A group of lawyers are demanding that the Kyrgyz authorities guarantee security and due process in court cases linked to inter-ethnic clashes earlier this year, to prevent the chaos and violence that has disrupted some of the hearings so far.
“We declared that we will not take part in proceedings until there is adequate security,” Nazgul Suiunbaeva, one of 161 members of the lawyers’ group that issued the statement, told IRIN.
She related her own experience of being threatened, punched and hit on the head with a metal object by the widow of a murder victim, then pelted with stones, when defending her client in the southern city of Osh on 14 October.
The attacks, and reports of widespread abuses by police and other officials involved with pre-trial investigations, raise questions over the country's justice system and its ability to ensure genuine accountability, particularly in the south, where mistrust and hostility still divide the local Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities.
“All the defendants are scared. The trial lawyers are scared. What kind of justice can there be?” said Tayir Asanov, another of the lawyers told IRIN.
He said he would nonetheless continue to attend hearings in Osh, the epicentre of the June violence, which killed more than 400 people and destroyed entire neighbourhoods.
Asanov, defending a man accused of killing the driver of a murdered police chief, said he was accosted on 29 September by “infuriated women” who chased him out of the courtroom after he called for an inquiry into allegations that his client had been beaten in custody. He said court officials did not intervene.
As in most of the cases that have sparked violence, the defendant was ethnic Uzbek, while the assailants were from the majority Kyrgyz community.
The Prosecutor General’s Office, which oversees the task force investigating the June clashes, told IRIN that all necessary security measures were being taken and that an investigation had shown Asanov’s client had not been beaten.
A senior official, who asked not to be identified, called the attack on Asanov “a verbal quarrel” and said there had been only one instance, on 13 October, of physical violence connected to the trials. “This was the first time a beating was registered,” said the official. “There’s no need to make a big to-do about it.”
The assault he was referring to was witnessed by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The attack left all four victims - ethnic Uzbeks in their 50s and 60s - in need of medical attention.
Two other attacks on 11-12 October, and a widely reported melee at a September hearing against human rights activist Azimjon Askarov, have also been documented.
Suiunbaeva said the assailants “don’t understand that trial lawyers are doing their job… They think we skew the facts. They call me a traitor, because I’m ethnic Kyrgyz. The attitude toward trial lawyers - it’s as if we killed their relatives.”
Dysfunctional justice system
One problem, according to HRW researcher Ole Solvang, is that many of the bereaved believe the defendants have already confessed, without realizing that this may have happened “under torture”.
“When they hear them retract those confessions at the trials, it seems like the lawyers have instructed them to do this,” Solvang told IRIN. “The situation [in the south] is still so tense. Abuses during investigations and trials are going to fuel tensions even more.”
While both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks perpetrated crimes during June’s bloodshed, research by human rights groups, as well as anecdotal evidence and statistics released in August by prosecutors, all suggest that the investigations and trials have focused more on Uzbeks.
However, potential ethnic bias is just one part of the problem of Kyrgyzstan’s dysfunctional justice system, which suffers from under-qualified investigators and allegedly malleable judges.
An International Crisis Group report two years ago described the court system’s failure to act as “a neutral arbiter”, and highlighted the need for “significant reform to gain the trust of the public and to assert its role as an independent branch of government”.
* This article was amended on 20 October to correct details regarding Tayir Asanov
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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