(New York) – The Kyrgyz authorities should immediately condemn courtroom attacks on lawyers and their ethnic Uzbek defendants on trial in connection with the country’s 2010 ethnic violence, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also prevent any further attacks and prosecute those responsible.
During a September 16, 2011 court hearing, relatives of an ethnic Kyrgyz man killed in the 2010 violence shouted threats at and pulled the hair of a defense lawyer, threw rocks at the defendant, and attacked police.
“Violence in southern Kyrgyzstan’s courtrooms has been going on for too long and leaves no hope for justice for anyone, said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “By allowing crowds to use threats and physical violence to dictate who is guilty, the Kyrgyz government is undermining its legitimacy and condemning its population to further abuse.”
The hearing at the Kara Suu District Court was part of the trial of 33-year-old Mahamad Bizurukov, an ethnic Uzbek, charged with “unlawful deprivation of freedom” for his alleged connection to the death of Almaz Askarov, an ethnic Kyrgyz killed in June 2010.
Bizurukov, who is a Russian citizen, was arrested in June 2011 and alleged that police operatives tortured him to confess to the crime. However, the Osh province prosecutor refused to investigate the allegations of torture. Bizurukov’s father was arrested with him and died in the Osh pretrial detention facility on September 1, 2011, a few days before the trial was scheduled to start. The prosecutor general’s office is currently investigating the circumstances of his death.
A Human Rights Watch researcher observed female relatives of Askarov screaming insults at Bizurukov as soon as the hearing started. Judge Koichubek Zhobonov, the chairman of the Kara Suu District Court, urged them to calm down but issued no warning as to the sanctions they would face if their behavior continued. The judge attempted to explain to the victim’s relatives that defense lawyers cannot be associated with the alleged crimes of their clients and that it is their professional duty to defend the accused in court. However, the judge failed to instruct police to provide security and took no further action to stop the relatives from obstructing his work. The women became increasingly aggressive and loud as the hearing progressed.
When the defense attorney started to speak on behalf of her client, Askarov’s mother approached her and began shouting threats, shaking her index finger in the lawyer’s face. A police officer ordered her to sit. But when the lawyer began to speak again, asking the judge to consider the procedural violations that had taken place during Bizurukov’s arrest and detention, Askarov’s mother approached the lawyer, grabbed her by the hair and pulled it several times. The judge told her to sit down but did not order her to leave the courtroom or warn her of the sanctions she faced for assault or obstructing justice.
Extremely shaken, the lawyer struggled to continue speaking, then handed her written statement to the judge, grabbed her bag, and left the courtroom. The lawyer told Human Rights Watch that a week earlier, during the first hearing, the victim’s relatives engaged in similar aggressive behavior. She petitioned the judge to provide protection for her, but he did not. The lawyer said she is scared to attend the third hearing of Bizurukov’s trial, scheduled for September 28.
“A judge who can’t maintain order in his court cannot give Bizurukov a fair trial and should be disqualified from continuing to preside over the case,” said Williamson.
As soon as the judge and the prosecutor left the courtroom following the most recent hearing, the victim’s relatives jumped from their seats, took baseball-sized rocks from their bags, and started throwing them at the defendant’s cage holding Bizurukov. The women attacked the cage where Bizurukov sat, reaching for him through the bars, throwing plastic bottles and the rocks at him. The Human Rights Watch researcher saw at least two big rocks hit Bizurukov in his ribcage and on his forearm.
Some of the approximately 10 police officers in the courtroom attempted to stop the attack, but the women punched them. When the Human Rights Watch researcher asked one of the policemen why they did not try to remove the women from the courtroom, he said that the women would complain to the prosecutor about the use of force, and the police would be in trouble.
Fifteen minutes into the violence, one of the attackers said to the Human Rights Watch researcher, “Why are you still here? What are you looking at? Get out or she [the victim’s mother] will beat you up!” The woman physically pushed the researcher out of the courtroom and closed the door. Bizurukov was left alone in the courtroom with his attackers and the policemen who could not maintain order.
Immediately after being forced out of the room, the Human Rights Watch researcher told a prosecutor who had not been in the trial chamber about the attack. The prosecutor replied that it was the judge’s responsibility to ensure discipline and safety in the courtroom and that he would not interfere.
Under article 234 of the Kyrgyz Criminal Code assault is a criminal offense punishable by up to seven years of imprisonment, especially when it is directed against a law-enforcement official. Under articles 317 and 321 of the Kyrgyz Criminal Code, obstructing justice is a crime punishable by up to two years of imprisonment. Disrespecting the court is punishable by a heavy fine and up to one year of correctional labor. Articles 318-1 and 320 of the Criminal Code stipulate that obstructing a lawyer in any way from carrying out his or her work and using violence against or threatening a lawyer with violence are criminal acts bearing punishment for up to five years of prison.
Under the UN 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.
In August 2011, another mob attacked a defense lawyer representing an ethnic Uzbek client in the Osh City Court. Since then the Osh city prosecutor opened an investigation into the attack. Human Rights Watch said the attacks on Bizurukov and his lawyer should be investigated and called on the prosecutor’s office to ensure that no attacks in courtrooms go unpunished.
“Lawyers need to carry out their legitimate work without fear of reprisals,” said Williamson. “The authorities have to ensure the safety of all parties and respect fair trial standards in the trials now, before the lack of justice causes instability.”