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EU court blasts Hungary over forced retirement of judges

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EU court blasts Hungary over forced retirement of judges

Hungary Coat of Arms

(BRUSSELS) - Europe's Court of Justice on Tuesday slammed a controversial Hungarian law forcing judges to retire at 62 instead of 70, a move seen by the opposition as tightening the government's grip on the judiciary.

In a statement, the court said Hungary's "abrupt and radical" decision to lower retirement by eight years within a year, thus removing some 200 judges -- or 10 percent of their number -- was incompatible with European Union law.

The EU's executive had referred the issue to the court in April on the grounds of "age-related discrimination".

"The court's judgement is crystal clear," said the bloc's justice commissioner Viviane Reding. "Hungary's forced early retirement of hundreds of judges, prosecutors and notaries was against EU law."

The move was part of a raft of constitutional changes that went into effect on January 1 despite concerns in Brussels and elsewhere that Budapest was undermining democratic values.

Since sweeping to power in 2010 with a landslide victory, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's centre-right Fidesz party has pushed through reforms of the media, judiciary and electoral laws, as well as appointing party loyalists to key posts.

The changes, including this year's new constitution, unleashed protests in Hungary, triggered wide international criticism and won Orban the nickname of "Viktator".

The concerns notably held up Hungary's bid to obtain a much-needed credit line for months, as one law touched on central bank reforms that critics, including the European Central Bank, saw as endangering the bank's independence.

Hungary, whose highest court overturned the retirement law in July, had argued that the new 62-year ceiling aimed to open careers to younger lawyers and standardise the age limit for civil servants.

But the court statement said "the radical lowering of the retirement age for the professions concerned by eight years is not a measure which is necessary to achieve the objectives of standardising the retirement age for public-sector professions."

Instead, it "constitutes unqualified discrimination on grounds of age", the statement added, saying those concerned had no warning and had not been given time to prepare for their forced departure.

In Budapest, the government noted that the ruling came after the country's annulment of the law. "The government does not wish to comment on the decision", it added.

In Brussels, Reding said "Hungary must now take all the necessary measures to comply with the judgement as soon as possible."

An EU source familiar with the issue said Brussels believed the judges forced to leave office should be allowed to return or be offered compensation.

But a spokesman for a rights group said this might come too late for many. "The judges who were fired, around 200 people, have already been replaced by younger judges," said Szabolcs Hegyi of TASZ.

The EU source also said it was contradictory to lower the retirement age from 70 to 62 years at a time when the government planned to raise the general retirement age to 65 as from 2014.

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