Romanian State to hang on tooth and nail to Bánffy forests: it relitigates what it had given back 12 years ago in a genuine show trial for renationalisation.

The People’s Republic of Romania sentenced Dániel Bánffy, then 59, to eight years of forced labour and confiscation of all property in 1952. At that time, he had been living in Hungary for more than ten years: first in his villa in Rózsadomb, the elite district of Budapest, as an aristocrat and a minister, then evacuated by the Hungarian state to a meat warehouse in Jászapáti, a small town in the Hungarian Alföld. This is where he lived at the time of the second trial and sentence, whether being aware of it or not.

The files of the trial are archived in file P007028 at the National Council for the Study of Securitate’s Archives (CNSAS). Details of the files prove that

the criminal action against the former politician was a show trial in all its aspects:

  • it was initiated illegally, since he was acquitted for the same charges in 1946 with a legally binding sentence, and no new evidence was found;
  • no real efforts were made to interrogate Bánffy, proving that it was never a priority for the state to find out the truth about the events;
  • the prosecution claimed in the retrial request that the statement of the defence’s witnesses should not have been taken into account at all;
  • the witnesses of the prosecution confessed that their knowledge of how Bánffy received the Hungarian soldiers marching into Palotailva/Lunca Bradului was only hearsay as they knew very little or no Hungarian at all;
  • the court only heard the witnesses of the defence on condition that their statement cannot change the statements of facts, and they would only be taken into account in judging mitigating circumstances at best.

The fact that Dániel Bánffy was convicted for the charge of instigation to war crimes to forced labour and property confiscation

has had its long-lasting consequences reaching to this day:

it was a precedent used by the Giurgiu County Court in 2018, when it took the legally binding decision to return to state ownership the more than 9300 hectares forest in Maros County, which had once been given back to the heirs of Dániel Bánffy in 2007, after a trial that had been going on for years. In the 11 year’s time that passed between the two sentences, the state refused to execute the legally binding decision, and the forest has never been registered in the cadastre under the name of the inheritors.

Baron Bánffy’s grandson, Farkas, who lives in the village of Fugad/Ciuguzel, Fehér/Alba County, manages the restitution trials and estates of the extended family in Romania (800 hectares of forests and arable lands). By mid-2018, this amount was less than 5 percent of what the family reclaimed, he stated to the newspaper Krónika. The family reclaimed 35 thousand hectares of woods on the Kelemen/Calimani Mountains alone.

On the basis of the 2018 court decision, in 2019 the prefect of Fehér/Alba County started to win new lawsuits against Farkas Bánffy nullifying his certifications of property for some smaller territories (45 hectares of pasture, 23,75 hectares of forest, arable lands of 9 and 40 hectares). The restitution of three other forests (35 hectares altogether) was also nullified by court decisions not yet legally binding.

The initiator of the renationalisation was the prefect of Maros/Mures County, Vasile Oprea. After the 2007 final judgment favourable for the Bánffys, Oprea asked for retrial on the highest level four times, and finally succeeded in 2014. The basis he referred to was that the 9300 hectares of forests in the neighbourhood of Ratosnya/Rastolita, Gödemesterháza/Stanceni and Palotailva/Lunca Bradului were not expropriated by the Romanian state during the communist nationalisation, but were confiscated as a result of a court sentence from 1952.

(What’s more, the prefect had the trial relocated from the court of Szászrégen/Reghin in Maros/Mures County to Giurgiu saying that the Hungarians living in Maros county reclaimed 9323 hectares of forests claiming that they were the descendants of the Bánffy Counts, Krónika writes. That is, the prefect and the highest court which accepted his justification regard the Hungarian community living in the area as a possible source of danger.)

We need to follow up several threads in order to see how valid it was to justify the 2014 retrial and the 2018 sentence by a formal confiscation of property in 1952:

  • Whether the single difference between the four unsuccessful and the final successful retrial attempts was the reference to the trial and sentence from 1952;
  • Why the Giurgiu County Court, in July 2018, considered a show trial from 1951-52 relevant?
  • When and under what circumstances did the Romanian state confiscate the estates of Dániel Bánffy
  • What is it that proves even for an outsider that the 1951-52 trial was a show trial?

