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Kyrgyzstan: The Challenge of Judicial Reform
Kyrgyzstan: The Challenge of Judicial Reform
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan
Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan
Table of Contents
  1. View as Slideshow
Report 150 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan: The Challenge of Judicial Reform

Kyrgyzstan’s judiciary is failing to act as a neutral arbiter of political disputes or as a fair channel for economic arbitration.

Executive Summary

Kyrgyzstan’s judiciary is failing to act as a neutral arbiter of political disputes or as a fair channel for economic arbitration. It requires significant reform to gain the trust of the public and to assert its role as an independent branch of government. A failure to achieve reform would make it impossible to develop a pluralistic and stable political system over the long term and also undermine attempts to tackle widespread corruption and encourage development. Unless the government allows greater self-governance for lawyers and independence for judges, no amount of education or piecemeal reforms will create an effective system.

A politicised judiciary was at the heart of the instability that rocked Kyrgyzstan in 2005. The courts had been used extensively by former President Askar Akayev to suppress opposition and remove political challengers. Judges proved unable to resolve the political disputes and electoral malpractice that characterised the 2005 parliamentary elections. Popular protests against court decisions contributed to the subsequent rebellion that overthrew Akayev and threatened to destabilise the country. Despite rhetorical commitments to judicial independence, the new regime of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has continued to use the courts for its own political ends. During parliamentary elections in 2007, the courts were again used to deregister unwanted opposition parties.

This politicisation stems in part from a Soviet legacy that has proved difficult to overcome. In the Soviet system, the judiciary was completely subordinate to the political regime and was also largely subservient to the prosecutor’s office and the law enforcement agencies. Since independence, the judiciary has undergone constitutional and institutional reform, but much of the old ethos remains, particularly among the older generation of officials. Roughly 98 per cent of criminal cases result in convictions, for example, not least because of the respect judges instinctively give to any case brought by the prosecutor. Developing a judicial culture that values its independence highly remains a challenge.

The independence of the judiciary is also undermined by constitutional and institutional problems, which give the presidential administration considerable control over the selection of judges and their promotion, for example, and by funding methods, which provide too much control to the department of courts, which is part of the justice ministry. Informal methods of control remain the most significant problem, with so-called “telephone justice” – where political figures call judges to pressure them to deliver particular verdicts – still widespread in political cases.

For ordinary people the greatest problem is the high level of corruption in the justice sector. Bribery has undermined public confidence and has also worked against attempts to improve the professionalism of lawyers. Many lawyers complain that their main role is not to represent clients vigorously but to facilitate this endemic corruption. Part of the problem is the very low level of state funding and poor salaries, which in effect force judges to take bribes. The government has very limited revenue, but the judiciary should at least have the same priority as the law enforcement agencies. More efficient budgetary processes and spending could also maximise the impact of available funds.

A lack of faith in the independence of judges, widespread corruption and the extremely slow speed of many legal processes have all fuelled public disaffection with the court system. Some people have turned elsewhere to resolve disputes, particularly in civil matters. Informal local leaders, many with criminal connections, are called upon to arbitrate in some disputes. Others seek satisfaction through informal use of religious codes, such as Sharia law, which is not recognised in the legal system.

Despite some positive moves from the government, including improvements in sentencing policy and the abolition of the death penalty, there has been too little reform. Restoring public faith is a key element in state-building and an important step in undermining support both for non-state criminal groups and religious extremist parties. Most of the initiative for reform will have to come from inside the justice sector. There is no incentive for the political establishment to increase the independence of the courts, but concerted efforts by lawyers, judges and more enlightened political leaders can improve the situation slowly.

The international community can play a small but important role in this, but so far few international projects have made a real impact. A new U.S.-funded program has high aspirations but is unlikely to accomplish much unless it receives serious political support. The most important role for international counterparts is to assist in training and opening up Kyrgyz judges and other legal professionals to broader international practice and experience in achieving the rule of law.

