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Kyrgyz Lynch Law Controversy

Parliamentary deputies call for curbs on traditional system of Kyrgyz justice
By Cholpon Orozobekova

Villagers in the southern Kyrgyzstan village of Ozgorush are on trial for murder following the stoning to death of one of their neighbours.


Azamat K, accused of extortion, assault and hooliganism, was sentenced to death by a local elders' court in 1999 after villagers despaired of receiving help from the police and the official judiciary.


The case has highlighted the controversial practices of "sud aksakalov" or elders' courts across Kyrgyzstan - one of a number of Kyrgyz traditions which have undergone a revival following independence and the development of a national self-consciousness.


The system has been legitimised in the republic's constitution. Article 85 stipulates the courts have authority to "review property and family disputes handed into their jurisdiction with the consent of both parties."


Any decisions must not, however, conflict with the law of the land. Appeals can also be lodged in the appropriate regional or municipal courts.


In 1998, two parliamentary deputies, Alisher Sabirov and Marat Bakiev, submitted a draft law on the courts in an effort to clarify their legal limitations and make-up.


The proposed legislation stresses the need for elders to be elected and clearly limits their courts' jurisdiction. The draft, however, is still under discussion and, in the meantime, elders'have issued a number of rulings in contravention of the law and the constitution.


In one case, a villager in Pervomaiskoe, in the Kantsky, allegedly murdered a young couple convicted of incest by an elders' court. The victims, a brother and sister, were poisoned and their baby abandoned at a bus stop.


Village elder Abdulkhar Yerkinbaev wants the killing legitimised. "The killer shouldn't be imprisoned," he said. "He did the right thing when he killed them. Marrying your sister is shameful. Even if he hadn't killed them, the villagers would have had to stone them to death."


Sabirov wants the courts reined in. He has called on elders to stick to their mandates and to steer clear of trying cases already heard by the republic's official judiciary.


These traditional courts played an important role in the nomadic life of the Kyrgyz peoples. Community elders were trusted to resolve a range of problems, from family disputes to serious crimes. The system persisted until Soviet times, when strict limits were placed on the institutions.


But nostalgia for this historic justice remains strong, especially among the older generation. Seventy-year old retired doctor Murtaza Asanov from Djarkynbaevo said the elders, "were the wise old men" who would resolve marital and property disputes fairly.


"With their help the community lived calmly and in friendship," she said. "Nowadays we have judicial bodies we don't trust."


This lack of trust in official law enforcement agencies is a major factor behind support for "people's justice".


"The prisons are full of the poor people who have stolen a chicken, while real thieves and killers are walking free," said Asanov. "The law enforcement agencies are corrupt. It's better to place your trust, for minor crimes, in elders' courts."


Parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov is eager to see the law on the unofficial judiciary introduced as soon as possible to bring order to the system and to prevent elders from overstepping the mark.


"We need these courts, " he said. " We mustn't forget the mentality of people who have always respected their elders and their decisions. This is especially true when state law enforcement agencies have lost the confidence and respect of the people.


"We have to develop this popular institution. The elders have to be elected by the inhabitants of their village or town, and not appointed by the regional governor."


Bakiev wants a professional lawyer to sit in on hearings with the elders.


"It's a very effective and free system," said Bakiev. "But I think, all the same, given our elders don't have enough legal education, it's essential that a professional lawyer be amongst them."


But not everyone welcomes this return to traditional institutions. Many believe they are simply an anachronism.


Djumakan Abdieva, a 57-year-old mother of six from Uch Kainar in Ak-Su region, said, "We are a civilised and sovereign republic Our people used the services of elders when they were illiterate. Now there's no need for them. At present there isn't even a law to regulate their activities."


Cholpon Orozobekova is a regular IWPR contributor