Let’s start with the last one: Átlátszó Erdély requested and received the documents of the trial from CNSAS. In this trial the prosecutor accused Bánffy (of the Losonc branch of the family) and two of his employees that they gave instigating speeches at Palotailva/Lunca Bradului in the autumn of 1940, when the Hungarian troops marched into Transylvania. As a result of these speeches that

“caused hatred against the cohabiting populations, Romanians were imprisoned, tortured and expelled.”

The 1946 trial documents contain a more detailed description. The prosecution alleged that Dániel Bánffy, Ernest Páter, the engineer of his sawmill, and Ida Páter, the latter’s wife, welcomed the Hungarian soldiers arriving to the settlement in the beginning of September, and the Baron and Ida Páter said to the soldiers and the people gathered round that the Romanians had humiliated the Hungarians and they depleted the region during the twenty years of Romanian rule, but that the time of revenge and payback had arrived – that is, they instigated the Hungarians against the Romanians.

In order to make a greater impact – the indictment says – Ida Páter also burst into tears and kissed the Hungarian officers. Ernest Páter was accused of making a similar address to the people gathered in the yard of the Bangra sawmill: we have suffered enough for 22 years, the time of revenge has arrived.

The Hungarians incited by these speeches ganged up with the Hungarian soldiers and began arresting and assaulting Romanians. The indictment lists nine people who were arrested, taken to the sawmill yard and lined up against the wall to make them think they would be shot. Half an hour later they were surrounded by soldiers, lined in columns and marched to a settlement called Valea Ilvei (Ilva valley). [This was not a settlement, as the indictment suggests, but the valley of Ilva stream which flows into the river Maros/Mures - Farkas Bánffy’s clarification].

They got there by midnight, the territory was already swarming with Hungarian soldiers and civilians, they were lined up facing away from the river. One of them, Vasile Cif, was removed from the line and taken to an island a couple of hundred meters away, where Hungarians were waiting for him with shovels, ropes and buckets. Vasile Cif was undressed to his shirt, and while he was begging for mercy, he was continuously beaten. Two defendants were pushing him around, and since Cif thought they were going to hang him, he escaped and vanished in the dark. They shot at him, but missed.

The others were tied with their hands at the back, and hanged by their hands to the trees around. If they fainted, water was sprinkled onto them. After these abuses, they were taken back in the morning to the Bangra sawmill yard, where they were locked up in a room and beaten again. Two persons died from the abuses. When the others were transported to another settlement (does not say where), two named defendants and other unidentified people shouted at them not to give them water and to hang them.

The charges claimed that the abuses continued later on as well: on September 26, Pavel Croitoru was summoned to the sawmill office where one of the defendants, Ferenc Buta, and another person who was not in the trial, Ferenc Poitinger, hit him with stones and wood.

The Romanian law in the 1950s automatically punished such actions and incitement to such actions as war crimes with confiscation of property.

However, the enforcement of the 1952 court sentence does not contain anything about the confiscation of Dániel Bánffy’s property.

This, on the one hand, is an extra enforcement that the trial was a show trial, while on the other hand it also signals that the Romanian authorities knew there was no one to arrest as Bánffy had not been in the country for years, and that there was nothing to confiscate from him. His estates and castles were in the country, but the Romanian state had expropriated those years before:

  • the land reform of 1945 expropriated every estate larger than 50 hectares, and only left one castle or mansion as residence for the owner;
  • the constitution of 1948 stipulated that forests (just like underground natural resources, springs, rivers and lakes, etc.) are all state property.

