Tag Archives: HRW

Tajikistan: Asylum Seekers Stranded in Limbo on Polish Border

By Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

On the 8.28 a.m. train to Terespol, a Polish town at the border with Belarus, Ali watches the barely changing landscape with indifference. This might be the twentieth time he has taken this train with his wife and three kids. Or maybe the twenty-first, he cannot quite remember.

Ali, a well-built young man with dark eyes and a doleful smile, is a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). He is also one of countless Tajiks forced to flee his homeland due to a wave of political repression, including a ban of the IRPT in September 2015.

Escape from Tajikistan has taken people like Ali through Belarus and up to the edge of the European Union, where they have found the door slammed in their face.

The unwritten rule for those without visas and hoping to claim asylum in Poland is to travel in the crowded final sleeper carriage. Some of the passengers chat in the dark, others are frozen, anxiously waiting. Maybe this will be the time they are allowed into Poland. Ali’s children play and misbehave. They have taken this route so often it has almost become a daily routine.

Ali and his family spend their days in Brest, a Belarusian city whose outskirts push up against the western Polish border. The kids do not play outside, nor do they go out much at all. For reasons of security, they live, play, sleep and eat in a hotel room rented out by their parents.

According to data provided by Poland’s Office for Foreigners, a growing number of Tajik nationals began claiming asylum toward the end of 2015, as the crackdown back home was picking up steam. Most chose the border crossing at Terespol, as it is easily accessed by train from Moscow or Minsk.

The number of claims peaked last May, when 129 individuals applied for international protection — compared with 18 the same month a year earlier. In recent months, the number has been declining. Only four asylum applications were registered in November. At the same time, according to data provided by the Polish Border Guard, between January and October 2016, 5,503 Tajik nationals were denied entry into Poland, a surge from 1,896 over the same period in 2015. The figure covering Russian nationals, mostly of Chechen origin, is even greater, standing at more than 68,000 in 2016.

Since the summer of 2016, Poland’s border with Belarus has been experiencing its own small-scale migration crisis. And while the right to seek refuge is a universal right provided under EU and Polish law, the Polish border agency began a large-scale refusal of entry for asylum seekers, claiming that they tried to enter the country without a valid visa, which is not required when applying for refugee status.

Marta Szczepanik, an immigration expert with the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, said the number of people being turned away at the Polish border in 2016 reached unprecedented levels. Human Constanta, a Belarusian human rights organization that assists would-be asylum seekers in Brest, has said that during the peak months of drama in August and September, up to 3,000 people were living in the city hoping to be allowed into Poland.

As Russian citizens, Chechen migrants have been able to rent private accommodation and stay in Belarus without registration for up to 90 days. The situation for those from Tajikistan is more complicated. Tajiks are forced to stay in overpriced hotels that can officially register their stay in Belarus. After 90 days, they are no longer allowed to remain in the country. Tajiks can, in special circumstances, apply for a temporary residence in Belarus for up to one year, but few either know about the loophole or choose to avail themselves of it.

In December, Ali and his family were coming to the end of their allowed period. With one day left before their stay in Belarus legally expired, they were again turned back at the border with Poland, and denied the right to claim asylum.

The reasons why migrants are not allowed to claim asylum in Poland are unclear. According to Dariusz Sienicki, a spokesperson for the Border Guard, there were no instances of people being refused the opportunity to apply for refugee status. But human rights groups working with the migrants, as well as the asylum seekers themselves, contend otherwise.

Failure is sometimes the outcome of procedural errors.

According to the Terespol monitoring mission of the office of the Polish Ombudsmen for Human Rights, which is the only body allowed to observe the interview process at the border, the majority of migrants fail to directly request asylum in conversations with the border guards. A number of those who do ask are denied entry to Poland anyhow.

This constitutes a clear violation of international refugee law and the right to asylum, especially since Polish law dictates that the Office for Foreigners, and not the Border Guard, is responsible for handling asylum applications. The Border Guard, therefore, is making decisions outside its purview, while the Polish Office for Foreigners has no representatives at the border.

Szczepanik said denying that a migrant has expressed his or her will to claim asylum has become a common explanation used by authorities. Another problem, Szczepanik added, is methodological. “The questions asked by the border guards are often put in such a way to prove the preponderance of economic factors behind migration, while the part of the story suggesting persecution is usually not pursued,” she said.

As Anna Cieślewska, a Central Asia expert from the Jagiellonian University, explained, the persecution in Tajikistan of the IRPT and its supporters dates back several years, to around 2010, when the government sought to set strict rules on religious life under the pretext of combating Islamic extremism. Repression reached a new level of intensity in September 2015, after an alleged coup attempt by a disaffected deputy defense minister was linked to the party.

