A businessman known for yachting with Hungarian minister Péter Szijjártó was a member of a group of Fidesz activists destroying opposition’s posters

In the spring of 2018, in the last days of the election campaign rush, a group of Fidesz activists went out into the Budapest night to spray Jobbik billboards. “Orbán or turban?” – they sprayed the pre-arranged, anti-migrant slogan on them. However, they were caught by Jobbik-activists guarding their own posters, and the fight that started was broken up by police.

The group of activists did not simply include enthusiastic Fidesz voters, but also several people linked to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and to the Minister, Péter Szijjártó himself. One of them was Szilárd Benkő, Péter Szijjártó’s former chief of cabinet and futsal team-mate, who accompanied the minister and his family on his infamous yachting holiday in Croatia. “I met some friends on Margit boulevard and there we agreed to go and paint posters in the name of freedom of expression,” Benkő told the police about the evening.

Direkt36 wrote in December about Benkő, who has worked for a long time in the foreign ministry, and one of his companies received a grant of nearly HUF 300 million in 2020 from a back office of the ministry. This was the same year Benkő travelled with the minister on board the yacht Lady MRD.

The court verdict and investigative documents in our possession prove that Benkő participated in the poster vandalism action in the 11th district in 2018, helping the Fidesz election campaign from the street. Benkő was joined that evening on Budaörsi street by Levente Szikora, a former futsal teammate of Benkő and Szijjártó, and a presidential advisor to the Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency. The team also included, among others, the son of a former Hungarian Ambassador and Deputy State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade led by Szijjártó.

On the same night, another group of Fidesz supporters arrived in the 3rd district to spray the posters of the main rival of Fidesz. One of the members of this group was a former business associate of Szilárd Benkő, who was in contact with Benkő’s team on Budaörsi street by telephone that night. He spoke to them several times on the phone, shortly after he broke out two teeth of a Jobbik MP on duty protecting posters, according to the verdict and investigation documents obtained by Direkt36.

Both teams met on Margit boulevard in the capital before the action, one of the participants testified that they received instructions and spray paint for the vandalism in an office. The office was located in the same building where one of Benkő’s companies has an office, and where the foundation of Péter Szijjártó’s wife is currently based.

We contacted Szilárd Benkő and other participants of the action with our questions, but they did not respond to our request. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, led by Péter Szijjártó, did not respond to our enquiries either.

Decade-long teammate

Szilárd Benkő is known as Péter Szijjártó’s closest colleague, former chief of staff and futsal teammate, and has worked with Szijjártó, also from Győr, since the early 2000s, and followed him into the government after the 2010 Fidesz election victory.

Benkő worked at the Prime Minister’s Office as a senior member of the organizational staff under Szijjártó, and in 2014 he followed his boss as chief of staff to the foreign ministry. Meanwhile, Benkő used one of the government’s most expensive cars, a Mercedes SUV which costs nearly 17 million forints by its salon price.

In 2015, he left government and went into business. However, as Direkt36 revealed in an earlier article, his relationship with the state and Szijjártó’s ministry was not severed. In 2020, one of his companies received 280 million forints as non-refundable state funding from a back office of the foreign ministry.

In the same year, Benkő travelled with Szijjártó on board the luxury yacht Lady MRD, as can be seen in the photos published by photographer Dániel Németh on 444.hu. The Foreign Minister, who had to explain his trip on the yacht, referred to the incident as “a family holiday with the children, my wife and our friends”. We contacted Szilárd Benkő in writing and by phone before the publication of our previous article, but he did not answer our questions then or now.

Political battle in the streets

Benkő was already working as a businessman in 2018, but according to court and police documents obtained by Direkt36, Fidesz could still count on his help. Even if it was a delicate, even illegal operation. In fact, a few days before the 2018 elections, on the night of 6th of April, Benkő set out to spray down election posters of Jobbik – at the time Fidesz’s main rival opposition party – in Budapest’s 11th district.

The night’s action turned into a criminal case: the Fidesz activists clashed with Jobbik-activists defending their posters, and one of them was convicted of hooliganism after the scuffle. The case file provides a detailed reconstruction of the events and Benkő’s role.

Benkő and five others arrived at Budaörsi street at around 12:30 am to paint pro-government messages on Jobbik posters. At the time, there were a large number of Jobbik posters in the city, but they were regularly vandalised. “We had many rented billboards on Budaörsi road, in a very busy place, as soon as our billboards were put out, the next day they were vandalised, so in those days we had a four-man monitoring team trying to protect the billboards there”, Jobbik said in response to a question from Direkt36. That’s how the Benkő-team were caught red-handed by the Jobbik activists on duty.

One of them, Balázs Szabó, kicked one of the pro-government activists, who was about to spraying up the phrase “Orbán or turban”, in the back, who fell against the poster and then the railing near the poster injured his leg. One of his companions was about to return the violence, and the incident probably only failed to turn into a serious fight because two plain-clothes policemen arrived on the scene within a minute or so and put everybody, including Szilárd Benkő, up against the wall. Several sources familiar with the incident told Direkt36 that the police officers also drew their weapons during the action.

It is not clear from the documents how organized the poster-destroying operation was, because Benkő and his associates did not tell the police much about it. The court ruling repeatedly notes that the activists tried to conceal details about the background and organization from the authorities. However, the testimony of several of them, including Szilárd Benkő, reveals that they met on Margit boulevard before the action.

