The ICJ is concerned that in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan the COVID-19 pandemic, and measures taken purportedly to contain it, have significantly curtailed access to justice. Restrictions have affected the operation of the courts and impeded lawyers’ ability to provide effective legal assistance to their clients.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic — whether under a state of emergency or not — States’ obligations under international human rights law to uphold the fundamental guarantees of a fair trial, and to ensure access to effective remedies for violations of human rights endure.
The right to a fair trial entails the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, which, in turn, requires the opportunity to communicate with one’s lawyer effectively and in confidence.
In light of this, the ICJ calls on Central Asian States to ensure that, while COVID-19 restrictions are in place, access to a lawyer continues to be ensured, and that measures be put in place so that lawyers are able to communicate with their clients safely, effectively and confidentially, including in places of detention or during online hearings.
In addition, wherever and whenever the authorities put in place restrictions on physical meetings or travel with the stated purpose of containing the COVID-19 pandemic, the ICJ calls on Central Asian States to ensure that access to court is guaranteed through specific legal, administrative and practical measures.
ICJ research and discussions with lawyers have shown that across Central Asia, regulations adopted during COVID-19 relating to the administration of justice have suffered from vague language, inconsistencies and unclear guidance.
In practice, this had serious implications for the right to fair trial of defendants: in some cases defence lawyers were not allowed to meet their clients who were charged with serious crimes; in other instances lawyer-client meetings were very short, undermining the ability of lawyers to take proper instructions from their clients and to advise them accordingly; in other cases defence lawyers met their clients in circumstances where the confidentiality of their communication was compromised as a result of the virtual communication platforms they were forced to use.
The restriction measures relating to the administration of justice that the authorities have imposed have also had negative consequences for access to justice and effective remedies for victims of human rights violations; notably, access to legal assistance in domestic violence cases was impeded across the region.
In many court buildings social distancing requirements were not adjusted in such a way as to uphold the right to a public hearing. There has been a lack of sufficient guidance on how the right to a public hearing may be ensured online, including as to how the right to equality of arms and the right to legal representation would be protected.
Central Asia-Statement COVID-19-Advocacy 2020-ENG (full article with additional information, in PDF)Advocacy