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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 December 2006, 09:25 GMT
Hungary probes street clashes
A special commission in Hungary is investigating the wave of anti-government street protests that led to clashes with police in September and October.

Hungarian police make arrest on 23 October
Hungarians were shocked by the scenes of violence in Budapest
The BBC's Nick Thorpe in Budapest spoke to the head of the nine-member commission, Professor Katalin Gonczol.

The panel was set up by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, whose admission that the government had repeatedly lied about the ailing economy to win re-election triggered the mass protests.

Katalin Gonczol is not giving any more interviews. As head of the commission she now sits in one of the hottest seats in Hungary.

She spoke to the BBC just before the curtain of secrecy came down.

She is sensitive to the criticism already made, that the make-up of the commission is one-sided.

"My loyalty to the government is very low, I would say. Or none," she laughs, a little nervously.

Besides, she adds, seven out of the nine members are university professors.

"We have to go back each day or each week to the university, with a clear conscience to meet the students. And they are the most critical group in Hungary."

Country in crisis

Many Hungarians, including President Laszlo Solyom, blame Prime Minister Gyurcsany personally for what they call the moral crisis now afflicting Hungary.

Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany
A safe parliamentary majority kept the PM in power
Will Ms Gonczol be able, on the basis of the evidence her team uncovers, to reveal any responsibility Mr Gyurcsany might bear?

"This is not our job. Our recommendation could involve only a kind of advice to investigate responsibility, (of) a kind of profession, a kind of people, a kind of person."

That answer will disappoint some critics of the commission in Hungary.

"The prime minister emphasised that it is necessary to investigate the social-psychological background of what happened," said constitutional lawyer Istvan Szikinger. "I'm afraid that the task of the commission may be some social explanation, instead of naming exactly who was responsible."

Ms Gonczol insists she does have considerable access to information, including state secrets - although several key documents related to the disturbances have already been made secret by the government, for 30 and even 80 years.

"If it is unavoidable, and we need some or all, then we will certainly get the permission. We will not be able to publish secrets. But we can use the secrets in order to have the conclusion and the recommendation."

Police under scrutiny

One of the most disputed questions in Hungary today is over alleged police brutality on the worst day of the troubles, 23 October.

Protesters in Budapest
Hungary's PM accused protesters of "terrorising" Budapest
On that day, riot police fired hundreds of rounds of rubber bullets into the crowd, often at head level, and at short range. Two people were partially blinded, and dozens are suing the police for their injuries.

"I don't know yet if there was police brutality," says Ms Gonczol. "Perhaps there were some episodes. We have to investigate that."'

On that issue, her task may have been eased by a remarkable mea culpa by the Hungarian police chief, Laszlo Bene, to foreign reporters in Budapest on 29 November.

"We have seen scenes of police operations that clearly do not stand the test of legality," General Bene told the press.

"Those officers guilty of misconduct or criminal violations during the policing of these events have proved to be unworthy of the profession. And after their identification, they will be dishonourably discharged from the force."

Mainly on the basis of video footage, eight cases of police violence have been forwarded to the public prosecutor, Gen Bene said.

But the police themselves are having trouble identifying the men responsible, he admitted, because none wore identifying numbers on the day, and they were proving reluctant to break ranks and name those responsible.

Scenes of riot police beating apparently defenceless people, already lying on the ground, were broadcast around the world.

Apart from the police and public prosecutor, the Gonczol Commission has also appealed to four human rights organisations to provide evidence about the violence.

The commission will conduct no interviews with witnesses of its own, but will depend on information supplied by the prosecutor, police and the human rights groups.

But how will Ms Gonczol insulate her work from the bitterly divided social and political climate in Hungary?

She hopes, she says, that her work will "somehow shift these events away from the political arena, which is overheated", and that the realm of facts, rather than emotions, will calm tempers.

The Gonczol Commission report is expected to be made public in early February.




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