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Criminal Law Reforms In Eurasia Get Boost From US

Criminal Law Reforms in Eurasia Get Boost from U.S. Experts

Judges, prosecutors, investigators and police did not cooperate much in Bulgaria in the years following the fall of communism. Investigations were often ineffective and rarely ended in successful prosecutions.

In 2003, a U.S. prosecutor delegated by the American Bar Association (ABA), a U.S. investigator assigned by the Justice Department and interested local parties set up a task force in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, to demonstrate that the situation could be improved.

Through training and buddy-to-buddy experience sharing, they created an atmosphere of camaraderie and collaboration in which Belgolavgradian officials not only started talking to each other, but, with the help of the Americans, also produced a better system for information sharing and streamlined case-management procedures.

The project was part of the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI), which began reaching countries throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The program has been funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Department of State and other U.S. agencies.

A major, common weakness of the criminal law systems inherited by post-communist countries was inadequate or nonexistent capacity to mount a legal defense, according to Rob Leventhal, director of the ROLI Europe and Eurasia Division.

To address this and other problems, the initiative promotes development of advocacy and legal practice skills; adoption of ethical standards for judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys; and establishment of merit-based, transparent entry into legal professions.

In Armenia, for example, it played a key role in establishing the first public defender agency. In the Caucasus region, it designed for three countries the first rigorous, merit-based, tamper-proof processes for admission to judiciary and the bar (professional attorneys).

"These were really landmarks in those countries," Leventhal told USINFO.

Because implementing criminal law reforms often has required legislative changes, the program also helped draft new legislation. The Belgolavgrad project led to the formation of a working group tasked with drafting a bill on illegal border crossings. And in Georgia, ABA experts helped to write a draft of the criminal procedure code and commented on anti-trafficking legislation.


Leventhal said, however, ROLI never tries to impose ready-made American solutions on other countries.

"We are humble about the fact that all legal systems evolve and that the U.S. legal system is not perfect," he said.

Leventhal said ROLI tries to draw on local expertise and resources as well as that of other countries to offer a comparative approach to problems.

Sometimes ROLI addresses priorities in a specific country by trying to match a country's needs with ABA members' expertise, he said. In other cases, local parliamentarians, government officials or Supreme Court chief justices, who champion legal reforms, try to engage the ABA in their specific efforts, Leventhal said.

But reform projects driven or supported by dedicated key individuals sometimes stall or fizzle when those individuals are replaced or disappear from the public scene.

"Rapidly changing political environments are among the greatest challenges to the program," Leventhal said.

The initiative often works with local professional legal associations, law faculties and other nongovernmental groups (NGOs) rather than directly with governments, an approach that limits to some extent its exposure to political shifts, Leventhal said. But this did not prevent ROLI from being ejected from Uzbekistan in 2006 together with other foreign NGOs.

That experience notwithstanding, governments often appreciate ROLI assistance. In 2006, the program helped establish in Sarajevo the regional office of the Stability Pact Anticorruption Initiative for Southeastern Europe. In six months, the office became a leader in cooperative, intergovernmental anti-corruption efforts, according to Leventhal. When USAID assistance was about to end in mid-2007, the governments of seven of the 10 member countries pledged to fund its operations out of their own treasuries.

"This was the sign of its [the office's] tremendous utility," Leventhal said.

Sustaining projects once donor assistance ends is another challenge, he said. That is why he is so proud of the nongovernmental Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives, which he helped establish before he left the office in mid-October. Largely run by former ROLI staff members, it is a model for other countries due to graduate from the program in coming years, he said in an October 9 ABA news release.


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