By Peter Annear in Prague
A Hungarian law lifting the 20-year statute of limitations on former Communist Party administrators has been overruled. Judges of the constitutional court unanimously rejected the legislation referred to them by, among others, President Arpad Gäncz, who reportedly favours a compromise under which the alleged crimes would be exposed but not prosecuted.
The Zetenyi-Tanacs law would apply to officials accused of acts of murder and of selling out their country to the Soviet Union.
The decision is a setback for the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) government's so-called justice plan — in reality an anticommunist witch-hunt designed to purge the state apparatus, government and business. As in other central European countries facing continuing economic and social difficulties, the MDF is looking for scapegoats to divert rising public discontent with the "reform" process.
The parliamentary opposition, some newspapers and a range of social organisations spoke out against the legislation, along with the liberal intelligentsia and the left. It may be that Gäncz simply wanted to defuse this opposition, but there is also uncertainty among some sections of the elite, who are worried about just how the MDF might use such a weapon, according to trade union researcher Laszlo Andor.
Socialist historian Tamas Krausz says the legislation is ostensibly directed at those responsible for the suppression of the 1956 revolution, but that its real intent is to establish collective guilt for the years of Communist Party rule. Krausz said that, in any case, hard evidence about the role played by most individuals in the events of 1956 is not available.
Hungary is not alone in its attempt to use retrospective legislation to prosecute members of the former regime. Czechoslovakia has outlawed even the propagation of communism and has "screened" former Communist Party members, using legislation that is widely regarded as unconstitutional though it has never been before a court. In Poland too, similar measures are being threatened or carried out.
A separate bill to vet political, business and media leaders for pre-1989 secret police links goes before the Hungarian parliament this month. Parallel Czechoslovak legislation has been used to victimise even clearly innocent people the current government finds not to its liking, such as MP Jan Kavan, a post-1968 exile well known as a left-wing opponent of the former government.
The minister responsible for the Hungarian secret service has quit, saying he was not ready to do the things that had been requested of
Meanwhile, Czechoslovakia's prosecutor-general, Ivan Gasparovic, has been sacked by President Vaclav Havel, bowing to pressure from a group of key right-wing parties. The Czech republic's chief prosecutor is under a similar threat.
Gasparovic told the press his removal was politically motivated, citing his association with popular centre-left Slovak politician Vladimir Meciar. The Slovak paper Narodna Obroba (National Revival) noted the decision of the Hungarian constitutional court and commented that such legislation would also run counter to Czechoslovakia's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, adopted last year by the federal parliament.
The paper said Gasparovic had "not yielded to the pressure of the rightist deputies and was unwilling to break the limits of [the] law, whereby he became inconvenient". Gasparovic said many people believed that all past and present wrongs must be completely eradicated at any price, even if it meant doing so by illegal means. He told the leftist Rude Pravo (Red Truth) it was impossible to use criminal law to settle political disputes.