Surrounded by acres of farmland left barren from decades of Soviet mining, the residents of Batken, Kyrgyzstan, have dealt with a lot of hardship. Located a few hours outside of Osh in the restive Ferghana Valley, Batken was one of the communities hardest hit by the 2010 ethnic clashes. The residents are among the poorest in Kyrgyzstan, and lack the resources and legal knowledge to protect themselves, their families, and their livelihoods. And yet, in the heart of Batken, you’ll find one of the most effective pro bono law offices in Central Asia.
 
To protect the region’s most vulnerable citizens, a network of lawyers and NGOs affiliated with Equal Before the Law (EBL) takes tough cases in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, helping people like the residents of Batken improve their access to the justice system.
 
Toktokan Muratova (left), who runs EBL’s Batken office, has been a lawyer with the program since its inception in 2011. Implemented by Eurasia Foundation and its network partner Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia, EBL provides free legal consultations and representation to vulnerable groups, including women, people with disabilities, and ethnic minorities. In Kyrgyzstan, most of the lawyers come from Adilet (“justice” in Kyrgyz), a local NGO and legal clinic and a major partner of EBL.
 
"I'm 60 years old and only now I know about my rights, thanks to Toktokan." - EBL client in Batken
 
“The biggest legal problems people face here in Batken concern family law, particularly divorce and the division of property,” Toktokan says. The women she works with are particularly vulnerable, often victims of bridenapping and domestic abuse. Many of them don’t know what it means to have rights.
 
In only two years, Toktokan has provided legal consultations to more than 500 clients out of EBL’s Batken office, even helping some of them take their cases to court. “I’m 60 years old and only now I know about my rights, thanks to Toktokan,” says one of her clients. In rural areas like Batken, where information is largely spread through word of mouth, helping just one woman learn about her legal rights could educate a whole village.
 
In 2011, Toktokan advocated for Rabiya Shadibekova and her family to prevent their apricot orchard from being improperly seized by the local government. She also helped a victim of domestic abuse find a job at a local restaurant after she won custody of her three children. “I always dreamed of being able to help people,” Toktokan says. Even though she often has to travel many hours on unpaved roads to reach her clients, she is now able to see the direct results of her work.
 
In the nearby city of Osh, Almaz Tashtemir Uulu (below) is leading an information session for schoolchildren, educating them about their rights under the law. He has been working with EBL since March 2013.
 
“The lack of legal literacy is a major impediment to the rule of law,” Almaz says, “and the low level of legal literacy of my clients is why government officials have leverage over vulnerable groups and ethnic minorities.”
 
In 2010, Almaz worked closely with the UN Refugee Agency after the ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan. Most of his cases with EBL involve ethnic discrimination, but like Toktokan, he often helps women in difficult situations.
 
At first, many female clients were reluctant to bring domestic abuse cases to a man, but after seeing how effective Almaz is at helping their friends and neighbors, they realized he can actually do something to improve their condition.
 
All too often, Almaz says, the system is stacked against his clients. One woman, who declined to give her name, had been beaten in public by her husband, a police officer. For two years, Almaz fought her case, and eventually won. “He gave me back ownership of my life,” she says. EBL lawyers often check in with their clients long after their case is won to make sure they are still safe.
 
"He gave me back ownership of my life." - EBL client in Osh
 
But winning cases is difficult. Convoluted bureaucracy, corruption, and poor legal infrastructure make it a long and difficult struggle. “I became a lawyer to fight injustice and to make sure that laws are enforced,” Almaz says. When one of his clients offered to bribe government officials to help win her case, he flatly refused. Together with Toktokan and the lawyers at EBL, Almaz strives to legitimize lawyers in Central Asia by working within the legal system rather than circumventing it.
 
Though EBL is slated to end in early 2014, Toktokan, Almaz, and dozens of other lawyers and NGOs under the program have changed the lives of thousands. EBL has built capacity among its local partners to address legal literacy in a way that has never been done before. The lawyers with Adilet will continue to protect the most vulnerable citizens in Central Asia, increase citizens’ awareness of their legal rights, and fight to make sure everyone has access to justice.
 
Photos by Ebi Spahiu. See her photo essay about the lawyers of EBL here.