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Dismissal of Top Judge Was Unlawful, Court Tells Hungary

Hungary violated former Chief Justice Andras Baka’s right to freedom of expression when it cut short his mandate after he criticized the government’s overhaul of the judiciary, according to the European Court of Human Rights.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban dismissed Baka at the start of 2012, three and a half years before his mandate ran out, the court said in a ruling published on its website today. Orban blocked Baka’s access to court by enshrining his ouster in the nation’s constitution, according to the court.

Baka’s dismissal was “due to the criticism he had publicly expressed of government policy on judicial reform when he was President of the Supreme Court,” the court said. “The fear of sanction, such as losing judicial office, could have a ‘chilling effect’ on the exercise of freedom of expression and risked discouraging judges from making critical remarks about public institutions or policies,” it said.

Orban has asserted his influence over independent institutions after winning elections in 2010, drawing criticism from the EU, the U.S. and the United Nations. The premier, who retained a parliamentary supermajority in the April 6 elections, repeatedly rejected concern over the erosion of democracy as lobbying for foreign interests and argued he was fighting to preserve the country’s sovereignty.

Not Final

The government will study the verdict and will take a decision if necessary, government spokesman Andras Giro-Szasz told state news service MTI today.

The inclusion of Baka’s dismissal in the constitution rendered his access to a court “impossible in practice as the termination of his mandate could not be challenged before the Constitutional Court,” the Strasbourg-based court said. The panel’s verdict is not final: parties have three months to request the transfer of the case to the Grand Chamber of the court, according to the statement.

Ruling-party lawmakers passed a new constitution unilaterally, redrew the electoral system and nominated party-members to head key institutions such as the media regulator or the state audit office.

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