In his testimony, Benkő described the events as follows: “I met some friends on Margit boulevard and there we agreed to go and paint posters in the name of freedom of expression. So we went out to the Budaörsi street (11th district, Budapest), where we split into two teams, with me was Levente and another guy whose name I can’t remember, the other team was Feri, Attila and András.”  According to Benkő, the Jobbik activists arrived at the scene just before he started spraying the posters, and soon afterwards the police arrived. “The police, when they got out of the car, shouted that they were police and asked us to stand against the wall and there they identified us.”

The documents also show that not only Péter Szijjártó’s friend, but also several other people connected to the governing party were members of the team. For example, there was Levente Szikora, who, in addition to playing futsal with Benkő and Szijjártó for years in the Dunakeszi Kinizsi futsal team, was also a public official. Since 2014, he is the presidential advisor of the Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency, part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the organization from which Szilárd Benkő’s company later received hundreds of millions of forints in state aid. In April 2018 Szikora was also a member of the supervisory board of a limited liability company set up by the Hungarian National Trading House.

The group also included the 17 years old son of a former high-ranking Hungarian diplomat and Deputy State Secretary. He was the one who was kicked in the back by Balázs Szabó, a Jobbik poster defender. Shortly after the attack, the victim confessed to the police that he could name only one person in the group, Szilárd Benkő, whom he had met for the second time.

Direkt36 also contacted Levente Szikora, the former diplomat and his son, but we did not receive any answers to our questions.

Meeting point: Margit körút

On the same night, just over an hour after the events on Budaörsi street, another group of four activists arrived at Nagyszombat street in Óbuda. Here, too, they targeted Jobbik posters, and as in the 11th district, they were caught by the Jobbik poster defenders painting the same phrase “Orbán or turban?” on the billboards as the Benkő-team in Buda. One of the vandals here seriously injured a poster defender, Miklós Szanyó. Jobbik’s representative in the Óbuda municipality broke his skin and two teeth when they got into a fight. According to police documents, the assailant was Milán Attila Szabó, who is also connected to Szilárd Benkő in business. In 2016, he founded a joint company with him, which operated a restaurant serving domestic and seafood dishes on Teréz boulevard in the city center.

Police documents obtained by Direkt36 also reveal that Szabó knew not only Benkő, but also Szijjártó’s other former teammate, Levente Szikora, who was active on Budaörsi street that night. This is indicated by the fact that they spoke to each other three times on the phone within 20 minutes that night, at around 2 am.  Therefore, there was a connection between the two groups of activists.

At the time of the phone calls, the Szikora-team had already been stopped by the police, but Attila Milán Szabó, who assaulted the Jobbik MP, evaded the authorities and left the scene alone after the fight. The police officers were unable to find him in the following days, although they searched for him several times at different addresses and tried to contact him by phone multiple times. Finally, more than 48 hours later, he went to the police station in the 3rd district and gave a statement. He explained the delay by the fact that he had gone to Lake Balaton for the weekend, where he had switched off his phone and had not read the news.

Although Szabó denied his guilt all along, he was finally convicted of assault and received a suspended prison sentence of 1 year and 8 months in the first instance, which was significantly reduced in the second instance, with the final sentence being a fine of HUF 400,000.

Although Szabó, like the activists in district 11, revealed only a few details about the background to the action, the testimonies of his three other team-mates shed light on several details.

They said that all three were Fidesz activists from Győr who had left the Fidesz office in Győr for Budapest that evening to “freely express their opinions”. Szabó had joined them only in Budapest, as someone who knew the city. They said they had met other Fidesz activists at an office on Margit boulevard, where about 15 of them had gathered that evening.

The activists of Óbuda testified that they were told in the office what the task would be: a man handed out the paint and told them that they had to put the slogan “Orbán or turban?” on the Jobbik posters.

One of the activists of Óbuda also remembered the exact address, he told the police 12 Margit boulevard. There was no official Fidesz office at this address at the time of the activist rally, but most of the companies owned by Szilárd Benkő were registered at this address. The exact location of the businesses was a second-floor, 120-square-metre office at number 12, which since 2015 has also been owned by a Benkő company, Benefit Products Ltd.

In 2020, a foundation called Együtt az Autistákért Alapítvány (Together for Autistic People Foundation), whose board of trustees is chaired by Szilvia Szijjártó-Nagy, wife of Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, moved into the same office and is still operating here.

It is not clear whether the meeting was actually held in the Benkő-related office at 12 Margit boulevard, or perhaps in another flat of the same building, and whether it was just a coincidence. The testimony of Benkő’s poster-breaking team does not clarify this either, as they did not name an office as the meeting point, only that they met at Margit boulevard.

We have also contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Fidesz party and Együtt az Autistákért Alapítvány with our questions, but they have not responded by the time of publication of this article. A few hours after the atrocities, Fidesz reacted to the incidents in the 3rd and 11th districts in a statement. They said that aggressiveness and violence are the true face of Jobbik, and that the Hungarian electorate does not want it. They also defended the poster vandals, saying that “our activists did nothing more than exercise freedom of expression.”

  • Dániel Szőke

    Graduated from Eötvös Loránd University at 2013 as a librarian scientist. As a freelancer he worked with 444.hu news-site for several years, and in 2020 attended Transparency International’s mentor program for investigative journalists. In January 2021 he started to work as an intern, and since September 2021 he is a full-time journalist of Direkt36.