UNICEF Azerbaijan is helping the Government of Azerbaijan to create effective community-based alternatives to custody for children in conflict with the law
By Sarah Marcus
GUBA, Azerbaijan - ‘I am very excited to start my life from zero with no mistakes, I am waiting to be free!’ These are the words of 17-year-old Natik, a young boy held in the Closed Special Vocational School in Guba, Azerbaijan.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that deprivation of juvenile offenders’ liberty should only be used as a last resort. Under the reforms Azerbaijan is trying to make in the juvenile justice system, fewer young people who come into conflict with the law or are perceived as being in danger of doing so will have to serve custodial time thanks to the introduction of increased and improved alternatives to prison sentences.
In 2006 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child made its periodic assessment on the situation of children in Azerbaijan. In order to bring the juvenile justice system in line with international standards, the Committee recommended that the government: “Take all necessary measures to ensure that persons below 18 are only deprived of liberty as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, in particular by developing and implementing alternatives to custodial sentences. These recommendations were also made during the committee’s last periodic review in 1997.
Azerbaijan’s Juvenile Justice Modeling Project started in October 2007, following the signature of a memorandum of understanding by UNICEF Azerbaijan, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the OSCE office in Baku and the NGO Alliance on Children’s Rights.
As recommended by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, one of the main aims of the reform is to provide alternatives to custodial sentences for minors, as well as diversions which will prevent children from coming into conflict with the law in the first place.
Diversion and alternative sentencing
Dadash Ahmadov is director of the Social Rehabilitation Centre for Young Juvenile Offenders in Baku, says: “This is a relatively new centre to which children who have come into conflict with the law can be referred rather than undergoing a formal trial. Children can also be referred there as an alternative to being given custodial sentences. The centre also targets children at risk of offending.”
Ahmadov recounts how he once brought one of the boys who had been attending the centre to the Vocational School in Guba, on the request of his mother who wanted him sent there.
‘Do whatever you want but don’t come here because the Baku rehabilitation centre is the best place you could be,’ the young boy told his peers from that centre.
Ahmadov explained that he brought some of the other boys under his supervision to Guba to show them the contrast between taking part in the programmes of the rehabilitation centre and being placed in the Vocational School in Guba.
‘I try to show them they have a choice,’ he said.
That said, the staff of the Guba Vocational School do their best despite the difficult circumstances. The buildings which house the school had not been refurbished in 20 years until last year, when they received a small amount of aid from an international NGO.
According to the Guba director, Xalid Bayramov, some of the children there have come into conflict with the law already. According to a 2008 report on the juvenile justice system, none of the children at the school at that time were offenders, and the main purpose of the school seemed to be to receive children with behavioural problems from other boarding schools.
In any case, the highly-motivated director and his staff aim to show the children, as the director put it, ‘that crime will cut off their lives, they should see that they should not do things which make them spend their lives in prison’.
Through academic and vocational training, sports and games, sessions with a psychologist and the moral support of the staff, especially the director, the 14-17-year-old boys held at Guba’s vocational school have some chance of moving on to build themselves a better future.
But despite the fact that many of them have committed no crime, the boys are locked into their sleeping quarters at night. There are no special rehabilitative programmes at the school, and the children have been sent there either for very minor crimes, or because of behavioural problems – it is hardly an example of using incarceration as a last resort.
A new way forward
At the Baku Rehabilitation Centre, the children are talking about how attending it has helped them.
A bright and genuine smile breaks out on one boy’s face when he is asked if coming here makes him feel good and happy.
‘Yes,’ he says simply.
Another girl, 16-year-old Faina, displays a picture she has drawn of herself. At the bottom of the picture are the words, ‘freedom, independence and life is beautiful’.
‘This centre put me on the right path in life,’ she says, talking confidently and brightly.
‘Before, I had a problem with my grandmother. It is the same situation now but I have changed. Before I argued with her but now when she argues I stay silent. I was told here that she is old and cannot change – I should change,’ she explains.
The centre - officially known as the Diversion Centre and Legal Clinic - was opened by UNICEF Azerbaijan and the NGO Alliance on Children’s Rights as an integral part of the Juvenile Justice Reform in the country.
The project provides a range of services to children and their families and its primary purpose piloting a model for effective community-based alternatives to custody to which law enforcement bodies (police, prosecutors and courts) and the Commission on Minors (COM) can refer children. The purpose was to develop and refine a model that could ultimately be integrated into the national criminal justice system and replicated throughout the country.
According to the director, Ahmadov, the centre can accommodate up to 25 children and at present there are 20 there. The children attend the centre for four to six months – attending school at the same time – and the staff, including a psychologist, first evaluates and observes each child and then formulates an individual plan for him or her.
‘The majority of the children, though not all of them, are from poor and disadvantaged families. Mostly they have been involved in minor conflicts at school or on the street,’ says Ahmadov. Most of these poor and disadvantaged children are officially registered by the police and referred there by police and local authorities.
The centre rehabilitates the children through group and individual psychological work, art therapy, games and play – sometimes aimed at helping them to understand the mistakes they’ve made - and academic, moral and emotional support and vocational training.
After the centre has worked for some time with a child, they invite his family in for consultations, or sometimes they visit the family at home. This is to facilitate understanding and good relations between a child and his or her family.
‘Sometimes we change the roles in the family in a role play, so the children act as parents and vice versa. This helps them understand each other,’ says Ahmadov.
The access to vocational training which the centre provides has been a particular success. One boy was helped to get a job in a courier service and then a restaurant, two more were granted places at a special college to develop computer skills and the centre paid for another child to serve an apprenticeship with a hairdresser.
‘I found my training at the hair salon very interesting and I would like to do it as a job,’ says 17-year-old Vagif.
So far, 102 children have been referred to the centre. According to director Ahmadov, very few of them reoffend.
The Legal Clinic which operates in conjunction with the centre has worked on securing alimony for separated parents/children; securing identity documents, including birth certificates; and securing accommodation for children who do not have parental care. It has also presented evidence to the Commission of Minors to encourage them to refer children to the Diversion Centre.
Apart from lobbying for and developing provision for alternative sentencing, UNICEF Azerbaijan is helping the Parliament in the process of drafting the Law on Juvenile Justice, developing proposals on possible institutional changes and advocating and assisting the government in development of sustainable capacity development programmes which will ensure that there are specialized judicial professionals.
There is much work to be done, but the success of the Baku Diversion Centre and Legal Clinic is an example of the positive impact of reform of the juvenile justice system.
Says Asif Karimov, psychologist at the centre, ‘Initially kids are scared to come here, they think it’s an isolated place, but in the end, we can’t get rid of them!’
*The names of juveniles have been changed