In a bare-bones, underheated court house in snow-bound Issy-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, a woman tells IDLO a story. This story is her own. She tells how, just out of girlhood, she was studying law, away from her village. Once, while on a visit back home, the young woman saw a car pull up. Men jumped out and grabbed her: she was, she knew, being bride-kidnapped. She resisted, holding on to a tree for dear life. But even as she clung to the tree, the woman’s mother came out of the house and prised off her fingers: she was giving her own daughter away to the kidnappers. And so they took her.
The story has a happy ending of sorts: the woman escaped forced marriage by appealing to her abductors’ notions of honor. She told them she was pregnant; they let her go. Her lie bought her freedom — or as close to freedom as one could get in Soviet terms. She did complete her law degree.
The woman’s life, and her career, straddled two legal environments, both flawed, mutually contradictory yet co-existing in this ragged corner of the USSR. One of these environments was rural and patriarchal; the other was secular-feminist on paper, uniformly repressive in practice.
When the broad sweep of geopolitics reached Kyrgyzstan in 1991, it found it ill-prepared for independence. Modern nationhood struggled to assert itself in the face of internal rifts and wall-to-wall corruption. Kyrgyzstan’s position on the map — in effect, Afghanistan’s backyard — hardly helped. The new country became a crossroads of global ambitions and security threats, from drug trafficking to Islamic militancy. The only resilient institutions were the authoritarian ones. In this weak, brittle entity, a slide into autocracy was almost guaranteed — and duly followed.
Two revolutions and a brush with interethnic conflict later, Kyrgyzstan has, against all odds, pulled back from the brink. It is now trying hard to reinvent itself. Under a new president, Almazbek Atambayev, the country scores relatively well for political freedom. Post-Soviet Central Asia remains, as a rule, harshly governed: Kyrgyzstan is the region’s only parliamentary democracy. Here, the ballot box means something.
But here too, official heavy-handedness endures. Human rights standards have yet to be fully understood, or consistently upheld — particularly, it is alleged, where the Uzbek minority is concerned. There is poverty, and there is graft. Efforts to create a stable, law-governed state remain hampered by a sheer lack of know-how.
Enter IDLO. In Kyrgyzstan as elsewhere, the organization sees reform of the judiciary as the key to broader good governance. It had already become involved in Kyrgyzstan a decade ago, working with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to expand Soviet-trained judges’ knowledge and practice of commercial law. Now, it has just celebrated a milestone in another, US-funded Kyrgyz program: the launch of the www.sot.kg web portal, where court decisions are published as they happen.
For Kyrgyz citizens, the ability to check the outcome of a case online is serious progress — a sea change, in fact, from hanging about the hallways of courthouses like the one in Issy-Kul, haggard and helpless, fighting off frostbite, wondering whom to bribe for news.
“We did an inspection as we were starting out,” IDLO’s Margarita Milikh explains, “and found that previous aid projects to build e-courts in Kyrgyzstan just hadn’t worked out. No one was tracking things. People had lost interest. Computers donated to local courts were being used as coffee tables or surfaces to display ornamental plants. I remember one PC with its donor sticker still plastered over it, and an entire garden growing on top...”
Ms Milikh is IDLO’s project officer for Central Asia. As she explains it, the creation of e-courts both builds capacity and promotes integrity. Both are crucial goals of the five-year USAID-sponsored program.
The argument is easy to follow. With corruption still pervasive in Kyrgyz society, not only does minimizing what Ms Milikh calls the “people factor” make the act of justice more efficient: it also cuts opportunities for wrongdoing. Court cases are now randomly allocated by machine, so that it is much harder for a given case to be matched to a ‘friendly’ judge. Competitions for the selection of judges, meanwhile, have migrated online. While this has not wiped out fraud at a stroke, attempts to bribe the website’s administrators have resulted in jail terms for the would-be bribers.
A law has also been drafted, with IDLO’s input, to limit conflict of interest; it is now shuttling between Kyrgyzstan’s executive and legislative branches. Formal pledges for judges are being considered — all part of efforts to meet the third and perhaps toughest of the program’s goals: fostering judicial independence. Part of efforts, because if boosting efficiency and reducing corruption are to a large extent matters of procedure, independence is much harder to nail.
When IDLO Director-General Irene Khan visited Kyrgyzstan last year, President Atambayev assured her that he was fully behind an independent judiciary. Yet while this support is essential, cutting the toxic umbilical cord between government and the judiciary is, as IDLO sees it, not enough. A whole culture needs shifting. One mindset must be eased out, a new one coaxed in. A judicial community must take shape, willing to rule in law and conscience; a community generous in spirit, but jealous of its domain and with its own esprit de corps.
By Ms Milikh’s own admission, this is where the “people factor” wants putting back in. Intense training of Kyrgyz judges is certainly needed — but also a myriad instances of gentle nudging; a myriad informal conversations, like the one in Issy-Kul. Slowly, judges whose youth was spent between clinging to trees in fear of forced marriage and acting as mouthpieces of the state must learn that they are free. Free to own justice in a democratic country — and to share it with their compatriots.