The Slovak state forest company wants to confiscate privately owned plots of land, referring to the Beneš decrees. The legal basis for the confiscation is that the owners’ ancestors were Hungarian. Last week, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECHR) ruled that the proceedings were unfair. Some deem the decision a milestone in the history of the Slovak legal system, as it was the first international ruling stating that confiscation of property is still taking place in Slovakia up to this date under the Beneš decrees. In addition, the decision points out that the powers of the Slovak Prosecutor General are too broad, allowing for political manipulation of cases that have already been legally closed.
The basis of the legal dispute is a forest next to Bártfa (Bardejov) owned by a Hungarian citizen, Mihály Bosits. He was sued by the Slovakian state forest company in 2009 in an attempt to take the land away from him, claiming that his parents, from whom he inherited it, were of Hungarian nationality, which means in accordance to the Beneš decrees the forest should have been confiscated from them in 1946, ma7.sk reports.
The Beneš Decrees issued in 1945 claimed collective World War II responsibility of Germans and Hungarians, depriving them of their fundamental rights and property. According to the decrees, 2.5 million ethnic Germans immediately lost their Czechoslovakian citizenship and their lands and houses were appropriated by the state. Although the big powers did not allow Prague to expel nearly 1 million Hungarians as well, approximately 40,000 of them were also stripped of their citizenship. The rest of the Hungarian community had to face persistent persecution, harassment, show trials and hard labor, forcing them to leave the country.
During the proceedings, the first and second instance courts found that at that time the Slovak State did indeed want to confiscate the forest from their grandparents, but due to procedural errors, this was not done at the time. Therefore, the courts dismissed the state’s attempts and the case ended with a binding ruling in 2013.
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In 2014, the Slovak Prosecutor General, however, intervened and filed an extraordinary appeal on the points of law (mimoriadne dovolanie) against the court rulings. This particular legal institution is special to Slovakia.
In 2015, the Supreme Court of Slovakia ruled that as the defendant’s ancestors were undoubtedly of Hungarian nationality, their land should have been confiscated under the law 104/1945.
If this has not been done or cannot be proven, “in order to preserve the necessary authority of the state” it should still be treated as if the property had been confiscated. The ruling of the Supreme Court was confirmed by the Constitutional Court in 2017.
Later, the Supreme Court quashed the judgments and remitted the matter to the court of first instance.
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As the confiscation has not yet taken place, the current Strasbourg decision only addresses the issue of the applicant’s right to a fair trial. If confiscation takes place, the injured party’s representation will file a new complaint.
The judgment published decides in favor of the Hungarian plaintiff and obliges the Slovakian state to pay the applicant EUR 3,900 in non-pecuniary damages and legal fees of EUR 2,000.
The European Court of Human Rights found that although the Slovakian government relies on legal certainty in the case, it was the state that recognized the defendant’s father’s property rights in 2000, and was subsequently sued in 2009 to deprive him of his rights. Then, after the Slovak state finally lost the lawsuit, the intervention of the Prosecutor General led to another deprivation of rights decision, in which Slovakia violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
Furthermore, the extraordinary appeal on the points of law allows for the politically motivated manipulation of cases, so Slovakia should significantly reduce or abolish this legal institution.
The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision provides the Court of First Instance with no choice but to deprive the defendant of his property. As ma7.sk points out, this is all only on the basis of his father’s Hungarian nationality, in the 21st century in the European Union, as a consequence of a decision that was already determined by the Strasbourg Court that it violates the right to a fair trial.
Featured photo by Patrick Seeger/EPA/MTI