Important steps have been taken in Uzbekistan to dismantle an authoritarian and centralist structure that has previously severely undermined the independence of justice, the function of lawyers and the rule of law, says visiting UN rights expert Diego García-Sayán, the UN office in Tashkent writes.
“I emphasize that this process is ongoing and that further improvements must be made. I have also perceived an openness to criticisms and I salute this approach,” said García-Sayán, the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, presenting a preliminary statement at the end of his visit.
“Substantial threats against judicial independence and the rule of law remain,” he said, referring to the heavy and constant presence of the security services throughout society and Uzbekistan’s institutions. He was also concerned about broad powers that prosecutors retain in criminal proceedings, and that limit the independence of the judge to decide the case autonomously and in accordance with his or her conscience.
“The Government must now act urgently to sustain and complete the reform process and bring to an end those practices which currently affect access to justice and threaten efforts to achieve judicial independence.”
García-Sayán said he had identified a number of positive steps, including an increase in the number of acquittals in recent years, the creation of the Supreme Judicial Council and the Supreme School for Judges, and the gradual establishment of electronic procedures aimed to increase transparency and facilitate access to justice.
“An increase in the number of acquittals in criminal proceedings demonstrates a gradual move from a system where the autonomy of judges was limited to rubber-stamping decisions by the prosecutor,” said García-Sayán.
In 2016, only six acquittals were recorded. The number rose to 263 in 2017, and to 867 in 2018. So far, in the first nine months of 2019, more than 500 individuals have been acquitted.
The system as a whole should have a clearer human rights focus, said García-Sayán. “Not only should this be central in the training of judges, but a new provision should be included in the Constitution to recognize that international norms and standards take precedence, in case of a conflict, over legislative and regulatory provisions enacted by national authorities.”
Following allegations of interference with lawyers’ access to accused persons held in detention facilities, García-Sayán suggested that a legal provision establishing severe sanctions against any public official or person responsible for impeding that access should be considered.
In an effort to increase the number of lawyers in the country, the UN expert suggested that steps could be taken to promote or establish new law schools and to review the obligatory three months of internship to become a defense lawyer.
“Uzbekistan should also take action to strengthen and improve the participation of civil society in the justice process, for instance, through participation in the Supreme Judicial Council. It would also be advisable for judges to play an active role in selecting members of their own ranks to sit on the council,” said García-Sayán.
“Corruption and associated criminal structures within the State are a major threat against its institutions, including the judiciary”.
“Uzbekistan needs to institute investigative and judicial procedures to confront impunity. It should also ensure that adequate and trustworthy teams are in place in the judiciary and in the Prosecutor’s Office. Appropriate legal regulations on plea bargaining are also necessary in order to get at the truth in cases of corruption and organized crime.”
The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report containing his findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2020.