The administrative negligence does not stop at the enforcement not containing any reference to confiscation of property or the legal status of the Bánffy estates at that time. Both in 1946 and in 1952, the Court failed to show any interest in using a correct or at least consistent form of the names of Bánffy and the Páters. The couple’s name was in turns written as Pater, Páter or Peter. Bánffy’s name was spelt as Bamfi Daniel, Bánfy, Banfi, Bandi and Banfii. [Farkas Bánffy said that Ernest Páter only used this first name in his documents, otherwise he was known as Ernő].

Who was Dániel Bánffy?

Dániel Bánffy
Dániel Bánffy. Source of the picture: Wikipedia

Dániel Bánffy was born in 1893 in the village of Fugad/Ciuguzel, not far from Nagyenyed/Aiud. From 1917 to 1940 he lived on his Transylvanian estates. Besides his extended forests, he had a sawmill in Palotailva/Lunca Bradului, he rebuilt the family’s castle in Fugad/Ciuguzel, and he built a summer mansion for the extended family in Maroshéviz/Toplita.

During the 1940 political changes, when Romania lost and Hungary regained Northern Transylvania, he was one of the 35 politicians called from Transylvania to the Hungarian National Assembly, where they founded the Transylvanian Party. He was appointed Minister of Agriculture on 30 December, in office through several successive governments until the German occupation of Hungary on 22 March 1944.

Following Romania’s leaving in August 1944, in Budapest Bánffy called for immediate armistice in favour of Transylvania. Members of the far-right Arrow Cross (Nyilas) Party arrested and sentenced him to death, eventually his friends got him out of prison. Not long after, he was also arrested by the Red Army. The Hungarian communists deported him with his family to a meat processing factory in Jászapáti in 1951. Later he suffered an accident and got paralysed. He died in Budapest in 1955.

Clearly Bánffy had not been in Transylvania during the Red Army invasion in 1944. According to the files of the trial, the Romanian authorities knew he was living in Hungary, the citations addressed to him were always posted on the door of the People’s Council of Dés/Dej.

The trial of 1951

against Dániel Bánffy, Ernest Páter, the warden of his former sawmill enterprise, the Bangra Company, and his wife was restarted because the chief prosecutor requested, in July 1950, the revocation of the exculpatory verdict from Cluj in 1946. In that trial, 24 persons were charged, and two of them were sentenced; in 1951, accusations were only brought against the “instigators”.

Dániel Bánffy did not show up at any of the trials, did not have a lawyer, and except for the useless citations, the verdict enforcement was the only document in the trial that showed any interest in Bánffy’s person, stating to arrest him and send him to the Jilava prison.

The trial of 1946 happened at an incredibly fast pace according to our current expectations: the prosecutor compiled the file in September, and the Cluj Court of Appeal debated on 4 and 8 of October, already passing a verdict on the second hearing at 8 October. Dániel Bánffy was acquitted with quite a simple justification: there were much more witnesses who claimed that it was Endre Bánffy [we used to translate the name Andrei from the trial files as András, but Farkas Bánffy said he always used the Endre form of the name] or both of them who welcomed the Hungarian soldiers arriving to Palotailva in 1940 than who said that it was Dániel Bánffy who made the address. (During the 1951-52 trial even the Páters claimed that it was Dániel Bánffy who welcomed the soldiers).

The 1946 court claimed that the atrocities against the Romanian inhabitants with the help of Hungarians were committed on the night of 11 September 1940 (in the second trial of 1951-52, the Páters argued that these were committed a couple of days after the invasion, and not by the regular army which marched into and out of the settlement, but by the intelligence units who came later, who could not hear the welcoming speeches), but during this trial only two of the local aggressors could be identified for certain, and they were convicted.

The two most important defendants of both trials, Ernest Páter and his wife, were also acquitted in the 1946 trial of the charge of instigation, claiming that, based on the testimonies of the witnesses, the words they uttered were not adequate to instigate to war crimes. The Court also said that their words could not have been accurately rendered because their lawyer proved that

the prosecution’s witnesses hardly understood any Hungarian, and their knowledge about the speeches was only based on rumours.

