The attorney became a Pegasus target when one of Hungary’s most notorious murder cases took a turn

Ilona Patócs, an attorney defending, among others, István Hatvani, who was sentenced to prison for the so-called Prisztás-murder, was targeted by the Israeli Pegasus spyware, Direkt36 found. The phone number of the lawyer is also in the leaked database which includes surveillance targets selected by foreign clients of the NSO Group, manufacturer of Pegasus, and also contains more than 300 Hungarian numbers.

The lawyer was targeted by Pegasus in the summer of 2019, shortly after the years-long criminal case of his client István Hatvani took an unexpected turn. In the summer of 2019, Slovak assassin Jozef Roháč claimed responsibility for the 1996 murder of József Prisztás, a businessman with underworld connections, at his trial after his police testimony the previous year. Until then, Hatvani, Patócs’s client, who had been in prison for seven years, was accused of the assassination.

All along, the lawyer claimed that her client was innocent, that testimonies in favour of Hatvani had been deliberately ignored and that there were in fact political reasons for his conviction. Although Hatvani had been released because of Roháč’s testimony, he was later sent back to prison to serve the remaining years of his sentence by the court of appeal.

Patócs is not the only lawyer among the Pegasus targets. Direkt36 has previously identified the phone numbers of several influential lawyers among the targets of the Israeli spy software, including János Bánáti, president of the Hungarian Bar Association, and Csaba Nagy Ajtony, a confidant of Lajos Simicska.

As previously reported, at least ten lawyers identified by phone numbers could have been the targets of surveillance, despite the fact that the confidentiality of communication with their clients – the institution of attorney-client privilege – is in principle a legally guaranteed basis for their work. However, the Hungarian rules on surveillance are so lax that the confidentiality of lawyers makes no exception.

Lawyers’ Chamber leaders have previously told Direkt36 that lawyers can be watched at any time without further ado for reasons of national security. Although in criminal cases, lawyers can only be subject to secret information collecting if they are suspected of a specific offence, a lawyer under surveillance can only be informed of their surveillance afterwards, if they are indeed suspected of a crime. If they do not become suspects, there is a good chance that they will never find out about the interception.

Ilona Patócs has not been prosecuted or notified of any surveillance since becoming a Pegasus target in 2019.

The fact that a phone number appears in the database does not necessarily mean that the target’s phone had been indeed successfully hacked, as only a technical examination of the phone can clearly show that. In the case of Patócs, we were unable to perform this analysis for technical reasons, as she was using an Android device that cannot be tested using the methods developed so far to detect Pegasus.

According to the lawyer, her Pegasus targeting may be linked to Roháč’s testimony, as there were already examples of her conversations with Roháč being intercepted in 2018, the previous year, only then from the Slovakian man’s side. “So the fact that my conversations are being intercepted is not new,” Ilona Patócs told Direkt36. “But that my person is the target of surveillance and that my home is being broken into is” the lawyer added, referring to the fact that the spy software can turn the phone into a listener device by switching on the microphone and camera.

Patócs wants to take legal action, so as seventh she joins the six clients of the Association for Civil Liberties and Justice (TASZ) (most of them are journalists, including the co-author of this article, Szabolcs Panyi) to start a prosecution for Pegasus surveillance in Hungary, both on the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and on the European Commission and in Israel.

The lawyer added that she is outraged by the recently completed investigation by the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (NAIH), which found that Pegasus was used legally in all the investigated domestic cases, and will file a criminal complaint for breach of attorney-client privilege. Patócs said that she was also taking credit for her story because she believes that besides legal action, the important thing is publicity. “We must not let this case go off” she said.

TASZ’s professional director, Máté Szabó, said that they consider it fortunate that Ilona Patócs joins their clients who have initiated proceedings for surveillance, because her case is a good one to prove that the Hungarian rules on secret surveillance also violate the requirement of confidentiality of attorney-client communication.

“Hungarian surveillance laws do not take into account that the confidentiality of certain professions’ communications requires a higher level of protection – and although this was also noted by the data protection authority, it was not objected to,” Szabó said, adding that the possibility of secret surveillance without appropriate legal limits thus results in the violation of not only the right to privacy, but also of other fundamental rights, such as the freedom of the press, the right to a fair trial or the right to defence.

The government has not responded to questions about the targeting of Patócs.

Oddities about the Prisztás-case

Ilona Patócs became István Hatvani’s lawyer in the summer of 2014, shortly after the order to repeat the first instance proceedings of the Prisztás murder. István Hatvani, Slovak assassin Jozef Roháč and the victim of the assassination, entrepreneur József Prisztás, were linked by a fourth man, Tamás Portik.

Portik is a former major figure in the Hungarian underworld; he was a member of the oil mafia in the 1990s and has since been sentenced to a lengthy prison term as an instigator for several assassinations, including the Aranykéz Street bombing and the murder of media owner János Fenyő. However, Portik received his first final prison sentence for the Prisztás-murder. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly ordering his former driver to kill the entrepreneur. This driver was István Hatvani, also known as Hatyi, who also received 15 years.

Ilona Patócs, who defended Tamás Portik as well for a short period between 2016 and 2018, told Direkt36 that the relationship between Portik and Hatvani was neither close nor long. According to her, Hatvani was in fact Portik’s driver for only a few months, and after 1997 they had no contact.

Prisztás and Portik, according to the court, came into conflict over property worth hundreds of millions of forints that they both wanted for themselves. Prisztás, who had built his wealth largely from usury deals, was subsequently murdered in Ladik Street in Óbuda in November 1996. The man was getting into his car when he was shot in the back of the head by a cyclist.

