International Human Rights Clinic partners with Clooney Foundation for Justice on trial watch project

Melissa Masatani • April 5, 2024
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The USC Gould School of Law International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), in partnership with the Clooney Foundation for Justice TrialWatch Initiative, has published a report on its fair trial rights findings for a human rights defender in Kyrgyzstan. The report, which was released on April 4, is a culmination of three years of work by the clinic’s law students, who monitored trial proceedings for Kamil Ruziev, a human rights defender based in Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul region. The report gives the trial a grade of C, citing multiple due process violations that resulted from a politically motivated case against Ruziev.

“A report of this length and intensity is not insignificant, and it has been a team effort to produce a comprehensive picture of Kamil Ruziev’s forgery trial as well as the political and legal climate surrounding proceedings,” said Professor Henna Pithia, Interim Director of the International Human Rights Clinic.

Pithia, who is a visiting clinical assistant professor of law at USC Gould, traveled in December 2023 to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan with 3L Pieter Keushkerian, 2L Mariam Daoud and Steve Swerdlow, the expert reviewer for the recently released report and a human rights lawyer and an associate professor of the practice of political science and international relations at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. The group met with Ruziev as well as government officials, the UN, the diplomatic community, and human rights activists during their visit, giving them the opportunity to gain on-the-ground expertise that informed the final report.

“It was clear from the reaction of (Ruziev), his family and colleagues, that they were impressed with the clinic, its students, and their determination and focus to see through a difficult report like this,” said Swerdlow. “A few of the reasons I find this report is so important is that it will create an important record for historical posterity of the individual violations in this case, shed light on the broader challenges human rights defenders in Central Asia face, and ultimately serve as a call to action for the Kyrgyz government to uphold human rights and make Ruziev whole.”

The clinic began its work on this case in 2020, having agreed to work with the TrialWatch Initiative to monitor the proceedings and issue a report. Despite the challenges of monitoring a trial in Kyrgyzstan, translating reams of documents from Russian, and learning the intricacies of legal procedure in a post-Soviet context, the team of students (spanning 2020 to present) dedicated countless hours to issue their findings.

“True human rights education means being in the field and being in contact with primary sources, so it’s extraordinary that Professor Pithia was able to make this trip a reality and ensure that the students had firsthand experience meeting with high-ranking officials in addition to human rights activists when producing this report,” Swerdlow said. “I was impressed that the clinic was willing to take on a project for a country that rarely makes the headlines, and on behalf of an activist far from Kyrgyzstan’s capital who for 20 years has been doing his best to serve victims of domestic violence and torture in his far-flung region of the country.”

Keushkerian, whose interest in human rights law is rooted in his family’s experience as victims of human rights abuses, said that the trip to Bishkek “gave us a clearer understanding of what the future may hold for human rights defenders in Kyrgyzstan. I came to law school with an interest in social justice lawyering, and working on Mr. Ruziev’s case has allowed me to put into practice skills that I have honed since the first day of law school.”

Daoud noted that meeting Ruziev and seeing his steadfast dedication to confronting human rights violations despite the past few years, was a reminder of the importance of remaining steadfast in advocacy for those in need, even when those efforts take years to bear fruit.

“Despite the slow progress and the long journey toward justice, he was adamant this work holds the potential for significant and far-reaching impacts,” she said. “His persistence is a testament to the importance human rights work, reminding us that this work truly matters and that it will ultimately make a difference in someone’s life.”

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