Hungarian Court Weighs Prosecuting Communists

Bid to lift statute of limitations opens window on East-bloc past

BELA BISZKU, who over-saw the Hungarian secret police in the 1950s and 1960s, might end his retirement in jail.

Mr. Biszku expects to be tried for treason under a new law that would extend the expired statute of limitations for crimes committed during 45 years of communist rule. To some, the bill is a "historical justice-making law," but critics label it a "revenge law."

Hungary's Constitutional Court is expected to rule on the law this month, and its ruling may determine how far the country goes to right old wrongs.

Biszku seems a likely target of the new law. A Politburo member from 1957 to 1978, Biszku is prominent among Hungary's old-guard pariahs. He was a close deputy of Janos Kadar, whom the Soviets installed as party head after crushing the 1956 revolt.

After the revolution, Biszku took over the Interior Ministry, which oversaw the secret police. He is closely associated with the harshest reprisals against '56ers.

"I'm almost sure I'll be on the list," says Biszku. "The rule of the game is that those who are in power are entitled to do that. This has a long history." Democrats appeal law

Biszku now has strange political bedfellows: Imre Mecs, an opposition member of parliament once on death row for having joined the post-1956 underground, and Mr. Mecs's former fellow prisoner, Hungarian President Arpad Goncz, referred the statute to the Constitutional Court before the law takes effect.

The court's approval would join Hungary with other East European countries now descending into the cellar of recent history with a lantern and crowbar. Recent Czech and German laws aim to expose communist secret police collaborators, bar them from public office for a time, or both.

The new Hungarian law would go a step further, trying members of the old regime for acts of treason, murder, and fatal injury committed as far back as 1944, the year the country's first postwar government was established. (Current law forbids prosecuting treason 15 years after the fact. The limit for murder is 20 years; for fatal injury, eight years.)

The new law's supporters say that extending expired statutory limitations is a legitimate way to restore public confidence in the democratic rule of law.

Since the communists failed to try certain treason, murder, and fatal injury cases over the last 45 years, the new law's coauthor, Zsolt Zetenyi, describes this period as judicially "dormant." Mr. Zetenyi is a member of Parliament's largest governing coalition party, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). Sends strong message

Starting the statute of limitations clock at May 1990, when the country's post-communist parliament took office, would be "a message to whomever may be in power that there is no crime without punishment," Zetenyi says.

But some critics contend that Hungary's penal code bars reviving elapsed statutes of limitations.

These critics include a panel of scholars commissioned by MDF Prime Minister Jozsef Antall to study the feasibility of prosecuting communist crimes that "violated society's sense of justice."

The panel also questioned whether trying 35-year-old crimes would meet the European Convention on Human Rights' requirement that defendants get fair trials "within a reasonable time." Hungary is trying to join the Convention.

Another question fuels the debate: In a society where many passively supported a foreign-imposed regime, who would be tried for treason?

The law's backers cite a narrow definition in a treason statue that has been on the books since 1930. Treason, according to this statute, is limited to helping a foreign power commit hostile acts against Hungary. Supporters say the new law would try only the most active supporters of Soviet military intervention in Hungary.

"This covers only a handful of cases," 1,000 at most, Zetenyi estimates. Since Communist Party members - some 800,000, or close to a tenth of the population in the 1980s - military personnel, and even KGB agents fall outside the definition, he says, "this law amounts to amnesty for several hundred thousand Hungarians."

But Zetenyi says he is less sure about grayer cases arising after the 1956 revolution, when Hungarians kept the new regime in place. His law "sets a general framework," he says, "but interpretation is for the courts."

Critics fear that runaway judicial logic would drive widespread treason prosecutions.

"The law could lead to the criminalization of politics, seeing politics as a series of criminal acts," says law professor Imre Bekes, a member of the panel the prime minister commissioned. "It would be very hard for a prosecutor, a court, or even the public to decide how much joining the Warsaw Pact or COMECON or otherwise supporting the Soviet Union was forced and how much was initiative." Prospect of show trials

Opposition member of parliament Laszlo Rajk fears the recurrence of show trials like that which led to the execution of his father, a communist interior minister, in 1949.

"This whole idea of betrayal is unlimited," says Mr. Rajk, himself jailed in the early 1980s for selling banned books. "As an architect, any building I put up in the last 10 years in a way was helping the system. From this aspect, we all helped the system survive."

While debate festers and the court mulls the law, Bela Biszku waits.

"If they knock at my door, I'll let them in," he says. ll ask, 'Why do you come? What do you want? I wouldn't say I'm neutral about this, but I don't consider myself a traitor or a killer. Unfortunately the world is far too complicated to be able to establish blame."

Biszku contends he is a patriot with nothing to hide. He and his comrades restored order after "common criminals" rampaged during the revolution, he says. Later they purged hard-line pre-1956 Stalinists from the party; and generally tried to make the best of being locked into the Soviet orbit, he says.

"When we stepped up to defend the system in 1956 ... we were believers in the pure system.... It is impossible to say that the 2 billion who followed socialism were all idiots."

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