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“This is intimidative power harassment” – passenger lodging complaint against allegedly rude airport customs officers ends up being turned into suspect by police

SZAJKI BÁLINT / 24.HU
SZAJKI BÁLINT / 24.HU
A passenger finds herself accused of defamation after coming into conflict with the airport’s NTCA (National Tax and Customs Administration, NAV in Hungarian) officers last year – she later lodged a complaint against them. Although Ágnes feels that she is the wronged party, she is still the one having to deal with the police in the end. The reason all this could happen is that as per Hungarian law, even a stronger verbal remark can serve as the basis of a defamation accusation. Meanwhile, the lawyer involved in the case believes the whole situation is absurd. Not to mention that this is not the first time the NTCA has filed a police report against a complainant.

A Hungarian woman was questioned at the airport police station a few months ago on suspicion of defamation, after she had lodged a complaint at the National Tax and Customs Administration last March, feeling unfairly treated by customs officers during the post-landing inspection at Budapest’s Liszt Ferenc International Airport. Our protagonist shared all the pertaining official documents with 24.hu, but fearing reprisal, she preferred to remain completely anonymous; we will call her Ágnes for the rest of the article.

The story echoes several points of a case we presented last autumn: then the story revolved around Tímea, who was reported to the police by the NTCA after having filed a complaint at the authority regarding her own tax affairs. At that time, the police dropped the case without questioning – unlike in Ágnes’s case. Following the NTCA’s report, Ágnes was questioned by the police.

The police consider Ágnes reasonably suspected of defamation.

Complaint lodged after altercation

The incident occurred last spring when Ágnes was returning home from Western Europe. After disembarking from the plane, a bus took Ágnes and her fellow passengers to the airport building, where, according to Ágnes, customs officers asked everyone for identification, which she objected to. She says she was then surrounded by six customs officers, facing very inappropriate reprimands. Of the incident, Ágnes told 24.hu:

Yes, I asked why customs officers were the ones to conduct passport checks, and in response, they pulled me out of line to search me, all while being very condescending. This outraged me because it’s intimidative power harassment. I travel abroad a lot, but I’ve never experienced such retaliation for a critical remark, especially a question, anywhere else.

Having returned home from the airport, Ágnes reported the incident on the tax administration’s official complaint lodging site. Describing the events in detail, her complaint – which she showed to us – did indeed use some very uncouth language directed at both the airport customs officers and the finance guard, lieutenants and captains alike.

I won’t deny it; I used some really harsh language, but still pretty much only the kind that is also used in the Hungarian Parliament.

What angered Ágnes the most was that she felt the treatment by the official authorities was unjust and humiliating. This informational material on law enforcement clearly separates passport control and the duties of customs officers on page 70: while “border guards/police are responsible for admitting individuals – checking the authenticity and validity of travel documents, as well as visas – customs officers are responsible for checking the declaration of goods subject to reporting upon import and export.” However, the tax authority informed 24.hu that finance guards have the right to request identification documents (such as ID cards, passports, and driver’s licenses) anywhere in the country for identification purposes – the law authorises them to do so.

Ágnes received no substantive response from the tax agency to her complaint. However, at the end of the summer, months after the airport incident, she received official documents summoning her to the airport police as she was “reasonably suspected of having committed a crime.” It was only on the spot that she learned why she had to go to the police: the national tax authority reported her because, according to their side of the story, Ágnes committed defamation when she used derogatory terms against the customs officers. Evaluating the report, the police

then questioned her – as a suspect.

Arriving with a lawyer, Ágnes denied the accusations. She filed a complaint against the charges which the prosecution rejected, however, in December. According to the Prosecution Office of District XVII and XIX, the pertaining official documents, the report itself, as well as the witness statements “supported the reasonable suspicion against her, therefore the actions of the investigative authority were lawful and justified.”

They added: since “defamation occurs with the use of expressions capable of damaging reputation, these specific expressions used must be included in the text of the formal accusation.” The prosecutorial document also states that “the complete examination of essential background facts, the verification of the defendant’s defence, and the clarification of her responsibility as per criminal law are the tasks of further investigation.” In the meantime, the Budapest Police Headquarters (BRFK) informed 24.hu that investigation into Ágnes’s case was still in progress; therefore they are unable to provide detailed information thereabout.

The airport incident: defamation or not?

According to criminal law, defamation occurs when

someone, either in front of the larger public or in connection with the victim’s occupation, performance of public duties or public activities, uses expressions or commits acts capable of damaging one’s honour and reputation.

SZAJKI BÁLINT / 24.HU Liszt Ferenc National Airport in 2022.

A physical commission of defamation is also possible, such as when someone spits on the victim, but the law also stipulates that those guilty of defamation can be punished with a prison sentence of up to one year.

But did Ágnes commit defamation or did she not? We consulted two legal experts, only to receive two

completely contradictory answers.

What the criminal law expert consulted by 24.hu highlights is that charges could be pressed against Ágnes because she expressed derogatory and degrading assessments in connection with the work of public officials (customs officers and finance guards fall into this category). Overall, Pál Bátki considers the situation at hand and the contents of Ágnes’ written complaint to fulfil the criteria of defamation, and since law enforcement employees are involved, the report automatically progressed into an ex officio prosecution case.

