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World: NGO Report Targets Judicial Corruption

Azerbaijani cartoon from an official anticorruption campaign (official site) May 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Judicial corruption is fueling impunity and corroding the rule of law across the countries of the former Soviet Union, according to an annual report by Transparency International (TI), a leading nongovernmental organization that tracks corruption worldwide. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan spoke with Miklos Marschall, TI's director for Europe and Central Asia, about the "Global Corruption Report 2007," which focuses on corruption in judicial systems.

RFE/RL: Transparency International's corruption report this year focuses on the judiciary. Is there a common theme regarding the problems of the justice system in most of the countries of the former Soviet Union?

Miklos Marschall: The three key messages of the corruption report this year is that judicial corruption erodes the foundation of societies, and that's a very serious problem. Another key message is that ordinary people, poor people mostly, suffer from judicial corruption because they can't afford to pay a bribe. And the third message is that much more needs to be done to increase transparency, because an impartial judiciary must be based on transparency.

What is more specific about Eastern and Central Europe, Central Asia -- I mean the former communist countries -- is that judicial corruption is much higher [there] than in many other parts of the world, which is an interesting finding of this report. [Regarding] the frequency of contacts between citizens and the judicial system. It is very revealing that in North America, that figure is 23 percent, in the EU, [it] is 19 percent. So usually, it means that if people have a conflict or dispute, they usually go to the court; they use the judiciary system as a service provider to settle their conflicts.

In the newly independent states, only 8 percent of people use the judicial system. So it shows that in the newly independent states, the formal judicial system is not terribly strong because conflicts and disputes are not being handled so frequently by the official system.

RFE/RL: That brings to mind the report's section on Russia, which, speaking about the judicial system in Moscow, cited two surveys. One said 70 percent of residents feel that it is useless to seek legal redress because the "unofficial costs" are too high. The other survey said residents expect to pay about $350 in bribes in order to receive a favorable legal judgment.

Marschall: Exactly. So one message of our findings is that there is a great level of mistrust by citizens in the official system of the judiciary. An even more devastating message is that if they use [the system], then what happens? And according to our [corruption] barometer, in the newly independent states, 15 percent of that very low number of people who actually did use the judiciary system said they paid a bribe. This figure is 1 percent in the EU, for instance, [and] 2 percent in North America.

So the stark contrast is very clear, that while there is a great level of mistrust in the newly independent states vis-a-vis the legal system, it is actually justified because 15 percent of the people who actually had an encounter with the judicial system did pay a bribe.

RFE/RL: TI defines corruption as "the abuse of entrusted power for private gain." Obviously, bribes fit in there. But what other forms of judicial corruption would an average person encounter in a country such as, say, Ukraine or Belarus?

Marschall: There are two main types [of judicial corruption]: bribery, and what we call undue influence. Undue influence can come from politicians and businesses. Bribery is more linked to what we still call small-scale corruption, petty corruption. And undue influence is exercised by the political and business elites.

When we talk about bribery, we can talk about several things, like: You pay a bribe to reengineer or reduce a sentence. You pay a bribe to a judge and it can influence the actual sentence. Or you can pay a bribe to speed up or slow down a case. Or you can pay a bribe to a prosecutor to reengineer or reduce the charges. You can also pay a bribe to a police officer to admit or omit evidence.

And there are corruptions we discovered within the court system -- when judges themselves embezzle court funds, or you can see nepotism and cronyism, and judges put relatives on the payroll of the court system.

Undue influence, I think, in terms of evil, is even more important because that is against the very independence of the judicial sector: when politicians -- the executive power -- influence the court procedures. And that is still quite typical in these postcommunist countries. And the business elite also has the means to influence judicial procedures. And I think these two [forms of undue influence] are even more damaging [than bribery].

What we also point to is that it's not enough [for the judicial system] to be independent; sometimes that independence can be abused. It is very important that the judicial system itself is accountable. So as a citizen, or as someone from the media, you should have access these sentences, the rational. Somehow, in many postcommunist transition countries, they kind of abuse the independence of the judicial sector. Some judges will tell you that they are above the conflict, so no one should question any sentence because that hurts the independence of the judicial system. I think that is absolutely wrong.

