Uzbek leaders have enhanced their arbitrary powers in recent years by eviscerating the country’s independent bar associations. A recent report prepared by Human Rights Watch details how authorities in Tashkent have turned the justice system into a mechanism to stifle dissent.
The 104-page HRW report – titled "No One Left to Witness:” Torture, the Failure of Habeas Corpus and the Silencing of Lawyers in Uzbekistan – documents how President Islam Karimov’s administration delivered the coup de grâce to the independent bar on New Year’s Day in 2009. That’s when new regulations covering lawyers went into effect. Previously, autonomous bar associations were abolished and replaced by a new, government-controlled structure called the Chamber of Lawyers. Practicing attorneys were also forced to re-apply for a license to practice law and required “to re-take a bar examination every three years,” according to the report. The changes “achieved nothing less than the subordination of the legal profession to the executive branch, violating international and Uzbek law,” the report stated.
When forced to retake the bar exam, those lawyers who were active in defending politically-sensitive clients suddenly encountered trick questions meant to make them fail. "The government doesn't want lawyers who will make a fuss about human rights. They want ones who will close their eyes to bogus charges or procedural violations," Ruhiddin Komilov, a Tashkent lawyer disbarred in November 2010, told HRW.
The Ministry of Justice has not released information about disbarred lawyers, but HRW investigators believe several prominent attorneys were disbarred, and other outspoken advocates lost their licenses through apparently fabricated criminal cases, or through other forms of harassment. When the Ministry of Justice’s co-optation efforts began, hundreds of lawyers simply refused to stick with their profession. “Some lawyers who had worked on human rights [issues] refused to take the [bar] test as they knew their fate beforehand and did not want to serve in a profession that increasingly serves the state,” said Steve Swerdlow, Uzbekistan researcher for HRW.
Today, only a handful of lawyers are willing to take rights-related cases. One such lawyer, featured in HRW’s report, is Sergei Maiorov. Even many of those who are ardent believers in the principle of the rule of law are unwilling to openly challenge the Karimov administration. These individuals “are trying to keep their heads down, or waiting for a change which will allow them to move back to the cases they believe in,” Swerdlow told EurasiaNet.org.
Swerdlow expressed hope that focusing attention on Uzbek government steps already taken to destroy the bar association will help deter further harassment of independent-minded lawyers. The publication also drives a wedge between the government’s claims and the realities for its victims, says Swerdlow.
“The trend towards controlling the legal profession is perhaps the clearest window into the Uzbek government’s plan for all of civil society – a co-optation which makes references to democratic reforms, but which manages to assert full control over any dissident elements,” he said.
Shortly before the Uzbek government took steps to dismantle the independent bar, it adopted measures creating the appearance that it was embracing the concept of the rule of law. Tashkent in 2008 strengthened the notion of habeas corpus, limiting, for example, the length that a suspect could be held without a hearing to 72 hours. In 2009, Uzbek authorities adopted amendments that acknowledged a defendant’s right to legal counsel from the moment that he/she is detained and technically eased access for defense lawyers to their clients. The government also stipulated that those detained should be advised of their rights. The HRW report shows that none of these reforms have been implemented, however.
“Victims, their relatives, lawyers, human rights defenders, and other observers … report that since the adoption of habeas corpus and related reforms, police, and security agents continue to use torture to coerce detainees to implicate themselves or others and that confessions obtained under torture are still the sole basis for convictions,” the HRW report states.
“Despite the January 2009 amendments, detainees are still denied access to counsel and counsel of one’s choice during interrogation, the habeas corpus hearing, and even trial,” the HRW report continued. “Judges still fail to investigate torture allegations, to exclude evidence obtained through torture, or in the absence of counsel, and do not hold perpetrators accountable.”
The HRW report additionally notes that observers for the watchdog organization documented “several cases where authorities held habeas corpus hearings without the detainee even present, robbing habeas corpus of any meaning.”
HRW has sent letters to six different Uzbek government ministries outlining the concerns in the report, but to date, no answer has been received. Uzbek authorities closed HRW’s representative office in 2011.
Catherine A.Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer who covers human rights issues in Central Asia. She is the author of Eurasianet's Choihona and Sifting the Karakum blogs.