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Tajikistan: Dushanbe Moves Toward National Bar Association, But Defense Lawyers Skeptical

  • Farangis Najibullah

Tajikistan has taken the first steps toward the creation of a National Association of Barristers. The efforts are seen as significant to separate and strengthen the judiciary system in Tajikistan. Local defense lawyers, however, say they play only a nominal role in legal procedures in Tajikistan and that the new associations will not have a significant impact on their work.

Prague, 3 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As part of its efforts to strengthen the judiciary system in Tajikistan, the Dushanbe mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has initiated the creation of regional bar associations in Sughd and Khatlon provinces.

Such regional organizations will permit the establishment of a National Association of Barristers in Dushanbe by the end of March. The OSCE's ambassador to Tajikistan, Marc Gilbert, says the national association will mark an important step toward the creation of a strong, independent judiciary system, which will reinforce civil society in Tajikistan. He said it will also help to attract investors to the country.

Gilbert says the National Association of Barristers will act as a counterweight to the State Prosecutor's Office, which enjoys enormous power in Tajikistan's judiciary system: "In any system, you need to have a counterweight. Tajikistan's Constitution, without ambiguity, says that the judiciary system must be independent. At the present time in Tajikistan, the 'procuratura' (office of prosecutors) plays a very important role, and now having bar [associations] can help to bring some more balance between the different components of the judiciary."

Bar associations promote the rule of law and are considered crucial to reform. Such groups regulate the legal profession, conduct training and provide legal services to the community -- all with a high degree of transparency.

Tajikistan's 1994 constitution granted more independence to defense lawyers, and it is hoped that the new bar associations will further add to the credibility and power of defense lawyers in the country. Local experts, however, argue that the role of defense lawyers in the Tajik justice system is nominal and almost as invisible today as it was in Soviet times.

Nayim Berdiyev, a Tajik lawyer, says defense lawyers have little say and limited power in legal procedures. He told RFE/RL that interviews with the accused in Tajikistan often take place without the presence of a defense lawyer.

Davlat Sarkorov, a defense lawyer based in Dushanbe, shares the same opinion: "In Tajikistan, defense lawyers don't have influence in the court. They do not play any role at all. In fact, defense lawyers are not in a position of doing anything. Their role is so nominal, it is nothing. We (defense lawyers) say our opinion in the court, but we never achieve any result. Everything you hear about the role of defense lawyers exists just on the paper, not in reality."

Islam Vaqosov, the head of the Human Rights Group in Tajikistan, says Tajik defense lawyers need legal protection themselves: "[In Tajikistan,] a verbal assault against a prosecutor, police officer, or judge is a criminal offense. But you can insult a defense lawyer as much as you like. There is no law against it."

The independence of the Tajik judiciary is often called into question, and it is believed the entire system operates under the government's strong influence. Judges, with an average salary of about $10 a month, are also believed to be vulnerable to bribery.

Azizmat Imomov, the deputy to Tajikistan's state prosecutor, says at least two district judges have been convicted of bribery and embezzlement in the last year: "There was a criminal case against the former judge of the Nov District, Mr. [Dodarjon] Abdiyev. The Supreme Court convicted Mr. Abdiyev of bribery and embezzlement. He was sentenced to a lengthy prison term. In Sughd Province, the former judge of Ghonchi [District, Luqmon Aliyev,] was also convicted of bribery."

David O'Connor, a lawyer in the American Bar Association in Dushanbe, says he believes a National Association of Barristers will contribute to the fight against corruption in the Tajik judiciary system: "If it was a strong organization, it would have influence just by terms of numbers. They could work with other associations like the Association of Judges. The Association of Judges is a well-established organization, and perhaps they could work together to find ways to combat corruption."

Local defense lawyers express little confidence, however, that, given the current circumstances in Tajikistan, the new bar associations will improve the situation anytime soon.