Washington, 2 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman of Azerbaijan's constitutional court says judicial reform in his country is a top priority of the government of President Heidar Aliev.
Khanlar Khadjiyev made the comment Friday (Oct. 30) at a press briefing held at RFE/RL in Washington.
He was ending his week-long stay in the U.S. sponsored by the Azeri government. While in the U.S., Khadjiyev meet with top officials at the U.S. Departments of State and Justice, as well as the National Security Council. He also met with U.S. Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas.
At the press conference, Khadjiyev said undertaking judicial reform in his country is proving to be difficult because many people currently in the system have certain rights and responsibilities that they do not want taken away.
Explained Khadjiyev: "The system of the judiciary includes an army of people, so to say. And these people have their authorities and privileges, and do not have the slightest interest in changing the way things are going."
But Khadjiyev said judicial reform is of the utmost importance to the nation for a number of reasons, including helping to bring the nation into compliance with international human rights standards. And this is one prerequisite for membership into the Council of Europe - an important goal for Azerbaijan, he said.
Some steps have already been taken to improve Azerbaijan's judicial system, said Khadjiyev. The establishment of the constitutional court of Azerbaijan in July of 1998 was a big step, he said.
Currently the constitutional court has nine justices. All are appointed by President Aliyev and must be approved by the parliament, Khadjiyev said. Justices serve a period of ten years and may be re-appointed to one more term -- or a maximum of 20 years.
Khadjiyev said that he does not think the independence of Azerbaijan's constitutional court is compromised because the justices are appointed by the president and not elected.
Explained Khadjiyev: "I don't think that this really influences the degree of independence of a judge. Independence is something that either starts or doesn't start after a judge is appointed or elected. It depends on whether the whole social system and judicial system allows you to be independent."
Another important step in judicial reform in the country, said Khadjiyev, is that in 1992 Azerbaijan removed the control of prisons from the Ministry of the Interior and gave it to the Ministry of Justice. Additionally, he said, draft laws governing the police are now under review in the parliament. He said one piece of legislation calls for removing the power of sanctioning searches and detentions from the Attorney General's office ("prokuratura") and giving it to the courts.
Other laws also under review are creation of a civil court and outlining crime prevention, Khadjiyev said. He added that he is particularly proud of the fact that Azerbaijan has already abolished the death penalty.
But Khadjiyev said the Attorney General's office remains a "huge problem" to the process of judicial reform. He added that its sweeping powers are a carryover from the Soviet period and are so broad and far-reaching that it is unclear even how to begin the reform process within the organization.
Khadjiyev explained: "Some people who come to Azerbaijan in foreign delegations sometimes talk about the position of the Attorney General's office in society, and it sounds like they are encouraging our officials to continue in their stubborn policies. They do not understand the position and function of the Attorney General's office in the post-Soviet republics -- whether it be Russia, Ukraine or Azerbaijan -- that it is something quite different than what they are accustomed to in civilized Western European countries and the United States."
Khadjiyev said the Attorney General's office during Soviet times was one of the main elements of power in the communist system.
Said Khadjiyev: "The Attorney General's office has a huge amount of power concentrated in its hands. For example, they supervise the implementation of laws to a certain degree, they also supervise the investigation, and the court hearings, which by the way, at the same time they act within that same hearing as one of the sides. Then they also supervise the implementation of the decisions of the court."
Moreover, Khadjiyev said when ordinary citizens have complaints, they have to take them to the Attorney General's office and not to the courts.
"I think that in a civilized society, a legal society, when a human being has a complaint, he should have the right to address the court -- not the Attorney General's office," he said.
Khadjiyev called upon the international community to provide more financial assistance to Azerbaijan to help accelerate the process of judicial reform.