Friday, Emil Oskonbaev, a judge in Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Chamber–a part of the country’s Supreme Court–was reprimanded for opposing the removal of another judge, Klara Sooronkulova, from a biometric data law case last month.
Last year a law was passed in Kyrgyzstan for a nationwide biometric data registration program. The program was called “voluntary” but opponents noted that in order to vote in the next parliamentary elections (scheduled for October) citizens must provide biometric data to the government–in this case a fingerprint. Biometrics–a term which also applies to retinal scans, DNA, facial recognition and other forms of measuring distinctive features of individuals in order to differentiate between them–are controversial in many places around the world because of privacy and other concerns. Kyrgyz critics are largely concerned that “people are being blackmailed into providing their fingerprints, with the threat that they will lose the basic right to vote if they do not do so.”
In November, the law was brought before the Constitutional Chamber by activists and Sooronkulova was assigned the case. Before she could announce her ruling, however, Svetlana Boljurova, a lawyer which IWPR reports was acting on behalf of the parliament’s legal affairs committee, filed allegations that Sooronkulova had revealed her views on the biometric data case–that it was unconstitutional–before making her ruling public. Boljurova also said Sooronkulova was biased against the biometric data law because she hails from the same part of the country as Toktayim Umetalieva, a human rights defender involved with the filing of the case.
The Constitutional Chamber was tied, four for and four against, removing Sooronkulova from the case. The chamber’s chairman then voted to remove her. Then, IWPR reports, Boljurova pressed the Judicial Council to dismiss Sooronkulova on account of “insubordination” in critisizing the judges who had voted for her removal from the biometrics case. The council agreed rapidly, ordering Sooronkulova to step down.
By law, disciplinary procedures against sitting judges require a two-month investigation in which evidence is gathered and witnesses questioned. In this instance, the decision took six working days from when Boldjurova filed her complaint. Sooronkulova was not interviewed, and Judicial Council chairman Jakyp Abdyrahmanov refused to examine what she said was documentary evidence demonstrating how the president’s office put pressure on the judiciary to act against her.
Sooronkulova told IWPR that a representative from the president’s office attended the council’s proceedings. “This was an open, brazen show of power,” she said.
Activists warn that the president’s ultimate goal is to cut the Constitutional Chamber away from the Supreme Court–a move they warn is aimed at solidifying power in the presidency. Draft amendments to the constitution that have been proposed would allow the president to appoint the head and deputy head of the Supreme Court and also remove the Constitutional Chamber from the Supreme Court.
In May Toktonaliev wrote for IWPR: “Currently part of the Supreme Court, the chamber can make binding decisions. As a self-standing body, it will have more of an advisory role, and the status of its recommendations is up in the air.”
Even given these (and other) worrying developments, Kyrgyzstan remains in a different class than its neighbors. Bruce Pannier, of RFE/RL, wrote this week about a reunion of opposition politicians at the Bishkek theater where two decades ago they formed the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan (DDK):
…[the reunion] might not sound like much, but consider what my colleagues at Azattyk [the Kyrgyz language service of RFE/RL] asked me: In what other Central Asia state could you hold a reunion of opposition activists from 1990?
In every other Central Asian state, opposition leaders of that era (those who are still alive) have either fled the country or are in jail. The systems of government in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are designed, to varying degrees, to quash government opponents. Yet in Kyrgyzstan such people were just honored for their contributions in helping the country start down a different, more hopeful, path.
The fact that we even know at all about the happenings in Kyrgyzstan’s judicial branch is a good thing, though none of this bodes well for the future.