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Hungary adopts draconian changes to constitution, ignores EU & US warnings

Published time: March 12, 2013 19:45
Hungarians attend a demonstration after parliament voted for government-backed constitutional amendments, in Budapest March 11, 2013 Young demonstrators block the entrance of the parliament building as Hungary's ruling party FIDESZ is set to push through changes to the constitution in Budapest March 11, 2013. (Reuters/Bernadett Szabo)

Hungarians attend a demonstration after parliament voted for government-backed constitutional amendments, in Budapest March 11, 2013 Young demonstrators block the entrance of the parliament building as Hungary's ruling party FIDESZ is set to push through changes to the constitution in Budapest March 11, 2013. (Reuters/Bernadett Szabo)

Jail for vagrancy, a ban on electoral campaign ads in private media, and violations of student rights – all that may soon become a reality in the center of Europe as Hungary passes a set of controversial amendments.

On Monday, the Hungarian parliament overwhelmingly passed a 15-page amendment to its one-year-old Constitution – despite mass protests at home and fierce criticism from other EU members, the US and human rights groups.

The bill gives more powers to the government and limits the influence of the country’s constitutional court, banning it from reviewing changes to the Hungarian Fundamental Law other than for procedural mistakes.

Jail for homeless people

Under the document, constitutional judges will also be robbed of the right to refer to rulings made before January 1, 2012 – when the new constitution came into force. This means that many regulations that had previously been called unconstitutional will now be considered constitutional.

That, for instance, includes a law that gives a possibility for local authorities to fine or jail homeless people for living in public areas. Meanwhile, according to the UN, an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 people, including numerous women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities, are thought to be homeless in Hungary. In November, the constitutional court struck down the legislation saying it violated human dignity.

Among other amendments is the prohibition of political advertising on commercial channels during election campaigns, and, also the right by the head of the state judicial authority to transfer trials from one court to another. Besides that, students who get state grants will be obliged to work in Hungary for a number of years after their graduation. Those who want to work abroad will have to pay the money back.

The amendments – put forward by the ruling conservative Fidesz party – provide a definition of a family that is founded on marriage between a man and a woman or a relations ship between parents and dependent children. Earlier in December, the constitutional court slammed the legal provisions as ‘excessively restrictive.’ 

Young demonstrators block the entrance of the parliament building as Hungary's ruling party FIDESZ is set to push through changes to the constitution in Budapest March 11, 2013. (Reuters/Bernadett Szabo)

Hungary ‘defies EU democratic values’ 

“The new provisions continue to discriminate against unmarried and same-sex families,” Human Rights Watch stated on its website on Tuesday.  The organization called on the EU to “take resolute action” in response to the latest constitutional changes adopted in the Hungarian parliament

The Hungarian opposition claims that the ruling party along with its leader Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is trying to limit the top court’s powers in revenge, after it rejected several initiatives proposed by Fidesz.

Meanwhile, the European Union – whose opinion had been ignored by Hungarian lawmakers – voiced deep concerns over the set of amendments that could “undermine democratic principles” and violate the rule of law.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Budapest and underlined that "the concerns expressed by European partners and friends of Hungary, about restrictions on the powers of the constitutional court among other things, should be taken seriously," a spokesman said, as cited by AFP.

European Commission spokesperson, Olivier Bailly said the amendments will be checked as soon as possible to make sure they "are in line with EU laws and EU values."

"If necessary we will use our legal instruments to make sure that these laws are changed," he added, reported Associated Press.

Victoria Nuland, US State Department spokesperson also slammed the document which, she said, “could threaten the principles of institutional independence and the checks and balances that are the hallmark of democratic governance.

European experts note that if the package of amendments is signed by President Janos Ader, it will bring to naught over 20 years of the development of the Hungarian judicial system after the fall of the Communism.