Rights expert: Hungary backsliding on women, refugee rights

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his annual "State of Hungary" speech in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. The inscription reads: "For us Hungary is the first!"

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary is facing "many interconnected human rights challenges," including laws targeting civic groups, backsliding on women's rights and the systematic detention of asylum-seekers, the Council of Europe's human rights chief said Monday.

Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, who visited Hungary last week, also expressed concerns about the independence of Hungary's media and judiciary.

"The space for the work of NGOs, human rights defenders and journalists critical of the government has become very narrow and restricted," Mijatovic said in a statement, calling on Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government to "reverse its worrying course" on human rights.

Orban's government said Mijatovic's criticism was "not unexpected" and called it a "political attack" related to Hungary's "zero tolerance" position on immigration. It said it expected further criticism ahead of the European Parliament election in May.

"As the elections approach, we can expect a rather sharp rise in the number of such political attacks against Hungary," the government's International Communications Office said. "However, Hungary will continue its migration policy, because ... the Hungarian people have declared their opinion and their will: they do not want to live in an immigrant country."

Last year Hungary approved jail sentences for people convicted of aiding asylum-seekers and put taxes on grants or contributions from foreign sources.

Mijatovic said the new laws had "a continuous chilling effect on the human rights work of civil society organizations."

On women's rights, she noted that 28 percent of Hungarian women age 15 or over have experienced physical or sexual violence.

"There is an urgent need to raise awareness of violence against women in Hungary," Mijatovic said, urging the government to ratify the Istanbul Convention on combating domestic violence, while acknowledging that the country was expanding support services to address the problem.

Mijatovic also said Hungary should stop detaining asylum-seekers at border transit zones, since that blocks them from being able to "apply for refugee protections guaranteed under international and European law."

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