Monthly Archives: May 2017

Amnesty Internaitonal: TAJIKISTAN 2016/2017

The space for peaceful dissent continued to shrink drastically. The authorities invoked national security concerns and the fight against terrorism to justify increasingly harsh restrictions on freedoms of expression and association. Members of the banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) were sentenced to life and long-term imprisonment on terrorism charges in blatantly unfair secret trials. Allegations that they were tortured to obtain confessions were not effectively and impartially investigated. Lawyers representing IRPT members faced harassment, arbitrary detention, prosecution and long prison terms on politically motivated charges.

Background

In May a national referendum approved wide-ranging amendments to the Constitution. These included removing the limit on presidential terms in office, effectively enabling President Rahmon to retain the presidency beyond the next elections, and banning religion- and nationality-based political parties. In November “insulting the leader of the nation” was made a criminal offence.

At least 170 individuals were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to prison for their alleged involvement in the armed clashes between government forces and armed groups in the capital, Dushanbe, in September 2015, which the authorities described as an attempt to seize power by a former deputy defence minister, Abdukhalim Nazarzoda. Due to the authorities’ near-total control of news reporting there was little independent public scrutiny of the official account which, in turn, cast doubt on the prosecutions.

Exiled members of the banned opposition party, Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and opposition “Group 24” activists attended and picketed the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the OSCE in Warsaw, Poland, in September. Some reported that police and security services threatened, arbitrarily detained, questioned and in some cases physically assaulted their family members in Tajikistan in retaliation for their peaceful protest in Warsaw. The government delegation left the event early in protest against a “terrorist organisation banned in Tajikistan” being admitted among other civil society participants.

Unfair trials

The authorities continued to emphatically reject allegations of the politically motivated criminal prosecution, unfair trial and torture and other ill-treatment of 14 IRPT leaders for their alleged role in the September 2015 clashes. The trial at the Supreme Court began in February and was conducted in secrecy, inside the pre-trial detention centre of the State Committee for National Security. In June, all the defendants were convicted. Two deputy IRPT leaders, Umarali Khisainov (also known as Saidumur Khusaini) and Makhmadali Khaitov (Mukhammadalii Hait), were given life sentences. Zarafo Khujaeva (Rakhmoni) was sentenced to two years in prison; she was released on 5 September under a presidential pardon. Other sentences ranged from 14 to 28 years.

The sparse initial official information relating to the prosecution of the IRPT leaders, including the charges they faced, had already been removed from official sources (including the Prosecutor General’s Office website and the official news agency Khovar) in 2015, and any further information suppressed. The defence lawyers were compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements regarding all details of the case and the legal proceedings. The verdict and official records of the court proceedings were not officially released. In August, a leaked copy of the verdict was published online. The Prosecutor General’s Office refused to comment on its authenticity but its suspected source was nevertheless prosecuted (see below).

In March the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression expressed concern that “the drastic measures taken against IRPT represent a serious setback for an open political environment. The government accuses the IRPT and its members of serious crimes but it has refused to give public access to the trial and evidence”.1

Persecution of defence lawyers

Lawyers who worked on the case of the 14 IRPT leaders faced harassment, intimidation and, in some cases, arbitrary detention and prosecution. In October, the Dushanbe City Court sentenced Buzurgmekhr Yorov and Nuriddin Makhkamov, two lawyers representing several co-defendants in the IRPT case, to 23 and 21 years in prison respectively following an unfair trial. Apart from the first court hearing in May, all sessions were closed to the media and the public. Both lawyers were found guilty of “arousing national, racial, local or religious hostility”, fraud, “public calls for violent change of the constitutional order of the Republic of Tajikistan”, and “public calls for undertaking extremist activities”. Buzurgmekhr Yorov was also found guilty of forgery. Both denied any wrongdoing and an appeal was pending at the end of the year. Neither will be able to practise law upon release unless their convictions are fully overturned.2

On 22 August, Jamshed Yorov, also a defence lawyer in the IRPT case and the brother of Buzurgmekhr Yorov, was detained on charges of “divulging state secrets”. He was accused of leaking the text of the Supreme Court’s decision in the IRPT case. He was released on 30 September.