Testimonies of the three witnesses of the prosecution, now only focussing on the speeches, recorded in March 1952, betray the same thing. All of them unanimously claim that the Hungarian soldiers arrived to Palotailva on 7 September 1940. Speeches were delivered on the occasion at the gate of the sawmill in front of the inhabitants of the village and the soldiers, forester Radu Alexandru related in his testimony. The first two speakers were Dániel Bánffy and Endre Bánffy, but he could not say which of the two was the first to talk. They were followed by Ida Páter, but the forester mentioned that none of these speeches were instigative. A part of the soldiers remained in the village, another part moved on.

Interestingly the forester also maintained his testimony from March 1947, claiming that Baron Bánffy was also one of the initiator of the tortures, but saying that he only heard rumours about it, and couldn’t say who the source of this information was.

Testimony of Radu Alexandru

Testimony of Radu Alexandru
Testimony of Radu Alexandru

Grigore Cif, a local farmer, the other witness of the prosecution in 1952, said that the first speaker was Endre Bánffy, followed by Dániel Bánffy and the others. “I don’t really know Hungarian, and I don’t remember what Baron Dániel Bánffy was speaking about. As far as I remember, Endre Bánffy said that he lived in the woods for 22 years for fear of Romanians. I think this is not true, because he had a house in the forest, in Zsirka valley, because he was a heavy drinker, which was oftentimes visible, when he came to the village, he always got drunk. I don’t remember defendant Ernest Páter giving a speech, but I remember that Ida Páter gave a speech in which she said that she had suffered because of the Romanians for 22 years. I couldn’t understand what exactly she suffered from, because I don’t speak well Hungarian” – Grigore Cif states in his testimony.

He also maintained the testimony he made at Marosvásárhely/Târgu Mureș, namely that he only knew what was said from those who stood beside him, because he asked them what the speakers said.

Testimony of Grigore Cif

Testimony of Grogore Cif
Testimony of Grigore Cif

The worker Pavăl Croitoru said in his testimony in 1952 that the people who gave speeches when the Hungarian army arrived were Endre Bánffy, Ida Páter and the Orthodox priest Eftimie. He also stated that Endre Bánffy complained about having to live in the forest and eat polenta because of the Romanians, but he also said that he didn’t believe it: he lived there because his brother Dániel Bánffy had him stay in the forest house because of being ashamed of his drinking. Croitoru also said that Endre Bánffy’s speech wasn’t instigative. [Endre and Dániel Bánffy were not brothers, but second-degree relatives, Farkas Bánffy clarified].

The witness also said that Dániel Bánffy also spoke, but by that time he had left the scene, and did not know whether or not Ernest Páter addressed the people as well. He heard Ida Páter’s speech nevertheless, of which he remembered the salute and that she was persecuted by the Romanians, that was all he understood of the speech. He maintained his testimony from 1947 and his opinion that everything happened with the knowledge of the Barons and the leaders of the sawmill. He supported his opinion with the fact that the civilians and soldiers who made the arrests and committed the tortures met in the offices of the sawmill, started from there and that was also where they took the people they arrested.

Testimony of Pavăl Croitoru

Testimony of Pavăl Croitoru
Testimony of Pavăl Croitoru

The story of the Páter family

is important in the case because, while the 1952 sentence of Dániel Bánffy who was away the whole time couldn’t do more than just set an example, the Páters who lived in Marosvásárhely/Târgu Mureș could be arrested and imprisoned, and as political prisoners, they were not released during the 1953 amnesty.

Since they had a lot to lose indeed, they hired a lawyer both in 1946 and 1951, who also tried to defend their case with procedural arguments, which drew the attention even more to how much of a show trial the 1951-52 trial was.

(In case of criminal trials with a final verdict the retrial can only be requested by the defendent and not by the prosecution – this was the criminal law argument that lawyer József Rózsa, the legal representative of the Bánffy-heirs used more than sixty years later in the Krónika newspaper, when the Maros County prefect renewed the civil lawsuit which renationalized the 9323 hectares of forest.)