During the subsequent court hearings of the case – the assassination was tried several times in the 2010s – witnesses testified that the killer on the bicycle was a man of average height. This description did not fit the large Hatvani at all, who was arrested for the assassination in 2012. In addition, several other witnesses at the time had already stated outright that the murder was committed by the known assassin Jozef Roháč. In a later interview with RTL Klub, Hatvani said that after his arrest he had asked for a lie detector test, but none had been carried out.

After Ilona Patócs took over Hatvani’s defence, she indicated to the court that several people could even provide alibis for her client. The court did not give credence to these testimonies and Hatvani was finally convicted in 2016.

Roháč intervenes

Two years later the case, thought to be closed in 2016, took an unexpected turn. Slovakian Jozef Roháč sent word from prison, stating that he really knew who the real killer was and wanted to confess. Roháč, who was convicted as an assassin in both the Aranykéz Street bombing and the Fenyő murder and was serving a life sentence at the time, sent a phone message to one of the shows of TV channel HírTV through his brother, saying that he had repeatedly indicated that he knew the real killer, but the police did not want to question him.

Patócs then immediately initiated a retrial of the Prisztás-case at the Metropolitan Court of Appeal, which was also rejected. Roháč then wrote to her directly and, at his request, Patócs visited him in the Csillag prison in Szeged, where they spoke for only five minutes under controlled conditions. He also told her that he wanted to make a confession and asked for the lawyer’s help.

After their meeting, Ilona Patócs once again initiated retrial, and Roháč was finally questioned: the Slovakian assassin was allowed to testify before the National Investigative Office (NNI) in August 2018 and in court on 14 June 2019. Shortly afterwards, Patócs’s phone number appears among the Pegasus targets. According to Patócs, the reason why her targeting might be connected to Roháč’s 2019 court hearing is that in the previous year her phone was intercepted also because of the confession of the Slovak man.

The lawyer told Direkt36 that Roháč had named three witnesses in his 2018 police statement who he said knew that he had killed Prisztás in 1996. Roháč had already tried to convince these witnesses that they had nothing to fear and could testify against him; this may have been the reason why the NNI subsequently tapped the Slovak man’s phone in autumn 2018 and thus gained access to his messages with Patócs as well. The reason for the interception could have been that the NNI was checking whether Roháč was telling the truth or trying to influence witnesses.

Patócs later learned about the surveillance because the authorities made the materials on the interception of the assassin available. In the end, however, his surveillance did not contribute to the court case: the three men named by Roháč did not testify in court about that Roháč had killed Prisztás.

János Bánáti, president of the Hungarian Bar Association and a Pegasus target himself, told Direkt36 earlier that, to his knowledge, lawyers had previously only been involved in surveillance cases when their clients were the targets of the surveillance. This would explain why Patócs’s communications with Roháč were intercepted in 2018. What is not clear however, is why the lawyer’s phone number was also directly selected as a Pegasus target about a couple of weeks after Roháč had claimed the murder of Prisztás in court, thus proving Hatvani’s innocence, which Patócs had long been insisting on at the time.

Collateral damage

István Hatvani was released after Roháč’s testimony in February 2020. Patócs was personally called from the prison in Szombathely when Hatvani was released, while the prisoners were beating the bars loudly in joy. “It felt like everything was finally falling into place,” the lawyer recalled.

However, Hatvani was not to enjoy his freedom for long: after just over a year, the court of appeal decided not to credit Roháč’s testimony because of certain contradictions in it, and Hatvani was still to serve his sentence. The man re-entered prison in May 2021 to, in addition to the previous eight years, serve the remaining seven.

According to the lawyer, there are political reasons behind the decision: the aim is not to keep Hatvani in prison, but Tamás Portik. “My client is really just collateral damage,” she added. In her opinion, if Hatvani’s involvement in the case is questionable, it is easier to ask for a review of Portik’s conviction as well, who allegedly incited him. Portik’s lawyer had in fact initiated a retrial after Roháč’s testimony, but it was rejected.

According to Patócs, one of the reasons why the Portik cases are highly politicised is that the criminal has repeatedly said that he had information about corruption cases involving Fidesz, and thus his name has been used in political battles. In 2016 for example, Portik spoke about cases involving Antal Rogán and Árpád Habony during a court confrontation. According to Patócs, the mafioso also told him about his connections to Rogán. The lawyer – who was also defending Portik at the time – tried to persuade his client that if he had specific information about political figures, disclose it, but Portik did not do so.

Ilona Patócs is not the only lawyer among the Pegasus targets whose name is mentioned in connection with Tamás Portik. As Direkt36 has previously reported, János Bánáti’s phone number was selected for Pegasus surveillance at a time when the investigation against his client Tamás Gyárfás in connection with the 1998 murder of media entrepreneur János Fenyő was in full swing. The prosecution alleges that Gyárfás entrusted Portik with carrying out the assassination, who then made Roháč execute the media entrepreneur in the open street.

Cover picture: Péter Somogyi / Telex

  • Szabolcs Panyi

    Szabolcs graduated from Eötvös Loránd University where he studied Hungarian language and literature. Between 2013 and 2018, he was an editor and political reporter at At Arizona State University, he studied investigative journalism on a Fulbright Fellowship in 2017-2018. In the fall of 2018, he joined Direkt36, where he mainly works on stories related to national security and foreign policy. Meanwhile, he helped launch, a Warsaw-based cross-border investigative journalism initiative for the Visegrád region, where he is currently leading the Central Eastern European investigations. He received the Quality Journalism Award and the Transparency-Soma Award four times each, and he was also shortlisted for the European Press Prize in 2018 and 2021.

  • Fanni Matyasovszki