the peace, except that you are a state organ. Now I ask. So far it has not been possible to say that this country is a dictatorship. But what will happen if it really is? Then what do we say? They say that political expression of opinion breached the peace. What will we say to what comes later? If what we did is breach of peace and vandalism, and every other context does not count, then the basic tone of political expression in the future will be a breach of peace, and everything else will only be worse. I do not mean that people will be afraid, but that if we criminalize the act of speaking out, then what will be next? Next week they break up a demonstration because it is not possible to make loud noise after 10 pm?…Will we use violence against a community to sentence Roma? Wait a minute, that has already happened. What is happening to this country? If this court convicts me here today, then I will bear this proudly. What kind of people observe laws that are passed against them?”
After deliberating, the judge sentenced Gulyás and Varga to 300 and 200 hours of public work, respectively.
Calling the decision “absurd,” the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) immediately announced its intention to appeal both verdicts.