Council of Europe experts: Hungary must repeal anti-NGO law

A group of experts advising the Council of Europe called on Hungary on Friday to repeal its so-called "Stop Soros" law, which threatens to incarcerate people helping refugees.

The Venice Commission's opinion of the law adopted Wednesday said certain provisions "disproportionally" restrict the rights of civic groups as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The commission said that while many European countries criminalize activities like human trafficking for financial gain, the new law in Hungary makes no exceptions for groups providing humanitarian assistance, putting them at risk of prosecution "even if they act in good faith in line with international law for supporting asylum-seekers or other forms of legal migrants."

Activities that could lead to prosecutions of civic groups include preparing or distributing informational materials or helping refugees file asylum requests.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban claims that Hungarian-American financier George Soros and civic groups he supports promote mass migration into Europe, a charge they deny. Orban was elected to a fourth term in April and his campaign was based almost exclusively on his anti-migration policies and the demonization of Soros.

Critics view the "Stop Soros" law as part of a wider effort by Orban to crack down on autonomous voices within civil society and weaken democratic checks and balances and the rule of law.

Orban's office rejected the Venice Commission's opinion and said it would not repeal the "Stop Soros" law "since the law serves to protect Hungary."

The law was sharply criticized by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, who described it as "shameful and blatantly xenophobic," while the European Commission, the European Union's executive body, said it would examine its compatibility with EU legislation and principles and was following the development "not without concern."

Reacting to the legislation, Soros's Open Society Foundations said the Hungarian government's claims that Soros and the EU's leadership wanted to "swamp our country with migrants" were "manifestly false."

Instead, Soros has supported the idea of "a voluntary matching mechanism for relocating refugees" across the EU in accordance with international legal obligations, and has made it clear that "the EU cannot coerce member states to accept refugees they do not want, or refugees to go where they are not wanted," his foundations said in a statement.

Last month, the foundations announced that their office in Budapest would move to Berlin because the "Stop Soros" law and other government actions made it "impossible to protect the security of our operations and our staff in Hungary from arbitrary government interference."

Orban's Fidesz party said the Venice Commission's opinion was part of "Soros' lobby activity against Hungary" and suggested the experts were under his influence.

"Soros has people everywhere," the party said in a statement. "For us, Hungary's protection and the safety of the Hungarian people come first."