Even in the basement of the courthouse, safe behind a closed door, I’m sure the defendant could still hear the women screaming at him. I certainly could hear the women, standing just metres away, and I definitely felt their violent rage as one hit me in the arm, shouting at me - “What are you drawing in your notebook, girl, what are you drawing?” - as I walked out of the courthouse.
Minutes later, I heard the same woman call me a bitch and threaten more violence if I kept taking notes. She screamed at me, “What are you looking at, we’re not a circus”, and repeatedly told me to leave the courthouse and go home.
I was taking notes as part of my job monitoring the trial of an ethnic Uzbek man in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan. The man, Mahamad Bizurukov, is charged with murdering one of the women’s sons during the ethnic violence that rocked this central Asian city in June 2010. What happened next was exceptional only because it was happening three years after the clashes, on this awful anniversary. Alas, it is typical of the violence by victims’ families in courtrooms and other rights violations that have plagued the administration of justice around this violent episode.
About a dozen security officers stood by watching. But they did nothing to move the women away from the steps leading to the basement where Bizurukov was being held. Later, one of the guards told me, “But you have to understand, they lost a son.”
What he silently admitted in excusing their behaviour is that no one is going to hold these women accountable for violent acts in Kyrgyzstan’s courtrooms. None of the guards will stop them from throwing bags, rocks, shoes and bottles at the defendant, or threatening, screaming or attacking lawyers, judges and court officers, all of it routine behaviour in these trials. No one has stopped Bizurukov’s two-year trial from being a sham, with judges appearing to have almost no control in the courtroom.
The violence at Bizurukov’s previous hearing in mid-May was so bad that his lawyer asked the court to guarantee his security. The court provided him no such guarantees, so he didn’t attend the hearing on 5 June, out of very real concern for his safety. Who could blame him? There were more police and security officers this time (about twenty), but they just stood by for the most part. That only seemed to encourage the women.
During a break in the hearing, when the judges had left the room, a couple of the women went right up to the defendant’s cage, screaming insults, spitting at and throwing their shoes at Bizurukov. The guards did almost nothing to discourage them. Instead, at one point, the guards asked Bizurukov to hand them the shoes that had landed beyond their reach in his cage. He did, and later the women again threw their shoes at him.
The hearing didn’t seem to take place in a court of law. Instead, it turned out to be exactly what one of the women had so indignantly suggested to me it was not - a circus, and a dangerous one at that.
Bizurukov, and the dozen or so other ethnic Uzbeks who are still on trial or are in pre-trial detention for crimes related to the inter-ethnic violence on June 2010, deserve fair trials, not ones mired in violence, disruptions, attacks and rage. Each time the authorities fail to control the hostile and abusive environment in which these trials - and the defence - are conducted, the right to a fair trial is violated and Kyrgyzstan has failed in its international obligations.
Kyrgyzstan’s authorities should both unequivocally condemn and end such courtroom violence. They need to hold accountable people who carry out violent attacks, ensure that there are fair trials, and reopen cases in which defendants’ rights were violated. Maybe then the courthouse where Mahamad Bizurukov is on trial will look less like a ghastly circus and more like a court of law.