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Hungary Seeks EU Debate on Restoring Death Penalty

FILE - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, shown delivering a speech in January, wants the issue of restoring capital punishment to be kept "on the agenda."

A debate about restoring the death penalty has been a recurring issue with Hungary's prime minister since a 2002 bank robbery in which eight people were killed.

Now, spurred by the April 22 stabbing of a young tobacco shop assistant but also aware of gains by the far-right Jobbik party, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has again called for the issue to be kept "on the agenda.''

The idea drew stern condemnations from the European Union, where the death penalty's ban is a cornerstone of human rights policies, and where Orban last week reassured Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, that Hungary had no plans to restore capital punishment.

In a way, however, Orban has achieved his aim — on Thursday, the European Parliament's civil liberties committee will discuss "the possible effects'' of an EU member reintroducing the death penalty.

After his phone call with Schulz, Orban said that he would "never agree'' with the EU about not being allowed to even discuss capital punishment.

"In relation to Brussels, a debate about democracy has come about,'' Orban said in an interview on Echo TV. "Where are we living? In the Middle Ages, where they declare that there are taboos that are not worthy of debate?''

Orban has also framed the matter as a security issue, saying that the 2010 introduction of a three-strikes law and life sentences without the possibility of parole were insufficient deterrents for criminals.

But his Fidesz party's loss of popularity after easily winning three elections last year and the strengthening of Jobbik also played a role in Orban's decision to revive the death penalty topic, said analyst Kornelia Magyar of the Magyar Progressive Institute.

"This is a very old formula used by Fidesz, especially when it senses the strengthening of the far right,'' Magyar said. ``It is unlikely to work, and I would be surprised if Fidesz successfully drew voters away from Jobbik with this issue.''

Even if Fidesz had no intention of restoring the death penalty, raising the matter could easily be counterproductive, Magyar said.

By bringing up the death penalty, "Fidesz has made its own supporters and voters in general more receptive to far-right issues,'' Magyar said.

Hungary will hold a general election in 2018.

A poll by the Tarki research institute showed support for Fidesz among likely voters falling from 45 percent in November to 38 percent in April, while in that same period Jobbik rose from 21 percent to 24 percent. The poll taken April 16-23 of 1,004 Hungarians had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

In 2002, weeks before leaving office after his first term, Orban said that while he had earlier opposed capital punishment, the killing of eight people during a bank robbery in the town of Mor had changed his mind.

The last execution in Hungary was carried out in 1988, and the country abandoned the death penalty in 1990, soon after the fall of communism.

After the gruesome slaying of a police psychologist in 2012, lawmakers from Fidesz also called for the death penalty to be reconsidered, while Orban last year said the issue was "well worth a Mass.''