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European rights body says Hungary changes threaten courts

Hungarians attend a demonstration after parliament voted for government-backed constitutional amendments, in Budapest March 11, 2013. REUTER
Hungarians attend a demonstration after parliament voted for government-backed constitutional amendments, in Budapest March 11, 2013. REUTER

By Sandor Peto

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A key European rights think-tank, the Venice Commission, sharply criticized Hungary's recent amendments to its constitution on Friday, saying some provisions breached democratic principles.

The European Union, the United States and human rights groups have accused Prime Minister Viktor Orban's nationalist government of using constitutional changes to boost its own powers and to weaken the independence of Hungary's courts.

The think tank said in a report requested by the Council of Europe, an institution responsible for defending human rights, that measures to trim the powers of Hungary's top Constitutional Court "amount to a threat for constitutional justice" and that they undermined the system of checks and balances.

It also expressed concern that the government is using its two-thirds parliamentary majority to lock in its policies for generations to come.

"This is a problem both from the point of view of the rule of law, but even more so from the point of view of the principle of democracy," the Venice Commission said.

The think-tank's reports have no direct legal consequence, but EU decision makers work closely together with the Venice Commission and the Council of Europe.

Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said the government was ready to discuss the criticisms but disagreed with many of them.

"Hungary has a working democratic institutional system, and the Constitutional Court is an important part of that," he told Reuters by the phone after returning from the Commission's meeting in Venice.

Orban denies the reforms are undemocratic and says his democratically elected government, which has two-thirds majority in parliament, has the right to rewrite legislation.

Nonetheless, Budapest has promised to address some EU concerns over the constitutional amendments by removing clauses about the transfers of court cases and taxes to cover revenue fallouts from international court decisions.

But the government has dug in its heels over restrictions on the publication of political advertisements ahead of elections, including European Union parliamentary elections.

(Reporting by Sandor Peto, Additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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