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Judicial Reforms Yet to Have Impact in Uzbekistan

Reforms to Uzbekistan’s criminal legislation have yet to translate into meaningful change, say experts.

On March 27, the Senate or upper house of the Uzbek parliament approved changes to the country’s criminal code to allow certain cases to be resolved through conciliation rather than trial.

Conciliation between alleged offenders and the victims of crime will be made available for lesser offences such as disorderly behaviour, taking the law into one’s own hands, breaches of labour law, and interfering with other peopl’s correspondence.

The innovation is the latest in a serious of judicial reforms launched in 2008 with the abolition of the death penalty. This was followed by the equivalent of a habeus corpus law, where the right to sanction arrests was transferred from the prosecution service to the courts. In May last year, President Islam Karimov issued a decree reforming the way lawyers work.

Legal experts say that although these reforms appear to bring Uzbekistan closer to international standards, nothing has really changed in the way the law is put into practice.

Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Human Rights Activists, welcomes the idea of conciliation in principle, but doubts it will work given that the Uzbek judiciary is not independent, and the state authorities commonly interfere in legal cases.

“The problem is that it is not the law that counts, but instructions issued from on high about what verdict to pass and what sentence to hand down against defendants who are often innocent,” he said.

Ikramov cited the arrest of numerous Muslims in the Kashkadarya region of southern Uzbekistan last summer, when courts issued arrest warrants according to the new rules, but did so under pressure from government officials. During the trials, which ended in long sentences for the accused, defence lawyers were not allowed into the courtroom.

“In reality, not one of the laws passed as part of the judicial reform is being put into practice,” said Ikramov.

Rustam Tulyaganov, a lawyer in Tashkent, noted that another reform, concerning crimes of an economic nature, was not working.

The idea is that if defendants in a case of this kind pleads guilty and repays any loss, they are not given a jail term. However, Tulyaganov said, “I am now defending four people charged with economic crimes. One of them compensated the loss in full, but was given an 11-year sentence.”

Tulyaganov cited another case where a businessman who had agreed to pay a 350 US dollar fine was nevertheless held in custody for 72 hours, in contravention of the law.

The lawyer concluded that amicable conciliation would not translate into effective practice, either.

“These latest statements about liberalising the criminal laws will remain empty words written down on paper,” he said.

Oydin Abdullaeva, a practicing lawyer in Tashkent, says it is too early to reasonably expect results from this unprecedented set of legal reforms.

“The new laws will need some time to take effect,” she said.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)