A second trial against Buzurgmekhr Yorov opened on 12 December at pre-trial detention centre number 1 in Dushanbe. He was accused of disrespecting the court and insulting government officials in his final statement to Dushanbe City Court.

Torture and other ill-treatment

In May, legal safeguards against torture and other ill-treatment of detainees were strengthened. These included: reducing the maximum length of time a person can be held in detention without charge to three days; defining detention as starting from the moment of de facto deprivation of liberty; giving detainees the right to confidential access to a lawyer from the moment of deprivation of liberty; and making medical examinations of suspects obligatory prior to placing them in temporary detention.

There were still no independent mechanisms for the investigation of torture or other ill-treatment. The NGO Coalition against Torture registered 60 complaints of torture but believed the real figure to be much higher.

In September, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the outcomes of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Tajikistan. The government rejected recommendations to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and set up a National Preventive Mechanism. It did, however, accept recommendations to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR and to fully abolish the death penalty.

Freedom of association

The Ministry of Justice provided draft regulations for the implementation of the amended Law on Public Associations. However, it failed to specify time limits for decisions on the compulsory registration of foreign funding for NGOs, or to clarify whether a grant could be used before the official registration. The draft regulations limited inspections of NGOs to once every two years, but left this rule and the grounds for inspections open to wide interpretation.

In January a district court dismissed the Tax Committee’s liquidation proceedings against the established human rights and democracy think tank, Nota Bene.

Freedom of expression

The authorities continued to impose further restrictions on the media and reduced access to independent information. In August the government issued a five-year decree giving it the right to “regulate and control” the content of all television and radio networks through the State Broadcasting Committee.

Independent media outlets and individual journalists faced intimidation and harassment by police and the security services for covering the IRPT case and other politically sensitive issues. Some were forced to leave the country. In November, independent newspaper Nigoh and independent website Tojnews announced their closure because “conditions no longer exist for independent media and free journalism”. Nigoh had reported on the trial of lawyer Buzurgmekhr Yorov.

The authorities continued to order internet service providers to block access to certain news or social media sites, but without acknowledging this publicly. Individuals and groups affected by the measures were not able to effectively challenge them in court. A government decree also required internet providers and telecommunications operators to channel their services through a new single communications centre under the state-owned company Tajiktelecom. In March, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression expressed concern that “the widespread blocking of websites and networks, including mobile services… was disproportionate and incompatible with international standards”.

Rights to water and sanitation

In July the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation published his report on Tajikistan. The report found that approximately 40% of the population, and nearly half of the rural population, relied on water supply sources which were often insufficient or did not meet water quality standards. This put a significant burden on women and children, some of whom spent on average four to six hours each day fetching water. The Special Rapporteur noted that the lack of water and sanitation in public institutions in particular had a direct negative impact on other rights, such as the rights to health, education, work and life. He urged the government to eliminate disparities in access to water and sanitation and to address the needs of the most vulnerable groups, including women and girls in rural areas, resettled people, refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless persons.

The government accepted recommendations from the UPR process to improve access to safe drinking water but rejected recommendations to ratify the Optional Protocol to the ICESCR.

Amnesty International

2016 / 2017

 

  1. Tajikistan: A year of secrecy, growing fears and deepening injustice (EUR 60/4855/2016)
  2. Tajikistan: A year of secrecy, growing fears and deepening injustice (EUR 60/4855/2016)

The Diplomat: Exiled Tajik Opposition Leader Speaks

“When the repression machine begins to work, it destroys everyone.”

Muhiddin Kabiri was on the run before he knew it. After the rigged election in his home country of Tajikistan, in which his party officially received a mere 1.5 percent of the vote, he needed time to rest. A conference in Malaysia he had been invited to was a good reason to leave. After that, he planned a short stay in Turkey to relax before deciding what to do next. The 2015 election was the first time since the 1997 peace deal ending the civil war that his Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) did not make it into the parliament.

