The U.S. Department of Justice is engaged in many areas of justice sector reform in Russia and the surrounding states, noted Catherine Newcombe, Regional Director for Eurasia, Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training (OPDAT), Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice. Speaking officially on behalf of the Department of Justice (DOJ) at a 14 February 2011 Kennan Institute event, Newcombe outlined the mission and work of OPDAT and its programming in Russia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.
OPDAT was created by the Department of Justice in 1991 in response to the growing threats of international crime. Funded by various government agencies, including the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, OPDAT is designed to develop and implement justice sector assistance programs around the world. While OPDAT focuses on working with lawyers and government officials on law reform, its sister agency—the International Criminal Training Assistance Program (ICITAP)—is dedicated to handling law enforcement and policing issues.
As Newcombe explained, "countries have many shared challenges when it comes to crime. The politics of crime are remarkably similar across the globe, and these can be used to open doors and often to transform political will." Thus, OPDAT programming in each country is based on a strategy unique to its respective legal environment while also addressing the overarching issue of globalized crime. "Meaningful technical assistance requires creativity," Newcombe asserted; in particular, "technical assistance that leads to sustainable and permanent change is that which supports homegrown initiatives that are locally-driven." Newcombe explained that "professional-to-professional exchange of expertise is [a] highly effective" component of OPDAT justice sector reform initiatives. In addition to a country's criminal environment, Newcombe noted that a country may face challenges specific to its justice sector particularly in terms of the government-constituent relationship.
Newcombe aimed to "highlight small, yet concrete progress, along with significant transformational change" of the justice sectors in Russia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, "three diverse countries united by a shared legacy of the Soviet justice system."
With regard to its work in the Russian Federation, OPDAT currently retains two Resident Legal Advisors based at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, who are engaged in multiple projects. Most recently, the OPDAT team has worked with various non-governmental organizations to implement reforms such as limiting the abuse of pre-trial detention procedures by law enforcement officials through legislative amendments. Additionally, OPDAT's Moscow office has also supported the efforts of civil society groups to promote more transparency in the Russian judicial system.
Educational initiatives are also a significant component of the mission of OPDAT's work in Russia. Newcombe cited two projects that are particularly committed to furthering legal educational programming. The Juror's Club is a Russian NGO comprised of Russian lawyers and activists who are committed to delivering information to the public about Russia's jury system. Additionally, OPDAT has collaborated with the EU to deliver training programs to Russian prosecutors focused on the effective implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Kyrgyzstan is "still a work in progress, given the formation of its new parliamentary-style democracy—a novelty in the region," Newcombe noted. The OPDAT program has one Resident Legal Advisor who is currently assisting the Kyrgyz government legislative drafting and skills building. For the last three years, "the OPDAT program has been actively engaged with the Kyrgyz to bring their Criminal Procedure Code into compliance with the country's binding obligations under international treaties," Newcombe explained. While waiting for the Code to come into force, OPDAT is working with the Kyrgyz parliament—as well as the Kyrgyz Ministry of Justice—to disseminate information on what rights and responsibilities government officials and citizens have under this new Code. Additional areas of assistance include the development of its jury trial system, as well as the creation of a modern and sustainable continuing legal education program for prosecutors taught by local experts.
With respect to Georgia's legal environment, Newcombe explained that "in many ways, it has undergone a fast-paced and comprehensive transformation following the Rose Revolution." OPDAT has one resident legal advisor posted in Georgia, who works with local offices on developing the country's Criminal Procedure Code. "It is the most progressive criminal procedure code in the former Soviet region," according to Newcombe; the speaker further noted that "the Georgians have worked with [OPDAT's] support on getting the word out on what [the code] means for the average citizen."
In closing, Newcombe emphasized that "we need to recall that it's been just over twenty years since the Soviet system disappeared. [It] is a large task to recast judicial systems" in such a short period of time, Newcombe added. She further noted that the "most difficult part of working in this part of the world is the historical context" of each country's legal tradition. When asked which of the three countries she considered most successful in implementing justice sector reform, Newcombe asserted that she thought all three were successful: "each of these countries presents a unique set of circumstances, so I think each of them has had success, given the circumstances on the ground." In conclusion, Newcombe remarked that "each of these countries has its own setting, its own social fabric… it's important to remember that law is part of the social fabric."
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute