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October 17, 2014

U.S. Sanctions Target Corrupt Hungarian Officials

Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First today welcomed reports that the United States has imposed visa bans on ten members of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s inner circle, preventing them from entering the United States, in a rare move against a NATO country. The rebuke, coming just before Hungary's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto arrives in Washington next week, is a strong signal of U.S. anger over Hungary’s slide toward authoritarianism, its alleged corrupt practices, and its ambivalence with respect to of U.S. and E.U. policies to sanction Russia for its behavior in Ukraine.

“Orban can’t have it both ways; he can’t erode democratic norms, restrict media freedom, crack down on NGOs, and declare ‘illiberal democracy,’ yet remain a member in good standing of liberal democratic alliances like the E.U., NATO and the Community of Democracies,” said Human Rights First’s Sonni Efron.  “The White House has been sending stronger and stronger signals that Hungary’s violations of democratic norms, rule of law, and universal human rights are unacceptable.”

Hungary recently cut off gas supplies to Ukraine after meeting with the Russian energy company, Gazprom. Its harassment of nongovernmental organizations, restrictions on the media, constitutional changes that concentrate presidential powers, and allegations of widespread corruption among businesses that are close to the ruling party, Fidesz, all closely track Russia’s path toward authoritarianism under President Vladimir Putin.

“Today’s sanctions are a warning that if Orban continues to take a page out of Putin’s playbook, his inner circle will face the same sort of sanctions as Putin’s,” Efron added.

Since 1974, U.S. officials have typically used visa bans to fight corruption, by barring entry to foreign officials, their families, or other individuals against whom the United States has strong evidence of corruption. This authority was strengthened by President Bush in 2004 with Presidential Proclamation 7750, which can be used to bar individuals who have attempted to bribe U.S. companies or engaged in other corrupt practices.

More recently, serious human rights violators have also been subjected to visa bans under Section 212 of the Immigration and Naturalization Authority. As a matter of policy, the State Department does not release the names of foreign nationals subject to such bans, nor is it required to disclose the evidence against them. Following the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the United States imposed economic sanctions as well as visa bans against top Russian officials and oligarchs in Putin’s inner circle.

During the upcoming meetings with Szijarto, Human Rights First urges the United States to make clear that it will continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure for Hungary to make the reforms necessary to comply with E.U. norms and human rights standards. Specifically, the United States should urge Hungary to revise the country’s new constitution, as well as other laws and policies that run contrary to European democratic norms, including the media law.

Human Rights First’s recent report, “We're not Nazis, but...The Rise of Hate Parties in Hungary and Greece and Why America Should Care,” details how the Hungarian government’s actions over the past four years that have violated religious freedoms, curtailed judicial independence and media freedom, and failed to combat a rising tide of violent antisemitism. These actions have led to a series of rebukes by the European Union, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and from Hungary’s own Supreme Court.

Among the report’s recommendations are the following steps the U.S. government should take to curtail Hungary’s slide towards authoritarianism:

  • Urge fellow members of the Governing Council of the Community of Democracies to vote at its next meeting in December to replace Hungary with a member state more committed to liberal democracy.
  • Urge its European Union allies to consider Article 7 proceedings to strip Hungary of its E.U. voting rights.
  • Make clear that Hungary’s professed zero-tolerance policy against antisemitism is meaningless unless enforced by  a) disciplining officials who make antisemitic or anti-Roma statements, b) ending historical revisionism that downplays Hungarians’ role in the Holocaust, and c) revising its textbooks and curriculum to reflect this. 
  • Urge Hungary to step up protection of minority rights, particularly the rights of Roma, after a local election campaign that played on anti-Roma sentiment in many districts.
  • Urge Hungary to end the crackdown on civil society and stop demonizing Hungarian NGOs that accept foreign funds as “foreign agents.”

For more information or to speak with Efron contact Corinne Duffy at DuffyC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3319.