That, however, did not come as a surprise. Since 2010 the regime of President Emomali Rahmon has been tightening its grip on power, crushing any dissent. In the traditionally pious Tajik society, this meant targeting religion, which the authorities justified in the context of the global war on terror. The government banned wearing the hijab in public, introduced control over sermons, and forbade the attendance of those under the age of 18 at religious ceremonies. Men wearing long beards were forced to shave. One of the most affected groups was the electorate and activists of the IRPT, at the time the second biggest political force and the only parliamentary opposition in the country. Arguably, it was also the only group capable of challenging Rahmon’s rule.

It was March 2015 when Kabiri packed his bags, preparing to spend one month abroad. He soon found out that a return would not be easy. As soon as he left the country, a regime-run newspaper, Djumhuriat, published a statement from the General Prosecutor launching a criminal investigation into Kabiri’s involvement in an illegal sale of property 15 years earlier. The case was widely seen as a political move to discredit his party. It also brought back the memory of Zaid Saidov, a leader of the New Tajikistan party, who was charged with fraud and polygamy a few months into his oppositional involvement. He is now serving a 26-year prison term.

At the time, a third of the IRPT’s Political Council thought that Kabiri should return. But the majority decided that it was too risky. When I asked Kabiri how he felt leaving his peers and family, he took a moment to think about the answer. “For sure, this feeling is only familiar to those who were in a similar situation,” he replied calmly, taking a deep breath. “It’s very difficult. On the one hand, you want to be with your peers and friends to go through the difficulties together. On the other hand – responsibility requires that you do not put yourself and the party in danger. If something happens to the party and the leader is free, he can still support his people.”

The Hunt

Even with the imminent threat of the leader’s arrest and the lost parliamentary seats, IRPT members failed to foresee what was to come.

“On September 9 we had the Political Council meeting. I took part online and the rest of the leadership was in my home in Dushanbe, as they had closed down our office a month earlier. Some members wanted to organize protests in front of the Ministry of Justice if they don’t let us hold the party congress at the end of the month. But the majority said the government was only waiting for such a provocation and suggested that we refrain from such actions.” Kabiri seemed composed while relaying the tale; he probably had told the story many times before.

“After two days I received information that there is a question on a high level: what to do with the party? Our sources said that once the decision about arresting the party leadership is made, we will have approximately two days to help our people flee.” But when the time came, Kabiri found it difficult to convince his associates to leave.

“Even my son, who is now in Germany, challenged my decision. He said that if he leaves it will look like a family escape. If there are arrests, he should be with the rest of the party. He had those romantic thoughts.”

Romantic it may have been, but the view was shared by the majority of party leadership. No one believed that the response of the authorities could be so ruthless. He therefore decided to give the activists individual orders to leave the country. “I called my first deputy and said that as the party leader, I tell you to leave Tajikistan. If you don’t, it will mean that you are violating the party discipline.” Thanks to those calls, around a third of the leadership managed to escape the country. But some missed the chance by a matter of minutes. Kabiri’s driver was caught as he was boarding a plane. Kabiri’s first deputy was arrested at the airport. During a two-day hunt, the authorities arrested over 200 party members. Around 1,000 activists managed to escape to Europe.

They Began With Beating

Kabiri’s relatives and friends who stayed in the country were arrested, including his elderly aunts. The authorities began with beatings, but soon after moved to more sophisticated measures.

“Imagine, a person who has been impelled to speak against his own son or brother. What kind of torture they had to go through, both physical and psychological? There were around ten videos only with my relatives speaking against the party. They forced everybody – even my daughter-in-law, my brother, and my teacher, and whoever had any contact with me.” The same happened to the families of his peers.

Soon after, the trials behind closed doors began. No witnesses, journalists, relatives, or OSCE observers were allowed in the court. Kabiri’s deputies were sentenced to life imprisonment; other party members and activists received 20, 25, or 30-year sentences. Following the IRPT’s trial, the authorities kept the ruling secret, although the party got hold of it through unofficial channels. The IRPT was charged with extremism and terrorism. No foreign government or organization has so far reiterated the accusation.