“The thing is, the case leaves no room for discretion, since the offended party consists of law enforcement employees, and the defendant’s insults were related to their work; therefore, the incident is to be made into an ex officio prosecution case. Moreover, in the case of defamation – unlike the offense of libel – even a remark made in private can have criminal consequences; it is not necessary for others to be present. This is significant only regarding provability,” explains Bátki. He also states that in such cases, there are two perspectives, or principles, that ​​may conflict with each other: on the one hand, lodging a complaint is allowed, as freedom of opinion is a constitutional right; but on the other, no one is obliged to tolerate insults or derogatory judgments.

Furthermore, the state must preserve its dignity and cannot allow law enforcement personnel to be demeaned. For example, if citizens can freely insult a police officer, how can they be expected to maintain order without resorting to violence?

Bátki adds that the expressions used in this specific instance are not even borderline cases, as according to Hungary’s judicial practice, even terms that are considered much less offensive than the ones used in Ágnes’ complaint are already considered defamatory. It is actually not uncommon for citizens to end up in ex officio prosecution proceedings after such incidents.

Sándor Ésik, Ágnes’s defence lawyer, sees the matter in a completely different light. He summarises as follows:

I consider this case an overreaction. Authorities should be aware that passengers arriving on budget flights to Ferihegy Airport get nervous in the slow-moving queues and the chaos that is unfortunately commonplace there. There are professions where one must face unpleasant remarks from tired, anxious, and angry individuals. The work of airport finance guards is one such example, but so is that of a lawyer. Those bothered by this should look for a different profession. And as for official personnel, the Constitutional Court led by László Sólyom already stated in 1994 that they must tolerate even the rudest of assessments, especially since it’s not passengers alone that are responsible for the chaos at the airport – neither were they in Ágnes’ case.

No prior indication that complaints may result in police reports

It is also a question how much an average citizen can be expected to be aware of the potential – even legal – consequences of filing a complaint with the tax office regarding their own affairs

This website (“Reporting of an infringement or omission by the NTCA”) reads: “If you wish to submit a complaint in your own case, or in relation to a procedure of NTCA or one of its employees, please complete the following form.” Then the complainant must provide their personal details and contact information, followed by a summary of the specific case. At the bottom, the form informs the complainant: “Once you have submitted the complaint, an e-mail will be sent to the e-mail address you have provided. This e-mail will contain the details you provided in the form and a confirmation link. (…) If you do not confirm your submission within 24 hours, it will be inactivated and you will have to record it again.”

However, this site gives no indication that a complaint could potentially lead to a report if the tax office (NAV) deems it necessary.

Should other complainants fear as well?

As we mentioned at the beginning of our article, there are several similarities between the stories of Tímea and Ágnes. Both filed complaints with the NTCA, only to have the tax authority soon turn against them due to the content of their submissions.

In a nutshell, Tímea’s story goes like this: after having turned to the tax agency regarding her own case, the NTCA reported her on the basis of false accusations. The story began in the past decade, when the court had ordered a significant compensation to be paid out to Tímea, but since this income was tax-free, she didn’t pay any taxes on it. However, a few years later, her tax return submitted by the deadline was rejected, and a tax liability of several hundred thousand forints was also imposed on her. Tímea contested this and requested information, filing even a formal complaint. But, according to her, her complaint was not addressed by the authority. She then wrote a letter to one of the tax authority’s regional directors, asking them to clarify her case, but the official ultimately decided to report Tímea instead. While the Budapest Police Headquarters closed this case relatively quickly, Tímea was still disappointed. She said the following to 24.hu:

The message of this story is that if someone dares to submit a complaint to the NTCA about the agency, then they should be prepared to have the police sent after them? What is this if not a threat? How is it possible that someone who complains about their own case ends up being accused of a crime?

We asked the NTCA back in autumn whether complainants in general should fear reprisals by the authority. At that time, the tax agency responded that there was no need to be afraid of such things.

We once again inquired at the Hungarian tax authority. Among others, we also asked them about why they report citizens filing complaints with the NTCA due to perceived grievances. They responded: “Anyone who believes that the National Tax and Customs Administration or one of its employees has violated their rights or legitimate interests may file a complaint with the NTCA’s competent authority or investigating authority in the manner prescribed by law. However, the investigation of citizens’ complaints is not related to the authority’s proceedings initiated in connection with the perception of unlawful behaviour, nor to the filing of a report with the competent authority with jurisdiction.”

We inquired as to in what cases complainants are reported, generally speaking. The NTCA replied:

  • Anyone can file a complaint for a crime calling for prosecution ex officio.
  • Members of the authority, as well as public officials, and, when prescribed by law, the public body, are obliged to report any crime they have become aware of within their competence to be prosecuted ex officio.

Regarding crimes to be prosecuted ex officio, they also wrote that “according to the law, the authority has no room for discretion. Anyone who, to the detriment of a customs officer, uses an expression that is suitable for damaging their honour and reputation during their official procedure or in front of a large audience, or commits any other act suitable therefor, can be held liable for the offense of defamation.” We also inquired about how many complainants the tax authority has reported over the past five years, but the agency replied that there was no such information suitable for public disclosure.

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