June 25, 2013 / 6:38 PM / 6 years ago

Rights watchdog votes against monitoring Hungary

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Human rights watchdog The Council of Europe voted on Tuesday not to put Hungary under surveillance over concerns about changes to its constitution, in a boost to Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attends a foundation stone laying ceremony for a new division of the Knorr-Bremse factory in Kecskemet, 90km (56 miles) east of Budapest, April 11, 2013. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

The United States, the European Union and human rights groups have accused Orban’s conservative government of using constitutional amendments to build up its powers and weaken the independence of Hungary’s courts.

The Council of Europe, which promotes democracy and human rights across the continent, took the vote after a group of independent legal experts issued a report raising concern about the changes.

If the vote had gone against it, Hungary would have been the first EU state monitored by the Council, which typically reserves surveillance for new democracies such as Serbia and Albania.

But members of the Council’s parliament voted 135 to 88 against monitoring, with six abstentions.

“The country does not fall into the monitoring category,” said Robert Walter, chairman of the Council’s conservative European Democratic group. “What is needed is more scrutiny, not full-scaled surveillance,” he said during the public debate in Strasbourg.

Orban, who has repeatedly clashed with Brussels over laws on the media, the central bank and the courts since sweeping to power in 2010, denies that the changes approved in March are anti-democratic but has signal led a readiness to compromise.

Budapest has promised to address some concerns, for example by removing clauses giving the head of an office in charge of the judiciary the power to transfer cases from one court to another.

The government argues such a move would spread the burden on an overloaded legal system. The European Commission has expressed concern about the risk of defendants shopping around for the most sympathetic judge.

Concerns also surround the incorporation of legislation into the constitution.

This means that any future administration wishing to repeal it would need a two thirds parliamentary majority, something only one other government, a Socialist coalition, has achieved since the fall of communism.

The Council, a 47-nation institution including non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Norway, is completely independent of the EU and has no legislative powers.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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