Uzbekistan has long been criticized for its sustained human rights abuses, especially its practices during arrest and detention. But over the last eight years gradual changes have been made in Uzbekistan’s legal system.  As a result the rate of incarceration has more than halved in comparison to the year 2000. Uzbekistan has also eliminated the death penalty.

Those are some of the findings in a new report prepared by the Institute for New Democracies. Judge John R. Tunheim, who participated in the project and currently serves as U.S. District Judge covering the District of Minnesota, met with a small group of experts at the Carnegie Endowment to discuss the report in detail. Martha Brill Olcott moderated the discussion.

Small Steps Toward Change

Uzbekistan's judicial system has long been plagued with corruption. In the past it was not uncommon for prosecutors to choose the defense lawyers they would face in court. Today an automatic rotation system prevents this kind of meddling. 

One of the most important judicial reforms is the overhaul of the pre-trial detention process. New habeas corpus regulations require that a judge review nearly all arrests within 72 hours. A judge is also required to approve arrest warrants. The arrestee is entitled to receive something akin to a Miranda warning, is allowed to make a phone call, and in criminal proceedings granted the right to a lawyer. Specific provisions in the legal code now ban both the practice of torture and attaining evidence through torture.

Uzbekistan is also trying to reduce corruption by gradually digitizing police records in an effort to prevent tampering and establishing a hotline for citizens to lodge complaints against the Ministry of Interior. 

Improvements Needed

While many of the reforms are laudable, better enforcement is necessary, Tunheim said. Additional necessary reforms include:

  • Reduce the power prosecutors wield. Today in Uzbekistan, prosecutors have the right to make decisions on issues traditionally reserved to judges, such as granting house arrest. Prosecutors oversee nearly all aspects of investigations and have the right to order wire taps and to order search warrants.
  • Make habeas corpus hearings public. Uzbek government officials have assured Tunheim that these hearings will eventually be opened to the public.
  • Reduce the ability of judges to prolong criminal proceedings by returning cases for further investigation.
  • Hold public corruption trials and create a special unit to address still-rampant corruption. Judge  encounter numerous incentives and opportunities to take bribes.

The international community can help support Uzbekistan's reform efforts financially and politically. The government is currently seeking to support a new, more exclusive bar association, the Chamber of Lawyers. The international community can also supply the technological resources needed to accelerate the digitization of police records.