False Imprisonment

Thursday brought the excitement of a staff retreat at the beach. All the staff gathered at the office in their best beach wares and boarded our hired mini-bus. Our driver elected for a more roundabout route that took us through the town of Sumgayit just outside of Baku and as we were bumbling along, we came across a police checkpoint.

As we were sitting in the traffic jam, we started to notice the various TV cameras and reporters milling about, which peaked our interest. It became apparent, and our Azerbaijani staff confirmed, that the police were staging a checkpoint to ‘randomly’ inspect vehicles and their documents for the cameras to record and show what a great job Azerbaijan’s finest are doing.

Our minibus was selected for ‘random’ screening and the driver got out with his various documents and presented them to at least six high ranking traffic officers while being filmed by two different TV stations and reporters with a throng of curious onlookers. As all this was going on, the staff were talking among themselves in Azeri trying to figure out what was going on and for us Americans in the group, we were left to speculate.

After some time, the driver was ‘escorted’ to the back of the bus, away from the cameras, and a police officer climbed in to the driver’s seat of the bus. For the Americans on board, this is when we really started to get fired up because we had no idea what was happening (no translations) and generally this sort of scene is a bad thing. The bus started up and off we went, still trying to figure out what was happening.

There are times when you’re body and gut is telling you one thing (aka get me of this bus now!) but your mind is saying, “well, no one seems too concerned so no worries.” But however we were feeling, there we were, driving down the road with a cop at the wheel and no idea what had happened. Over the next few minutes and some stern demands for interpretations, we discovered that the driver’s documents were not in order and he had violated the law - allegedly at least. As a result, the bus was being confiscated until the driver paid the fines. As a ‘courtesy’ the cop had agreed to drive us to our destination before confiscating the bus.

As if out of a law school test fact pattern, the series of legal issues began to pile up. The driver was not issued any sort of citation or written document stating what laws he had violated. The police officer refused to speak to the passengers because his only obligation (he claimed) was to inform the driver of the violation and consequences – never mind the fact the cop was the driver as soon as he took control of the bus. And no one had any idea about how much the ‘fine’ was and who it was paid to. Always good to see rule of law failings in action.

Needless to say, we arrived at our destination safely and, in a sense amusingly, we were later picked up by the same minibus and driver at the end of the day. Almost certainly, he and the cop that drove the bus worked out a ‘fine’ between the two of them (now off camera) and suddenly all the documents were in order.

Of the various legal ‘goodies’ of that experience, what stands out for me is that there were 11 local lawyers on the bus, all working in rule of law development. You would think that would be a cop’s worst nightmare in a traffic stop. But here, all was quiet and people went with the flow. Durnig the stop and ensuing events, our former Phildelphia public defender looked like she was going to explode and Bob was just as displeased. But the frustration for us foreigners was recognizing that in order to intervene, we would have to put our staff in a precarious position by requiring them to translate our impassioned objections (and thereby putting themselves at risk).

Ultimately it was just tough to see a general sense of ‘what can we do about it’ coming from some of Azerbaijan’s most educated and trained citizens in dealing with that type of injustice. It makes me wonder about the helplessness ‘average’ citizens must feel.