Law enforcement and criminal justice | Hungarian Helsinki Committee

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Anybody may become defenceless in the face of the state’s power.


If a criminal procedure is conducted against someone, the police may tap their phone, handcuff them, and may take them into custody.

It is important that suspects and accused persons may exercise their rights ensured by the law: that they have access to an attorney, know what they are suspected or accused of, and that they are allowed to notify their family members if they are taken into 72-hour detention.


In Hungary, if a suspect cannot retain a lawyer in the course of the investigation, it is up to the police to decide who the defendant’s ex officio defence counsel will be. However, the interests of the police – due to their role – run counter to those of the defendants. The police wants to close cases as fast as possible without any seemingly superfluous “over-lawyering”. Thus, in most cases, the police choose their own critic, which impedes the realisation of the right to effective defence. Our research has shown that the ex officio defence counsels’ level of activity was lower than that of retained defence counsels: e.g. on the first interrogation, being of crucial importance, only sixteen percent of the ex officio defence counsels were present, while this proportion was 63 percent in the case of retained attorneys.


Most people get in contact with the police only when they are ID checked. This may be a bad experience even for those whose papers are in order and have not engaged in any unlawful activity.

ID checking is the most commonly used police measure, carrying out millions of ID checks every year. In 2014, 2,786,395 ID checks were carried out in Hungary, while in the first five month of 2015 the number of ID checks was 1,238,926. Between 2006 and 2008 we examined together with the National Police Headquarters how useful ID checks can be. According to the research results, these measures do not have any useful outcome in terms of criminal law in 99 percent of the cases. Nobody has ever proven that ad hoc ID checks would be effective, for example, as compared to warrants.


The gravest form of rights violations committed by the police is ill-treatment. However, reports on ill-treatment result in a judgment only in a significantly low percentage of the cases. The public is not really informed about police brutality; recently, only the acts of violence committed by the police in 2006 became well-known.

Criminal procedures launched against police officers rarely make it before a judge, and the judgments, which seem to be lenient, often order that the “errant” police officer’s criminal record to be cleaned in advance. This step results that perpetrators may continue their police service. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee regularly provides legal aid to victims of violent acts committed by police officers and other official persons.


Pre-trial detention is like a prison sentence; only it lacks the final judgment. Pre-trial detention is ordered many times automatically, even in cases of low gravity, e.g. in the case of thefts, or when the defendant cooperates with the authorities and there is no risk of flight risk, since the defendant for example travelled back to Hungary from abroad to participate at his/her hearing.

The situation of pre-trial detainees is worse than that of convicts, because they often spend twenty-three hours per day in their cells and do not know when they will be released.

House arrest is a less expensive alternative to pre-trial detention, which is less hard on the defendant and those around him or her.


Hungarian prisons are overcrowded, and the number of detainees has been increasing since 2008. The average prison population was 18,204 in 2014, while the average overcrowding rate was 141 percent, thus, 18,000 persons were crammed together in 13,000 places.

Conflicts occur more often among people locked up together in small places. Many become victims of violence, and it is also harder for the prison staff to deal with frustrated detainees.

Improving bad prison conditions is important not only on human rights grounds, but also because those released after being detained under humane circumstances can reintegrate easier into the outside world and our society. Thus, abolishing harsh prison conditions is a primary interest of all of us.

Since 1996, we have visited more hundreds of police cells and on average four-five prisons every year, with the aim to inspect whether detainees are treated lawfully. Our organisation did a lot to attain that pre-trial detention can no longer be executed in police cells. We provided individual help to many detainees whose rights were violated, and we achieved changes in prison conditions. Following our contribution, the European Court of Human Rights obliged Hungary in a judgment to eliminate overcrowding through taking effective measures, within the shortest period possible.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee provides legal aid to victims of rights abuses in prisons, ill-treatment by official persons, forced interrogation and unlawful detention.


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