Officials are touting new procedures for selecting judges as a significant step toward increasing transparency and promoting the concept of judicial independence in Kyrgyzstan. But, for some civil society activists, the approach is sowing more doubt than confidence in the system.
Critics of the process worry that the country’s current leaders are mimicking the practices of their predecessors by trying to pack courts with loyalists and recycling judges with tarnished reputations.
Under former presidents Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who personally appointed all judges in the country, the Kyrgyz courts developed a reputation for corruption. On numerous occasions the courts were seen as providing legal backing for political efforts to quash dissent.
Upon coming to power in April 2010, President Roza Otunbayeva promised to clean up the judicial system. Her provisional government abolished the Constitutional Court and replaced the leadership of Bakiyev’s Supreme Court.
Pressing ahead with the reform process, legislators in early July established a council to pick the country's judges. Comprising 24 members – eight appointed by parliament’s ruling coalition, eight by opposition parties in parliament, and eight by an association of Kyrgyz judges -- the Judges Selection Council is tasked with reviewing applications and nominating candidates for the 35-seat Supreme Court, the 11-seat Constitutional Chamber, which is attached to the Supreme Court, and 451 local judgeships around the country. Parliament must confirm every council nomination, leaving ample room for deadlock and deal making, critics fear.
Addressing the new council on July 11, Otunbayeva suggested that Kyrgyzstan had turned a corner concerning the judiciary’s independence. “In Kyrgyzstan, neither the president, nor legislature now possesses a mechanism to pressure the work of judges,” she said, local news agencies reported.
But many civil society activists do not share Otunbayeva’s optimism. The selection of the council members took place without sufficient public debate, they argue.
“The process was not transparent. Civil society [groups] and the public were kept out of the loop. We had the impression that people with dubious reputations and links to powerful politicians became members [of the council],” Dinara Oshurahunova, a member of the Council of Human Rights Activists, told EurasiaNet.org.
Some critics point to the council chairman, Zamirbek Bazarbekov, as being among the questionable appointees, contending that his record as a local judge contained many blemishes. For example, Aziza Abdurasulova, a prominent human rights activist, highlighted a 2004 incident, in which Bazarbekov jailed a member of the Karakol City Council who often criticized him in his capacity as a judge there. The controversy, according to Abdurasulova, prompted parliament to seek the judge’s dismissal, which then-president Akayev blocked. Activists also accuse Bazarbekov of concealing the criminal records of some applicants. Bazarbekov denies the allegations.
Bazarbekov is far from the only council member facing scrutiny about his past. Others council members are grappling with allegations that they helped the Akayev and Bakiyev regimes jail opponents. In addition, Oshurahunova, the rights activist, noted that two council members are themselves seeking judgeships, an obvious conflict of interest.
Criticism is not limited to the membership of the new council. Five of the 11 candidates in the running for the Constitutional Chamber, nominated on August 3, previously served on the Supreme Court or provincial courts. This fact is fueling a popular impression that a majority of candidates applying for judgeships around the country are being reshuffled. “Many judges are incompetent, but this is not preventing them from running as candidates,” said political analyst Amir Suleymanov.
Authorities are dismissive of complaints about the council’s work. “People who are represented in the council passed through a very tough selection [process]. I think that they are highly professional and worthy individuals. There is little reason to doubt their professionalism,” Altynbek Tazhibayev, the director of the State Department for Courts, told journalists on July 8.
Meanwhile, Ravshan Gapirov, a human rights activist in Osh, downplayed the council’s significance, suggesting that its task is simply to collect applications from candidates. MPs, he contended, will have the final say in judicial appointments. And given rivalries among parties represented in parliament, Gapirov said the confirmation process is likely to be tense and prolonged.
Gapirov alleged that some individuals have resorted in the past to buying judgeships, and expressed concern that the practice could continue. Given that some parties need to raise cash for the coming presidential election campaign, the judicial selection process provides an opportunity for graft, he added. The Council of Human Rights Activists, in a July 11 statement, also expressed concern about the possibility of potential corruption tainting the selection process.
Some members of the Judges Selection Council acknowledge the problem. “It is impossible to destroy the foundations of corruption in the court system of Kyrgyzstan,” Shamaral Maychiev, a lawyer who was nominated to the council by the ruling Social Democratic Party, said at a July 25 news conference.
Alisher Khamidov is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asian affairs.