Rights expert calls out Hungary on refugees, NGOs, judiciary

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary needs to urgently address human rights violations such as the detention of asylum-seekers and the intimidation of civic groups, as well as concerns about judicial independence, according to a report released Tuesday by the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner.

Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, who visited Hungary in February, also found Hungary "backsliding in gender equality," with few women in politics and Hungary still unwilling to ratify the Istanbul Convention on combating and preventing violence against women.

"Human rights violations in Hungary have a negative effect on the whole protection system and the rule of law," Mijatovic said in the report. "They must be addressed as a matter of urgency."

In an extensive reply to the report, the Hungarian government rejected the criticism in every area, saying, for example, that it was "absolutely justified" in maintaining crisis measures related to mass immigration even though hardly any migrants reach Hungary now, because there are still many immigrants in nearby countries including Serbia and North Macedonia.

Regarding asylum-seekers, Mijatovic objected to their detention in transit zones at the border and said Hungary should repeal legal amendments which, for example, make it practically impossible for asylum-seekers arriving from Serbia — considered by Hungary as a safe country for refugees despite international concerns — to gain protection in Hungary.

"I am also deeply concerned about repeated reports of excessive use of violence by the police during forcible removals of foreign nationals," Mijatovic said.

On reported police beatings of migrants, the government said that allegations of abuse had been investigated even though those claiming abuse had not filed official complaints.

"Camera recordings show that the use of police measures and coercive measures are lawful, professional and justified," the government said. "Nevertheless, they are perceived as being abuse by the police."

The report was also critical of the "pivotal role" of the minister of justice in the appointment of judges for a new system of administrative courts which will handle cases involving the government and state authorities, such as taxation and public procurement contracts.

"The extensive powers of the minister should be counterbalanced by strengthening judicial self-governance," Mijatovic suggested.

She also noted that while the government "seeks to empower women through labor market participation," a new "family protection plan" to boost birthrates in Hungary focuses on "women as child bearers."

"This carries the risk of reinforcing gender stereotypes and instrumentalizing women," the report said, while at the same time welcoming a government plan for a new national strategy on gender equality.

The report also expressed concerns about legislation restricting the activities of civic groups, such as a tax on funding received from abroad and by criminalizing advocacy and support for asylum-seekers.

The recent rules "can thwart the realization of the right to seek asylum," the report said. "Measures of this kind are also likely to incite xenophobia against migrants and mistrust of those committed to helping them."

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, elected to a third consecutive term in April 2018, has based his recent campaigns nearly exclusively on anti-immigration policies, which he says are meant to protect Hungary and Europe from the "Muslim invasion."

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