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24th Feb 2024

Hungary rejects criticism of NGO crackdown

  • The Hungarian government denies Orban (l) wants to create an illiberal democracy (Photo: kremlin.ru)

The Hungarian government continues to label organisations like Amnesty International as "political agents" in a move civil society says is part of a plan to intimidate dissenting voices.

Hungary's government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs accused some NGOs on Monday (27 February) of being "foreign agents financed by foreign money".

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He said the NGOs were organising "networks and frameworks" in an attempt to influence political decision-making.

"I believe that should be avoided and stopped," he told reporters in Brussels.

Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban earlier this month lashed out at civil society groups financed by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, such as Human Rights Watch.

The government criticism comes ahead of a legislative proposal to force NGOs to submit a declaration of assets, which Kovacs said was needed to ensure transparency.

But the Hungarian Civil Liberties Committee told MEPs in a debate, also on Monday, that the right-wing government push for NGO transparency was an attempt to stifle dissent.

"All of these proposals are wrapped in a rhetoric that reveals their real purpose, to stigmatise or even get rid of these organisations," said Stefania Kapronczy, executive director at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Committee.

The legislative proposal on NGOs has yet to be made public, noted Kapronczy.

Amnesty International's Todor Gardos says they too have faced government abuse.

He said the first wave of intimidation and harassment of NGOs had been ordered by Orban.

Last week, the government accused Amnesty of producing fake reports and of inciting migrants to break laws, he said.

"We are expecting more intimidation," he told MEPs.

Gardos said Hungary's breach of EU values warranted the triggering of article 7 of the EU treaty, which could lead to the suspension of voting rights in the Council.

Hungary hosts some 60,000 NGOs.

Its minister, Laszlo Trocsanyi, said they were flourishing but that their level of "legitimacy is variable".

"The government has legitimacy in the fact that the people have voted for them, NGOs have the right to express their views, if we don't hear those views there is a problem, but if we don't accept those views, can you really accuse us of being some kind of dictatorship?", he asked MEPs.

Hungary has drawn criticism from human rights defenders who say its migration and asylum policies, border crackdowns, and restrictions on media are part of a broader authoritarian trend.

The government last year spent millions on a failed referendum against migrants. But NGOs like Amnesty said efforts such as this had contributed to a heightened increase of hostility against migrants.

The government also paid over €500 million for a border fence with Serbia, including related expenses.

It has earmarked an additional €124 million to erect a second "smart fence", equipped with motion detection devices.

It said the smart fence was needed to reduce migration into the country from across Serbia "basically to zero".

Anyone caught within 8km of the Hungarian side of the border is escorted by the police back to Serbia. Over 19,000 people, from July and December alone last year, were blocked and pushed back.

Hungary's parliament is now mulling a bill that would allow authorities to detain every asylum seeker, including families with children, in transit zones along the border. Up to 300 people would be housed in buildings made of old containers.

The Hungarian government said the proposal was part of its efforts to protect the EU's passport-free zone Schengen area.

But both Human Rights Watch and Hungarian Helsinki Committee in a joint letter over the weekend asked the European Commission to intervene.

"The European Commission should not stand by while Hungary makes a mockery of the right to seek asylum," Human Rights Watch deputy director Benjamin Ward said.

"Using transit zones as detention centers and forcing asylum seekers who are already inside Hungary back to the Serbian side of the razor-wire fence is abusive, pointless, and cruel," he said.

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