A recent survey showing that very few law students in Turkmenistan planned to work as lawyers has only underlined the difficult situation facing the profession.
Only two per cent of the law faculty students polled expressed a desire to work as lawyers, and in a sign of the lack of prestige enjoyed by the profession, 40 per cent were interested in the national security agency, 30 per cent in the court system, 20 per cent in the prosecution service and eight per cent in the interior ministry.
Local observers say one of the main reasons why this negative attitude is so prevalent is that it stems from President Saparmurat Niazov, known as Turkmenbashi. The president believes lawyers are a hindrance to society and government.
Analysts suggest Turkmenbashi’s hostility to lawyers is based on an awareness that they are well informed about what is going on in the prison system. On prison visits to see clients, they see what happens to inmates, and why they are in jail. The prison population includes thousands of people who have fallen victim to the regular purges of government officials and have been convicted with corruption or abuse of power.
Turkmenbashi’s discontent with the legal profession has led to a situation where bureaucrats at all levels treat it as if it were superfluous. This clearly has a negative impact on all aspects of lawyer’s work.
Although by law, the bar is an independent self-governing body, it is in reality completely under the justice ministry’s thumb. The ministry has a special department in charge of the entire legal system, from choosing the head of the bar and appointing heads of legal offices, to monitoring the way criminal and civil cases are pursued.
Government bodies create numerous obstacles to hinder lawyers from getting access to prisons, so that it is hard for them to get in to see clients.
The rights of both lawyers and defendants are grossly violated. For example, a lawyer cannot meet a client without a witness being present: a prison staff member attends such meetings. This is in clear breach of the criminal procedural code, but prison governors say they are acting on instructions from the interior ministry.
Other forms of interference include cases where investigative agencies and the courts get troublesome lawyers removed. Prosecution service and interior ministry investigators, judges and most of all investigators with the national security agency demand that lawyers cooperate with them rather than defend their clients properly.
There are various ways to remove an intractable lawyer, the most common being to persuade the client to renounce his services. The defendant is told that the lawyer is no good and will not be effective, so only the investigators can help him. If this persuasive approach does not work, direct threats –for example of a longer sentence – come into play.
Working as a lawyer in Turkmenistan is more than difficult; it can be risky. The danger comes from government and security agencies, especially if the lawyer reveals that the client has been the victim of illegal treatment.
For example, a lawyer in Balkanabat had a packet of heroin planted on him, he was charged with attempting to smuggle drugs to a prison inmate, and was sent to trial. His mistake was to voice concern about illegal practices committed by the prison administration, and talk openly about it in court. Now he is serving a sentence for a crime he did not commit.