Bishkek/Brussels, 10 April 2008

Bazaar in Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan

Crisis Group’s Publications Officer Julie David de Lossy, formerly a freelance photographer of Central Asia, travels to Kyrgyzstan to take a look through her camera lens at the context of our conflict-prevention work.

Returning to Kyrgyzstan after five years away, I found a country that still mixes open-eyed charm, bureaucratic frustrations and decaying Soviet-era infrastructures – all part of a slow, uncertain transition that its population wishes could go faster even if the ultimate destination remains obscure.

Taking pictures that tell a real story in post-Soviet states is always a challenge. Especially in Central Asia. I have to overcome the country’s big empty spaces, the absence of public information and a decades-old culture of suspicion. Then a door opens, I turn a corner, or a new friend helps. Suddenly I get my chance.

View of Osh from the Suleyman-Too, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

I want to give a feeling for the context of Islamic radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan. But photography means winning people’s trust, and that’s hard. The people of Kyrgyzstan are used to keeping silent to please their parents, keep their jobs, or avoid harassment. Public spaces are one place I can begin to make contact with ordinary folk.

Osh park, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Tamerlane, a great Central Asian conqueror of the fourteenth century, was the first of his clan to convert to Islam. His people followed him. Violently repressed in 20th century Soviet times, Islam has now returned to public life in the region. Regular folk long for outsiders to see their religion as they do: a mainstay of a moral life.

Man holds a Quran in a mosque in an Uzbek mahalla (neighbourhood) of Osh, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Visiting a mosque, as a Western female, is not particularly complicated. However, pulling a camera out usually means that people just quietly move away. Most Central Asians share a deep instinct to avoid getting into any kind of trouble. Just in case.

Mosque in an Uzbek mahalla, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Youth in Kyrgyzstan has little faith in the future due to rampant corruption, decaying infrastructure, and the country’s lack of bankable natural resources.

Osh park, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

I attend a madrasa lesson to mingle in a class attended by serene young women in matching purple headscarves. But they did not let me take a camera in. Each day as I set out to portray a new facet of Islam in Central Asia – for instance, the small minority that might be tempted by transnational jihadism – I know I will face many obstacles along my way.

Pass to the north between the Hindu Kush and the Tian Shan mountain ranges, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Unlike other parts of the former Soviet Union, statues of Lenin still stand in Kyrgyzstan. It’s not that anybody particularly wants communism back, or that they took it seriously in the first place. But most Kyrgyz cities didn’t exist as such before the Soviets came. And some in the secular Kyrgyz elite hanker for a bulwark against any back-sliding to fundamentalist religious doctrines.

Lenin statue in Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Drinking over-sweet Nescafé in a lost chaikhana (teahouse), I worry that the whole idea of photographing religious change is a terrible mistake. Then somebody comes to practice his English. Perhaps this is someone with a fresh lead, someone who will take me where I want to go.

Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Weddings in Kyrgyzstan are major social events. No problem with photos here: this is how most Central Asian photographers earn their living. Loving bridal images are taken in front of war memorials, municipal monuments, romantic park benches, or all of the above. Even water reservoirs. For small, mountainous Kyrgyzstan, abundant water is one of its only levers against big, powerful neighbours.

Tortgul reservoir, near Tajik border, Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, new national symbols were needed in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan chose Manas, hero of the national epic poem, which tells the story of the Kyrgyz Turkic peoples’ struggles to establish their country against Mongols and other neighbours. Islamist puritans, of course, would have things otherwise.

Manas monument, Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Long-distance travel in Kyrgyzstan means driving for hours on roads filled with potholes, dust, rivers of water and apparently indestructible Lada cars. The country may be small compared to its neighbours, but journeys between cities are physical challenges that can seem to stretch toward infinity.

Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Thanks to the many rivers running through the country, especially in the Ferghana valley, agriculture is a significant part of the economy and fills Kyrgyz markets with fresh produce. As any traveller in Central Asia quickly finds, street markets are also fertile hunting grounds for photographers.

Bazaar in Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy
Mutakallim School in Bishkek, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

View as Slideshow

SLIDESHOW | Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy