Tashkent Lawyers Snub Legal Reforms

Uzbek lawyers fear a further loss of independence over plans to give the Ministry of Justice sole authority over their profession.

Tashkent Lawyers Snub Legal Reforms

Uzbek lawyers fear a further loss of independence over plans to give the Ministry of Justice sole authority over their profession.

Lawyers in Uzbekistan's capital are outraged by new legislation they claim will turn the legal profession into an arm of the state.

The proposed changes would give the Ministry of Justice sole authority to issue licenses to practise law and pursue disciplinary action against legal professionals. Currently the justice ministry deals with these issues in tandem with the Republican Lawyers' Association, the national professional organisation of lawyers that actually developed the latest set of proposals.

The association has defended the draft legislation by pointing to the system in place in the United Kingdom, where licenses to practice law are issued by the Lord Chancellor, who is a representative of executive power.

However, the association's Tashkent branch is up in arms at the proposals, with its head Gulnora Ishankhanova arguing that such moves will strip Uzbekistan's legal profession of any appearance of independence.

"All issues connected with the practice of law should be in the authority of the legal profession and not the justice ministry, which is an instrument of executive power," said Ishankhanova. "The legal profession is a vital part of judicial authority, which should not under any circumstances depend on the government."

She claims that comparisons with Britain are not valid due to the differing nature of their legal systems, as UK courts do not perform the function of prosecutor but act solely as a forum to determine the truth.

Uzbekistan's legal system still follows the Soviet-era model, whereby a prosecutor, who is a representative of executive power, represents the state in the court, bringing the government's case against individuals or juridical persons. "If the legal profession becomes entirely subjugated to the state, then the nation itself will both accuse and defend people," said Ishankhanova.

"In this situation, it is very doubtful that the state will go against its own interests in order to defend people. Even now, it is difficult to call the legal profession in Uzbekistan independent."

Tashkent brief Olga Zimareva agreed that the current status of the profession is unclear under law, with Article 1 of legal legislation passed in 1996 stating that that lawyers are a voluntary group of people, independent of trade unions.

Whatever the legal position in theory, Zimareva said that attempts to provide clients with a proper defence mean an uphill struggle in practice.

"In almost all situations, especially in cases linked with political or religious motives, judges make their sentences relying on the initial testimonies given during investigation, with no lawyer present. It is no secret that the investigative authorities of Uzbekistan get these statements mainly by using torture."

Even basic requirements such as arranging meetings with clients is usually at the whim of the authorities, she added. "Lawyers end up having no rights at all, and they cannot defend the rights of other people."

In a country with a widely condemned human rights record, international observers believe it is essential for lawyers to be allowed to do their jobs to recognised standards.

Uzbek president Islam Karimov has previously pledged that the country's legal profession should be truly independent, in line with chapter 22 of the basic law that states the legal profession is not a state body, but one which belongs to society.

A further controversial aspect of the bill proposes that those who have worked for lawyers for five years in law-enforcement bodies - including individuals who have been dismissed in compromising circumstances - can receive a license without sitting the qualifying exams that are necessary for all other students.

Abdusalom Yuldashev, deputy head of a committee that organises congresses for the lawyers' association, defended the provisions saying critics have "stereotyped" those it would affect.

"We should not have a preconceived attitude about people who have committed offences, including employees of law-enforcement bodies and state institutions. According to international human rights conventions, those who have undergone punishment have the same rights as others."

Tashkent lawyers in turn say they agree everyone should have equal rights, but they say that means former employees of law-enforcement bodies should have to sit qualifying exams just like other would-be lawyers.

One international observer, who did not want to be named, is puzzled by the association's role in drafting legislation that has been so fiercely rejected by many of its members.

"I don't understand the position of the lawyer's association of Uzbekistan, which wants to maintain the justice ministry's control of the legal profession, when the majority of lawyers in the country want to work independently of executive power," he told IWPR.

The final legislation will be placed before the country's supreme legislative body by the end of this year. It will then become clear what sort of legal profession Uzbekistan will have: a truly independent one, or one that is even more dependent on the state than it is now.

Bobomurod Abdullaev is a correspondent for IWPR in Uzbekistan

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