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(Bishkek) – Violence in the courtroom during an April 2, 2013 Supreme Court hearing undermined the fairness and integrity of the process. The court overturned the acquittal of an ethnic Uzbek charged with crimes relating to June 2010 ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan and sent his case for retrial. During the hearing, observers in the courtroom repeatedly shouted and assaulted the defendant’s lawyers and his mother.

“For nearly three years, investigations and trials related to the June 2010 violence have been plagued with courtroom violence and threats to ethnic Uzbek defendants and their lawyers,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Now we witness the judges of the highest court in the land standing by as their courtroom is turned into chaos. The government needs to put a stop to the attacks on ethnic Uzbeks that have turned trials into a mockery of justice.”

The April 2 case was an appeal of the acquittal of 32-year-old Shamshidin Niyazaliev, an ethnic Uzbek. Niyazaliev had been sentenced to life in prison on multiple chargesin October 2012. But in January, the Jalalabad Regional Court acquitted Niyazaliev on all the charges except “participating in mass unrest.” He was fined 150,000 som (US$3,200) and released. The prosecution appealed the acquittal.

Prosecutors allege that Niyazaliev, a Russian citizen, was among residents of the Suzak district of southern Kyrgyzstan who allegedly blocked the Bishkek-Osh highway near the Sanpa cotton factory on June 12 and 13, 2010, poured fuel oil on the road to slow vehicles, and attacked drivers and passengers. The investigation said that 16 people were killed and two others are missing as a result. In 2011, 18 people were sentenced to life in prison on charges related to the incident, and one defendant to 25 years.

The April 2 Supreme Court hearing was disrupted by about a dozen people, including victims and witnesses for the prosecution. They shouted at and insulted lawyers defending Niyazaliev, and attacked the lawyers and Niyazaliev’s mother, who was in the courtroom. Even before the hearing began, a Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed one woman kick Niyazaliev’s mother and shove one of his lawyers, Tatyana Tomina, as they entered the courtroom.

At the start of the hearing Niyazaliev’s lawyers petitioned the court to add supporting documents, including a statement by a victim who said he has no complaint against Niyazaliev. Two women sitting in the gallery then hit Niyazaliev’s mother and his lawyer and tried to grab the statement from the lawyer after the judges passed it back to her.

Observers, including victims and witnesses for the prosecution sitting in the gallery, became increasingly aggressive, with several of them shouting and moving toward the front of the courtroom. The judges did not intervene to prevent them from assaulting Niyazaliev’s defense team or obstructing the hearing. After about 10 minutes, a court secretary called for security. Two court officers entered the courtroom, but by that time the judges had called a recess and left the courtroom.

Ulugbek Usmonov, another of Niyazaliev’s lawyers, told Human Rights Watch that after the morning hearing, before he could leave the courthouse, several of the same observers cornered him shouting, “Why do you defend Uzbeks?” using derogatory language, and punched and kicked him before he managed to escape. He told Human Rights Watch that a court secretary and security officers were standing by but did not intervene.

When the hearing resumed in the afternoon, six security guards were stationed in the courtroom. While this seemed to prevent further physical attacks on the lawyers, people sitting in the gallery continued to disrupt the proceedings. Niyazaliev’s mother declined to attend the hearing out of concern for her safety, her son’s lawyers said.

Some of the onlookers interrupted Niyazaliev’s lawyers as they addressed the court, one shouting, “Do you even have a license [to practice law]?” When the lawyers objected to this behavior, protesting they had already suffered attacks that morning, someone in the gallery screamed out, “You’ll get even more.” The judges’ called for quiet but took no other steps to prevent or end the disruptions.

“Attacks, threats, and insults seriously undermine any defendant’s right to a fair trial and destroy the integrity of the proceedings,” Rittmann said. “Niyazaliev’s hearing cannot be considered either impartial or fair.”

Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, the Kyrgyz government has a duty to ensure that lawyers can carry out their work without intimidation, hindrance, or harassment. The government is also obliged to take immediate action to provide protection if a lawyer’s security is threatened as a result of professional activities.

The authorities should fully investigate the April 2 courtroom attacks on Tomina and Usmonov, and on Niyazaliev’s mother, and hold the people who attacked them accountable, Human Rights Watch said.

Courtroom attacks have been a persistent feature of law enforcement response to the June 2010 violence. Human Rights Watch documented in a 2011 report, “Distorted Justice,” that courtroom observers at trials frequently threatened, harassed, intimidated, and even physically attacked ethnic Uzbek defendants, their relatives, lawyers, and other observers before, during, and after court sessions. This hostile atmosphere has been particularly evident in high-profile trials, such as murder cases.

In August and September 2011, Human Rights Watch reported on other serious incidents involving Tomina, who suffered repeated physical attacks and insults.

“Courtroom violence– whether in Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court or in a provincial district courtroom– needs to stop now,” Rittmann said. “The government needs to send an unambiguous message to people trying to disrupt these trials that they will be held to account.”  

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