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Kyrgyzstan: Leading Judge Under Threat

Cross-party plan to restructure the legal system could be designed to clip the wings of a high-flying judge.
By Kubat Otorbaev

A proposed move to abolish the three-tier Kyrgyz justice system and replace it with a single court is being seen as an attempt to oust a high-ranking judge.


A cross party committee, formed on August 26 to consider serious political reforms, recommended last week that the republic's three courts - constitutional, supreme and higher arbitration - be merged into a single one.


But Bishkek insiders claim that official hostility towards constitutional court head Cholpon Baekova, who is being touted as a possible presidential candidate, is the real reason for the move.


The committee - which consists of the president, government, opposition and independent figures - was effectively rubber-stamping a proposal that Akaev had himself suggested.


Baekova's growing influence is being viewed with suspicion across the political spectrum, and analysts believe the judicial reforms are designed to cut her down to size before she considers running for higher office or endorsing another presidential candidate.


She also made enemies within the opposition two years ago when she ruled that the president could run for office for a third time, in direct contravention of the constitution her court is supposed to protect.


As well as ruling on legislative matters, such as referenda and elections, Baekova also hears appeals from the supreme court - which deals with civil and criminal cases - and economic and industrial disputes dealt with by the higher arbitration court.


Baekova helped to set up Kyrgyzstan's legal system following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having spent her career as a provincial judge, she blossomed into a national political figure after the republic gained its independence in 1991.


She hit the headlines in recent weeks when several newspaper reports suggested that Akaev - who is due to step down as head of state in 2005 - could be succeeded by a woman.


As she is one of very few women at the highest levels of Kyrgyz public life, and is known for being very intelligent and ambitious, analysts soon named Baekova as the candidate the press was hinting at.


Human rights activist Yrysbek Omurzakov believes the move against the constitutional court is an attempt to get Baekova out of the way as she is seen as difficult to manipulate.


"Her influence could create major problems for potential presidential candidates," he told IWPR. "That is why, for the first time in its nine years of operation, the constitutional court is suddenly facing such harsh criticism."


The merger plan appears to have split the membership of the three courts. Some have written to Akaev to complain about the move and others have openly supported it.


"I am in favour of a strong, single judiciary," said Nelya Beishenalieva, head of the supreme court and a member of the reform committee. Judge Marat Kaiypov, who serves on the constitutional court, called for its dissolution. "I am not convinced that our state really needs [it]," he said, adding that it has only tried a handful of relevant cases since its inception.


He also claimed it was disproportionately expensive, pointing out that its 30 employees costs the equivalent of 154,000 US dollars to maintain. The supreme court, with more than 70 staff, meanwhile runs on a budget of around 242,000 dollars, while the higher arbitration court, which has a similar number of employees, receives 219,000 dollars.


Defending her court's record, Baekova told IWPR that the small number of cases examined during its nine years of operation reflects the limitations placed on its authority. "The constitution does not permit us to initiate cases which concern the protection of citizens' rights," she said.


"If the remit of the court was expanded and made more accessible to the population, the number of cases examined would increase. Without it, who will protect our constitutional rights?"


But critics of the court, such as prominent human rights activist and opposition figure Tursunbek Akunov, say it was badly discredited when it authorised Akaev's third term in office - even though the constitution forbids the election of any president for more than two terms in a row.


Kubat Otorbaev is an independent journalist in Bishkek


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