Hungary Backslides on Arrest Rights

NEW YORK—The Open Society Justice Initiative is deeply concerned by the passage of new legislation in Hungary that allows suspects in serious crime cases to be held by police for up to 48 hours without access to defense counsel, and for up to 5 days without court review.

Hungary’s parliament passed the amendment to the country’s law on criminal procedure on Monday, July 4, with 255 votes for and 97 against. The new procedures apply to serious crimes including murder, kidnapping, and gang membership.

Previously, suspects in detention had the right to immediate access to a defense lawyer, and the police had to await the arrival of a lawyer before beginning questioning. The previous limit on detention without court review was 72 hours.

The law is at odds with both established European jurisprudence and runs counter to a broad move by European countries to embrace the principle of  early access to a defense lawyer for suspects.

The European Commission’s proposed directive on the right to access counsel, released last month, also contains clear rules that all people suspected or accused of crimes are entitled to access a lawyer “as soon as possible” and “at the latest upon deprivation of liberty.”

Zaza Namoradze, director of the Open Society Justice Initiative office in Budapest, said that the new law represented a step backwards for Hungary.

“This amendment severely curtails the fundamental fair trial rights of criminal defendants, and it suggests that the Hungarian Parliament is not committed to the principles contained in the European Convention on Human Rights,” he said.  

While the amendment as passed allows for the presence of a lawyer during any interrogation that occurs during the first 48 hours of detention, it does not allow for private consultations with the client during this period.

The Justice Initiative notes that the suspect's right to consult with a lawyer privately before any questioning by police is also a vital element of any properly conducted criminal defense.