The authorities subsequently moved on to arresting the party’s lawyers. Buzurgmehr Yorov, the IRPT’s main attorney, is currently serving a 26-year sentence. His brother, Jamshed, managed to escape and is now awaiting a decision on his asylum application in a European country.

It has been two years since Kabiri last spoke to his grandchildren, who are under house arrest. They are not allowed to speak to their own father, and had not been allowed to see Kabiri’s father, who lived in Dushanbe just a few kilometers away. He passed away several months ago unable to say goodbye to his family.

“When the repression machine begins to work, it destroys everyone. It does not distinguish between the guilty and the innocent, young and old, it crushes everyone. And once there are no oppositionists left, it begins to turn against itself,” Kabiri says.

The World’s Silence

The response of the international community to the brutal crushing of the opposition in Tajikistan has been meek. The UN, which negotiated and was the guarantor of the 1997 peace deal, has done nothing to bring the issue to the international agenda. The EU continues to support the country with millions in development assistance and in February 2016, the United States promised to grant the country an additional $50 million in military aid to support its anti-terrorist efforts. The reluctance of the West to acknowledge and address the suffering of Tajiks can be seen as a deal with the regime, driven by anti-Islamic paranoia.

“Without democracy and strong civil society there will be neither stability nor development. We are trying to convince the EU that they should pay more attention to our region, but unfortunately, our European partners think that we are exaggerating the problems. It is easier to cooperate with official government structures in the fights against radicalism than with NGOs and opposition parties,” Kabiri says.

Kabiri sees an analogy between the current situation in Central Asia and the Middle East on the onset of the Arab Spring. “There is an example of Tunisia, where after the fall of Ben Ali, there was a responsible opposition both of an Islamic and secular character that managed to stabilize the situation. But why it did not happen in Libya? Because Gaddafi had destroyed the whole opposition. The only ones who remained were himself and a mob of radicals.”

As he explains, the high proportion of Tajik citizens in the ranks of the Islamic State is not accidental. People are disillusioned not only with their own governments, but also with the West, which they see as the main supporter of local dictators. They no longer believe in democracy and peaceful change. Through repression, the government is creating extremists, who, according to Kabiri, will soon be the only alternative to Rahmon’s rule.

Life Abroad

In February 2017, Kabiri received refugee status in an EU country. Until then, he stayed in a refugee center with other asylum seekers from Tajikistan and elsewhere. “I had the financial means not to stay in the camp, but I didn’t want to. Maybe because I wanted to somehow compensate for the feeling of guilt,” he wonders. “But I don’t have any regrets. I had to start everything from the beginning and the few months were a university of life for me. Only because of that I now have some peace of mind. I feel the same way as I used to 20 years ago, when I was starting to build my life.”

He began with the reform of party structure to adjust to the realities of exile. He does not rule out that the party may change its name and objectives in the near future. Altering the program is necessary in the new circumstances. In Tajikistan, the party was focused on solving internal issues through dialogue and compromise with the authorities, for which it was often harshly criticized. Critics claimed that such excessive compliance is a sign of weakness, which the government used against the party and society. Now, there is no place for dialogue.

But for all the tragedy of the situation, Kabiri remains optimistic.  “When I received asylum, my wife, who lives in Istanbul, said that on the very same day she received a phone call from someone from Dushanbe asking if it’s true. She said this person had heard it from someone in prison. This is how fast the good news reached my peers. They said that once I received status, it means that Europe does not see me as a criminal. And that there is hope for them too.”

Return

Before we finished our talk, sitting in the comfortable office of a Polish NGO run by my friends in central Warsaw, I once again asked about Kabiri’s feelings. He did not seem to be accustomed to this kind of question.

“Will you ever return?” I asked. “For some reason I am sure that I will,” he replied without much hesitation.

“In the cemetery in my village I planted a couple of trees. They took away everything I had, but I asked someone to take care of the trees. I planted them because I want to be buried there. I don’t know whether it will ever happen. But my return will mean that my peers are free.”

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a journalist focusing on the post-Soviet space and an editor with New Eastern Europe magazine.

 

The Diplomat

May 1, 2017