Norway says Hungary's crackdown on civic groups critical of the government is 'unacceptable'

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Norway said Tuesday that Hungarian police raids on the offices of civic groups critical of the government were unacceptable and showed Hungary is distancing itself from European democratic norms.

Police have been investigating several civic groups that distribute or receive funds from the Norway Grants, a program providing money to projects in areas such as environmental protection or social development in Hungary and other less-developed EU countries.

Hungary's government says some of the groups have been misusing the money and spending some of it on anti-government activities.

One of the civic groups has admitted to organizing anti-government protests with funds from the Norway Grants, but the government's complaints have been aimed mostly at groups like the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, corruption watchdog Transparency International Hungary and Atlatszo (Transparent), a group of investigative journalists.

The HCLU said the police raids came after investigations earlier this year by the Government Control Office (KEHI) against Norway Grants' recipients failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing.

"The aim is clearly to intimidate civil society and silence critical voices," the HCLU said.

Vidar Helgesen, Norway's minister for European affairs, said that raids carried out Monday were "unacceptable" and represented the "harassment of civil society organizations." He has made similar complaints before.

Norway rejects Hungary's claim that it has the authority to audit the civic groups and Helgesen said that Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, the three contributors to the Norway Fund, are planning their own audit of the groups later this year. Hungary has been invited to participate.

On May 9, Norway suspended most of the grant payments, but not those to the smaller civic groups now in question, because of unilateral changes made by Hungary to the way the funds would be implemented and monitored.

Hungary said it would ask the EU to mediate in the conflict.