The Politicised Legal Systems of Central Asia

 “Our country is rapidly becoming like Sicily”, according to one legal expert in Kyrgyzstan. The continued weakening of the legal system, and political interference in the judicial system is turning ordinary citizens away from taking small family disputes to the police and solicitors, and instead using crime cartels to sort out their problems.

“Our biggest problem is the politics of the legal system. We have too many politicians who interfere in the legal system. Our problem is how to depoliticize this system”, she said.

This reference related to Kyrgyz mafia leaders Aziz Batukaev who had been sentenced to life in 2006 for killing a police colonel and the head of the department to combat crime. In April 2013 he said he needed an operation for blood cancer, and ordered a plane to take him to his home country of Chechnya. He was escourted to the airport with a police bike motorcade and left the country through the VIP lounge. The Kyrgyz legal, police and prison system agreed with this decision. It took two days from diagnosis to emigration to write the necessary documents and almost no one inside the system challenged this.

“Aware of this case, how can simple person believe in the law? What’s the point?” the legal expert said  “This was so mixed up with the national political leadership of our country that it demonstrated to everyone that the government is not sincere when it says it wants to tackle corruption. That’s the problem. How can a thief combat corruption? Therefore people are turning to criminal bodies and mafia a to sort out their problems.”

 This is not an unique case. In the week Projects-Direct.Net spent in Kyrgyzstan, we came across another story of a night watchman who was killed by a speeding car driven by a drunk young man. The driver was the son of a leading local official. This was not the first person that the son had killed in this manner. In order to get him off the hook, the boy’s family said the car was being driven by another young man. This young man has some health problems. The agreement between the families is that his health issues will mean he will take the charges, and be unable to go to jail. In return the official’s family will pay for international health care.

At the rural level the law runs a similar way. One of the most common issues that women face is extracting payments for childcare from divorced husbands. A $200 bribe to the judge and barrister usually sorts this problem out for the father.

 But there is a way out of this very common problem. By using the law, young enthusiastic lawyers who believe in the power of the law are able to take these cases to appeal. The higher the court; the higher the bribe. This takes the case beyond the financial realms of the family, and means the case gets a fairer hearing.

 The main issue is maintaining that youthful optimism in a region where unemployment is high and legal jobs are acquired through family contacts and connections. The law profession is not especially attractive to young students. Under the Soviet Union being a solicitor or judge was not especially prestigious. It was not well paid and it was primarily a woman’s profession.  Little has changed. Legal fees for family law are low. Lawyers in Kyrgyzstan who provide legal aid are paid $3 a court case. In Tajikistan lawyers get $3 a day for each case, but that does not necessarily mean the government pays a lawyer who submits an invoice. Not surprisingly some of the lawyers registered to provide this service told Projects-Direct.Net “I have a family to feed”, when asked if they would provide pro-bono work.

 Graduating law students in Tajikistan are consciously choosing to become a judge or a barrister because they can earn more through bribes, than choosing to be a lawyer. The students even have seminars with practicing judges who tell them anecdotes on how to extract bribes from clients and officials.

 Top to bottom, generation to generation the legal system fails the people it is meant to serve. Politicians see immediate benefit working with the status quo. But in the long term it keeps their countries poor and unattractive to serious foreign investment. The separation of political power from the legal system is an essential next step. The problem is that in a region where a year can be a long period in power the long-term view is a very tough sell.

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