Legal and judicial system of Azerbaijan becomes more child-friendly
BAKU, 30 November 2015 - When making a misdeed or even committing a minor offence, a teenager falls under jurisdiction of a judicial system, which in post-Soviet countries is not responding well to child nature.
Long dark corridors, harsh faces of people in uniform, procedural formalities, rough wardens and supervisors – all these create an alien and hostile atmosphere for any child. They do not make easy either conscience of guilt or repentance but on the contrary, can further embitter the child.
Rashid, 15-year-old, was taken to a police station after police officers caught him severely beating his classmates in the school backyard. It appeared that the kid missed classes, behaved aggressively and had communication problems.
With such profile police sent Rashid to the Social Rehabilitation Center for Children and Teenagers in June this year where psychologists, sociologists and lawyers worked with the kid during four months in a friendly, almost home environment. Results came out shortly– in September Rashid entered construction vocational school.
Though the kid has not yet made up his mind about the field of his future work, the only thing he is pretty sure of is that he will never be taken to a police station any more.
Even a few years ago such scenario would be extremely optimistic. Rashid would probably have been sent to a correctional facility for juvenile offenders where he would most likely become even more aggressive and socially withdrawn.
The Social Rehabilitation Center in Sabunchi district of Baku accepts children of 10-18 years old as an alternative for detention, as well as children with delinquent psychology or those exposed to enter criminal gangs.
Children are referred to the Center from various sources including police, commissions on juvenile delinquency at local authorities, State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs and Ombudsman’s Office. Also a hotline is active which the parents often make use of.
According to Gulnaz Mamedli, the Center’s lawyer, they do initial analysis of the situation, i.e. identify circumstances which provoked a child to commit an offence and then determine what kind of assistance – legal advice, psychological, social assistance etc. - is needed. Rehabilitation process after and includes social protection, social security and social rehabilitation. The latter implies identification of children’s strengths and talents, which may help them to define their future.
Azerbaijan still has only one rehabilitation center for this category of children. It operates since 2007 within UNICEF project in collaboration with a number of public institutions involved in work with juvenile offenders. Creation of such a center is a step toward in the process of reforming juvenile justice system in Azerbaijan, i.e. creation of children-friendly atmosphere in the law enforcement system.
The project was made possible thanks to EU funding within joint UNICEF project «Implementation of reforms in the justice system to ensure children’s access to the judicial system and reduction of cases of undue treatment of children who are in conflict with law».
Another success story of the Center is the case of 16-year-old Maryam. The girl left home due to harsh relations with her mother who suffers from an oncological disease. Maryam’s father separated from them and divorced her mother. The State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs sent the girl to the Rehabilitation Center, which qualified her as a would-be victim of street gangs.
The Center’s specialists worked with Maryam about half a year, from spring through autumn. As a result, the girl managed to restore her balance of mind, relations with her mother and on top of all she could enter the Technical University in September.
In total 525 children completed rehabilitation in the Center during 2007-2015. They included 110 girls and 415 boys.
According to the Center’s staff, girls tend to come to the Center more often recently. Working methods with children include group exercises, sports as well as labor and art therapies. According to Kamala Ashumova, the Center’s Director, specialists are carefully selected as their work has great responsibility.
“It is not anyone who can become a social worker. To do it, one needs to love children, understand them, realize how responsible this work is”, - she says. “Communication with a child today may determine whether or not that child will commit a crime or a suicide tomorrow.”
The Center’s responsibilities also include preparation of a comprehensive post-rehabilitation report on every child. This document is sent to court and serves as an auxiliary ground for a judgment. If the rehabilitation center concludes that a child is in sound psychological condition and not inclined to recidivation, it may serve as serious argument for mitigation of a judgment.
A problem of the Center, which operates under the auspices of “Reliable Future” youth organization, is financing. The EU within joint UNICEF project financed the Center until 2013. Today it had to switch to full self-financing.
According to Kamala Ashumova, grants are hardly enough to retain the staff and cover current expenses. Today the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection hosts the Rehabilitation Center for free. But the employees hope that in time the government will also finance the center, which has no alternative in Azerbaijan so far.
There is another joint UNICEF project with ASAN Xidmet on legal advice to teenagers but it’s just one aspect of the Social Rehabilitation Center’s activities.
As Matanat Askerova, the expert of the Justice Academy notes, the purpose of such institutions is to shift a child from the criminal justice system to the civil one. Though the juvenile legislation in Azerbaijan is quite liberal, she believes, there is a deficit of rehabilitation centers or as they are called, probation centers.
Considering moderate juvenile offences trend in Azerbaijan, there is no big need for such centers, but there should be not less than six of them, Matanat Askerova believes. However, both legal basis and substantial material resources are required for that end.
According to official statistics, out of 25000-26000 crimes committed annually in Azerbaijan, minors commit 500-600 or 5% of them. These are mainly thefts or offences connected with drugs sale.
This indicator is not high, says Matanat Askerova, if compared with other post-Soviet countries like Russia, Kazakhstan and Moldova. Furthermore, juvenile delinquency trend is not going up in Azerbaijan, she says.
According to 2014 data, 280 children and teenagers were brought to court including 8 girls and 272 boys. Most of their offences included hooliganism, theft, and intentional harm to human health. A few teenagers were convicted of robbery and plunder, production and distribution of drugs. One girl committed a premeditated murder.
The maximum level of punishment for minors in Azerbaijan is a 10-year sentence. Life sentence for them is not applicable.
When committed a minor offence, a child is sent to the Rehabilitation Center and has a chance to avoid a prison term; in case of a grave crime such as a murder, the child will be punished anyway. But for such cases there are also international norms and regulations, which are gradually implemented in Azerbaijan under UNICEF project.
The organization believes that the judicial process is too formalized and suppresses the children’s psychic condition, nor it helps for their social integration but only increase inclination to social withdrawn and aggression.
Therefore, Baku Court on Grave Crimes established a collegiate of three judges who went to a three-week training on the work with minors in the Justice Academy with support of UNICEF lawyers. Now, these judges review the juvenile delinquents’ cases brought to that court.
Also within the project a separate room for minors is established in Baku court connected with the courtroom via video communication system. Thus, the court takes place in the courtroom and when needed, a minor is involved in the hearings. Together with the minor may be only participants of the hearings – defense lawyers, prosecutor as well as parents and trustees.
According to Matanat Askerova from the Academy, judges and other court personnel are positive about special room for minors. Attorneys are confident that it makes a child less hectic and more willing to express opinion. Furthermore, the child does not get used to the atmosphere of the courtroom, which is very important to prevent further crimes.
Another important process in today’s reform of juvenile justice in Azerbaijan is improved interaction between all government institutions involved in supervision and control of juvenile legal offences.
Names of children in the article are changed for confidentiality reasons
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