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Helsinki Commission Releases U.S. Rule of Law Statement at OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

WARSAW, POLAND– The following statement on the Rule of Law was delivered by the United States at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation currently being held in Warsaw, Poland:

Rule of Law

Statement by Stephen Epstein

U.S. Delegation to the

OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

Mr. Moderator, an independent judicial system is an indispensable building block of a democratic society.

Independence of the judiciary is enshrined in the constitutions of all OSCE participating States and proclaimed as a priority goal of many. Unfortunately, in many participating States, progress in creating a genuinely independent judiciary, has been slow and incomplete. The consequences for democratization of a stunted judiciary are stark and clear: executive control of the courts undermines the public’s faith in the possibility of obtaining justice through established legal channels.

In many instances, executive authorities abuse the judicial system to eliminate political opponents. This retards the development of political pluralism. One of the most instructive of such cases is that of Felix Kulov, a leading opposition figure in Kyrgyzstan. ODIHR’s assessment of Kyrgyzstan’s 1999 parliamentary election concluded that officials had deliberately falsified the electoral process to keep Kulov out of parliament. As recently as August of this year, the Supreme Court ordered Kulov’s property confiscated, and new charges have been brought against him. We urge Kyrgyz authorities to work with ODIHR to develop and implement measures to ensure independent functioning of their judicial system. In this context, we welcome the thoughtful intervention of the Association of Lawyers of Kyrgyzstan, and the efforts by the Russian Federation to reform criminal procedure and to increase the independence of their judiciary.

A court system controlled by the executive often targets the media. In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan, central, regional, and local authorities have used lawsuits to intimidate the press or to punish journalists for disseminating information about alleged corruption or other official malfeasance. Courts have ruled against newspapers in most cases, and have forced numerous publications to cease activity. In some instances, newspapers have been charged merely for reprinting articles from other sources. For example, in Kazakhstan two editors, Bigeldy Gabdulin and Ermurat Bapi were charged with insulting the honor and dignity of President Nazarbaev after reprinting information from foreign sources. Neither newspaper is currently publishing. We urge Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan to review their laws to ensure that freedom of the media is protected.

Because an independent judiciary would restrain executive power, some governments have sought to retard its emergence. One means of doing so is through interfering with the development of independent bar associations and exerting arbitrary control over those who practice law. Under this kind of pressure, it is not unusual for lawyers to avoid politically sensitive cases for fear of being disbarred.

Another important aspect of rule of law is legislative transparency. It raises the issue of abuse of alleged “state secrets.” Of course, every state has the right to protect information vital to its national security. But “state secrets” must be clearly defined, so that citizens know precisely their legal responsibility when dealing with such information. In a society where transparency and rapid communication of information are vital to scientific and technological development, overzealous or arbitrary designations of “state secrets” could ultimately undermine States’ abilities to compete, develop, and advance.

Mr. Chairman, the rule of law is central to creating a democratic society. We believe ODIHR can play a constructive role particularly in connection to legislative reform and judicial program training. We urge States to cooperate with ODIHR in undertaking such projects.

Let me note, that we would like to use the right of reply to discuss death penalty issues.

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