RFE/RL: I'd like to ask some questions about specific countries cited in the report. There is a chapter dedicated to Georgia and its "accelerated anticorruption reforms." Can you tell us more about that?

Marschall: Georgia is more or less a success story. I have to rush to add that of course, everything is relative and I don't want to be too forgiving for the problems and mistakes. But I think in international comparison, Georgia has excelled itself as a country pushing for reforms, and some radical anticorruption reforms were indeed introduced. So, by and large, the Georgian example is positive.

But also, it should not suggest that Georgia has done everything right. I think we are facing a kind of overweight of the executive power, as opposed to the parliamentary controls. To some extent, one can understand it, because after a crisis you have to have a firm leadership, and that was the case in Georgia. But again, our report suggests that checks and balances are key -- even for anticorruption reforms as well. So that delicate balance between leadership and checks and balances makes the Georgian case an especially interesting case.

RFE/RL: Now, about Russia. The report mentions of some of the promises President Vladimir Putin made about reforming the judicial system when he first came into office in 2000. How have some of those efforts turned out?

Marschall: I think Russia is a sad lesson of the obvious fact that centralizing power does not help in fighting corruption. It is not so obvious. Some authoritarian leaders would claim that strengthening the central power helps to fight corruption, but apparently that was not the case in Russia. Whether we like it or not, in the last couple of years, every indicator tells us that the corruption situation has worsened in Russia. There is more corruption now than five years ago. And it has much to do with this new renationalization and recentralization of power in Russia.

Bureaucracies have regained power again, and paying a bribe to move around in that system became more and more common. Which is a very sad development in Russia, and that was not our expectation let's say, five or six years ago. So behind the anticorruption rhetoric, and maybe some genuine intention to address corruption, the facts are telling us that the strategy Mr. [President Vladimir] Putin is using against corruption is absolutely counterproductive."

RFE/RL: Could you possibly summarize or generalize the situation in Central Asian countries?

Marschall: Well, that is a tough job, but I think that in Central Asian countries you still see [that] the courts [and] judicial system [are] still very weak. So it is not independent at all; appointments are usually made by the executive power. So you get something which I call the "dual disadvantage": you have [a] politically influenced and often incompetent judicial sector. So the judiciary is neither independent, nor competent and accountable, so that is really a very dissatisfactory situation.

And that's why you get this figure I quoted at the beginning of conversation -- that only 8 percent of our respondents were using the official judicial system for settling his or her disputes. And that is a reflection of that dire situation, that there is no trust in the judicial sector in the Central Asian countries.

RFE/RL: That brings up a point the report made about Romania. It cited an EU report of 2006 that said new EU member Romania made "good progress" on judicial reform. Your report, however, says the judicial system in Romania is still weighed down by people and offices of "poor integrity." How does one fix that?

Marschall: It is one thing to introduce the new laws and regulations -- and that has been done in Romania quite successfully, and so, much has been accomplished. But of course, it takes generations to change the culture and to make the judicial system up to certain judicial standards. It will take much more time, much training, much more experience, to make sure that the judicial sector in Romania will reach European standards.

RFE/RL: My last question is basically this: what can the average person in Russia or Kyrgyzstan, say, do when they encounter corruption the judicial sector? After all, that kind of situation can look hopeless for the person facing it.

Marschall: One of the promising tools we have over the years developed is what we call advocacy and legal advice centers. And precisely in Romania, in Bulgaria, and in Azerbaijan -- just to name a few countries in the regions -- we have set up these advocacy and legal advice centers. Because as you just said, we believe that we should provide help to poor people who are disillusioned and sometimes apathetic about corruption. And these legal advice centers are run by our local chapters, mostly using law students as volunteers and experts.

And what these centers do, they have a hot-line and daily hours. And ordinary people can submit their grievances. These centers give advice to these victims of corruption [and tell them] whether their case can be translated into a strong case and can be forwarded to the official judicial system. So these centers provide this very simple, tangible help to ordinary people. And I can tell you -- in Romania, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Azerbaijan -- we have hundreds of cases in which, thanks to [these centers], some of the grievances of ordinary people were remedied.

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