The chief prosecutor justified his request for retrial in 1950 saying that the court in 1946 should not have reached a verdict based on the fact that the testimonies were contradictory, but

should have only given credit to the witnesses of the prosecution whose testimony was consistent with the defendants’ provocative behaviour, political views and social status:

Dániel Bánffy was a “landowner, member of the chauvinist exploiter class”, Ernest Páter was member of the management of the Banga sawmill, and Ida Páter was the passionate leader of the “chauvinist fascist Women’s Society”.

The prosecutor stated in his justification that it was unjust that they, who were clearly identified as instigators by the witnesses of the prosecution, and whose words betrayed their hostile feelings towards the Romanian state before 1940, should get away with the deaths of two people and torture of several others.

At the beginning of the 1951 retrial, the lawyer of the Páters intended to bring up technical arguments in order to ensure taking new evidence to court if the case once finalized in 1946 would be retried. These arguments also show that the retrial of the case in 1950 might not have been completely legitimate either:

  • The legal clause from 1946 which was the basis of the lawsuit against them and their acquittal had been erased in the meantime;
  • The clause which replaced it was more complicated and stricter about establishing the crime and the punishment for it (for this reason the lawyer requested that the alleged actions be classified as a different category of criminal law).
  • And, above all: the procedural rules from 1946 did not regulate the ways of retrial (therefore he asked to validate the procedures of the hearing and hear the witnesses of both the prosecution – not taking only their written statements into account – and of the defence).

In 1951, the court was only willing to hear the new witnesses of the defence on the condition that their testimony cannot disprove the accusations, and the judge would at most consider their statements mitigating circumstances.

The last paragraph of the defendants’ acquittal request, in addition to the statement of facts formulated in favour of the defendants, despite all the ideological phrases and loyalty declarations, and

while not saying exactly so, meant in fact that this whole retrial is a show trial.

They argued that, although the law of justice does not regulate how to handle such a retrial and most importantly, it says nothing on the guiltyness of the defendants, if the Cluj Court of Appeal thinks it is constrained by the Supreme Court’s ruling on retrial and for this reason must convict the defendants, their request is that it changed their crime to false news distribution, and gave the minimum sentence with suspension. That is to say, they explicitly assumed that they would be found guilty because the Supreme Court ruled a retrial and by this, a quasi-compulsory sentence.

War crimes show trial Romania
Final lines of the aquittal request of the defendants

The Court of Appeal of Cluj failed to listen to their request, and transferred the case for sentence to the jurisdiction of the Bucharest Court of Law. The final phase happened in Bucharest in the second half of 1952. The Páters were held in custody during the trial, they were taken to the hearings from the Jilava prison, and they were appointed a lawyer ex officio. The files betrayed at this point that they didn’t speak Romanian well either, because the Bucharest Court asked the Ministry of Justice for an interpreter.

On 3 December 1952, the Court sentenced Ernest Páter for three years, and Ida Páter for four years of maximum security prison, and Dániel Bánffy for eight years of forced labour and ten years of loss of civil rights. In case of all three defendants, the Court ruled full confiscation of property, and the payment of one hundred lei each as legal costs.

The last document in the file is the verdict from 16 April 1953 of the criminal law department of the Supreme Court, in which the five members of the council of judges reject Ida Páter’s request of appeal. The hearing in this matter happened two days before in the presence of Ida Páter, when the prosecutor stated that the request was unfounded, and the appointed lawyer did not justify the request because he was unable to find a legal justification to annul the sentence from 1952. In addition to the rejection, the Court obliged Ida Páter to pay fifty lei for legal costs.

It had probably never occured to the judges who gave these verdicts that several decades later the Romanian state would deny the retrocession of Bánffy’s forests based precisely on these. We are attempting to disclose the peculiarities of current trials in a new set of articles. The Bánffy-heirs plan to attack the verdicts of renationalisation at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Translated by Emese Czintos

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