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What a Lawyer's Forgery Scam Tells Us About Justice in Tajikistan

 
 

Last week, RFE/RL reported on quite the astounding scam: over two years a Tajik defense lawyer reportedly secured the release of at least 10 inmates and scored reduced sentences for 16 more, using forged documents and signatures. Tura Sunnatov, as Farangis Najibullah writes, “seemed like one of the more successful defense lawyers in Tajikistan” given his apparent success in securing the release of his clients. But according to a case filed against Sunnatov, the lawyer took hundreds of dollars in payment but skipped the legal legwork and forged release papers instead.

Court filings viewed by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service identify “incredible forgery” and “negligence of law-enforcement officials” as factors in the case. The incredible forgery, however, was apparently carried out with a computer, a scanner and “ordinary papers.” According to the RFE/RL report, Sunnatov was arrested in December after a clint turned him in “following an unsuccessful case.”

Further details are thin and unlikely to be fleshed out. It hasn’t been reported, for example, who the 10 prematurely released inmates are or what their crimes had been.

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If nothing else, the story helps illustrate yet again the frailty of Tajikistan’s justice system. Innate opacity and arbitrariness make a scam like Sunnatov’s possible, as does the overarching perception of high levels of corruption. Transparency International, which annually releases a ranking of corruption perceptions, listed Tajikistan at 151 out of 176 countries in its latest index.

In 2008, the American Bar Association conducted a review of the Tajik justice system. The ABA’s Judicial Reform Index (JRI) takes a systematic approach to evaluating a country’s judicial system. It relies on interviews with 35-40 “judges, legal professionals, law professors, NGO leaders, and journalists who have expertise in and insight into the functioning of the judiciary.” The resulting report notes that while the Tajik constitution establishes the judiciary as independent, “undue influence from senior judges and the executive branch are widespread.”

“While difficult to quantify,” the report continues, “corruption within the judiciary also appears to be a serious problem.”

Several of those interviewed, the report notes, “stated that the public does not trust the judiciary because ‘everything can be bought and sold.’” One interviewee said judges “routinely ask attorneys for bribes.”

With that kind of system in place, one can imagine seemingly proper paperwork ordering the release of one inmate or another would draw little attention from prison authorities.

Rather than argue a case, Sunnatov found it expeditious — and profitable — to forge release papers and it took two years for the authorities to catch on to the scam.

They were perhaps too busy jailing other lawyers for actually showing up to court and trying to defend their clients the traditional way.

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