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Hungary: 'Critics silenced' in social media arrests as EU debates Orban's powers

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Police officers patrol in central Budapest, Hungary, 3 April, 2020.
Police officers patrol in central Budapest, Hungary, 3 April, 2020.   -   Copyright  Marton Monus/MTI via AP
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Opposition politicians in Hungary are alarmed by a spate of detentions for alleged scaremongering on social media about the coronavirus pandemic.

They fear that voices critical of the government are being silenced and accuse Prime Minister Viktor Orban of abusing special powers granted to him in March.

It comes as the EU, citing Hungary, called on Thursday for emergency government powers granted during the crisis to be eased along with lockdowns.

Several people have been arrested at their homes and detained for several hours over social media posts. Police said on Thursday that 16 people have been questioned during their investigations.

They added that they have been investigating 87 cases under emergency legislation for allegedly publishing "false information", and 27 cases of endangering the public. "Police are continuously monitoring the internet," an earlier statement said.

The new law adopted on March 30 widens a pre-existing offence, giving the authorities powers to clamp down on "alarmist comments".

Critical voices 'silenced'

On Wednesday a member of the Momentum opposition party was detained in southern Hungary, over a social media post about a controversial government policy of clearing non-virus patients out of hospitals to make beds available for COVID-19 sufferers.

János Csóka-Szűcs shared a post from opposition MP Ákos Hadházy, adding that 1,170 hospital beds in his town of Gyula were being cleared -- a claim that has been confirmed to be true.

He was detained for four hours on the grounds that he had allegedly "obstructed efforts to combat the pandemic".

"The silencing of critical voices has begun, namely by police action intimidating people who are writing or telling the truth," Hadházy commented in a Facebook message.

The previous day a 64-year-old man was held for hours in northeastern Hungary over a message posted last month, criticising the government's lockdown policy. It included the remark: "You are a merciless tyrant, but remember, until now dictators always fall". Prosecutors said on Wednesday that the case had been closed.

Police filmed their search of the man's home near Szerencs and his detention, and posted it on YouTube.

Later, the man told the independent website 444.hu that his post on April 28 commented on the fact that the authorities were expecting the pandemic to peak on May 3, and announced the easing of restrictions the following day.

The Hungarian government defended the detentions at a news conference on Thursday. Minister Gulyás Gergely said the authorities were asked to act only in the most justified cases.

"In one of the cases the prosecutors judged differently what happened and claimed that there was no crime committed. This can happen with the rule of law, that an authority makes a mistake, in which case they have a responsibility to compensate," he said.

European Union 'closely monitoring' Hungary

The new legislation implementing the country's state of emergency considerably reinforces Orban's powers for an unlimited period.

The European Parliament debated the legislation and the rule of law in Hungary on Thursday. Several MEPS called on the Commission to start infringement procedures against Budapest and stop EU payments.

The EU’s top rule of law official told the debate that the bloc was monitoring emergency powers granted to governments to combat the coronavirus, to see if they are removed as countries ease confinement.

"The general states of emergency with exceptional powers granted to governments should gradually be removed or replaced by more targeted and less intrusive measures," Values and Transparency Commissioner Vera Jourova said.

She added that "the case of Hungary raises particular concerns" and that "on a daily basis, we are assessing whether we can take legal action".

Last month Hungary's foreign minister Péter Szijjártó dismissed criticism of the new powers granted to Prime Minister Viktor Orban as "simply fake" and "not true".

The Hungarian prime minister was invited to take part in the session but declined, offering to send his justice minister instead -- a request denied by the Parliament's President David Sassoli.

MEPs have previously declared Budapest's emergency law as "totally incompatible with European values".