The Polish government’s reluctance to acknowledge this downturn has exasperated rights advocates.

Tajikistan’s human rights crackdown “requires the European Union, including Poland, to provide protection for those who have been persecuted on political grounds,” Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch’s Central Asia researcher, told EurasiaNet.org. “It also requires that the right to asylum be protected and implemented consistent with Warsaw’s international obligations, rather than the blatant attempt to do an end-run around refugee law.”

There are multiple examples of Tajik authorities taking their hunt of the opposition beyond their own borders. Maksud Ibragimov, a young Russia-based opposition activist, was stabbed in Moscow in late 2014, and weeks later forcibly deported to Tajikistan, where he was charged with extremism and imprisoned for 17 years. In March 2015, the leader of the anti-government Group 24, Umarali Quvvatov, was assassinated in Istanbul after Turkish authorities refused his extradition to Tajikistan. Rights activists suspect Quvvatov’s killing was the handiwork of people working at the Tajik government’s behest.

Other times, the government in Dushanbe has used international extradition treaties to repatriate critics.

In June 2015, Polish authorities denied Shabnam Khudoydodova, who came to the attention of Tajik authorities for social media postings critical of the government, entry into Poland. Upon her return to Brest, Khudoydodova was stopped by Belarusian police and detained on terrorism charges. The Tajik government had placed her name on an Interpol wanted list, and requested her extradition. Khudoydodova claims that after her arrest she was visited in her cell by Tajik special services officers and beaten.

It took nine months of interventions from international human rights groups and the United States Embassy in Belarus to secure Khudoydodova’s release and passage into Poland, where she is now awaiting a decision on her asylum application.

Cieślewska said there are a few possible factors behind Poland’s hardline position on Tajik and other asylum seekers. One is a perception that large numbers of economic migrants have sought to ride the coattails of people subject to political repression. Economic decline in Russia has left its toll on conditions all across the former Soviet Union, including in Tajikistan. The economic fallout is compelling many would-be labor migrants to look further afield for places to live and work.

Also, Cieślewska noted that in 2015 around 90 percent of the 500 or so applications for asylum submitted by citizens of Tajikistan in Poland were withdrawn, most likely because the applicants moved onward to other western European countries, where salaries are higher and Tajik communities are more vibrant. Given that Berlin hosts the headquarters of the IRPT, the majority of political dissidents aspire to move to Germany.

The stricter admission policy adopted by the Polish authorities could be a response to pressure from within the EU, in particular from Germany, which is struggling to cope with its own massive influx of refugees. Many view Poland as merely a transit point on their way to other destinations, namely Germany. While experts have speculated on the possibility of behind-the-scenes diplomatic wrangling, there is no hard evidence to prove such a claim.

According to the data provided by Poland’s Office for Foreigners, in 2016, 13 Tajik nationals were granted refugee status or another form of international protection in Poland. Another 633 applications were discontinued, most of them due to the absence of the applicant. Six people were sent back to Tajikistan.

This is clearly bad news for Ali and fellow dissidents trying to reach Poland. While the number of families remaining in Brest is slowly declining, and it seems that the worst crisis is over, those escaping Tajikistan in search of international protection remain bereft of escape routes.

Editor’s note:

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a freelance journalist covering the post-Soviet space.

EurasiaNet:

© Eurasianet

Human Rights Watch: “Greece: Tajik Activist Faces Extradition”

Forced Return Would Violate Ban on Torture, Ill-Treatment.

(Athens) – Greece should not extradite, deport, or otherwise facilitate the return of a Tajik opposition activist to Tajikistan, where he faces possible torture or ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said today. Mirzorakhim Kuzov, a senior leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), was detained on October 9, 2017, by Greek police at passport control in Athens International Airport as he was in transit after attending a human rights conference in Warsaw, Poland.

The Tajik government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the country’s leading opposition party, and designated it a terrorist organization in September 2015. Kuzov was detained in Athens under an Interpol “red notice” submitted by Tajik authorities on the basis of politically motivated extremism charges brought in retaliation for his peaceful political opposition. The Tajik government has previously abused the Interpol notice system to target several peaceful political activists, including Muhiddin Kabiri, the party leader.

“It is no secret that Tajikistan has a serious problem with torture and is actively hunting down political opposition figures using Interpol ‘red notices,’” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece has a legal obligation not to return anyone to a country where they could face torture or ill-treatment and should abide by those international commitments.”

In recent years, Tajik authorities have dramatically intensified a crackdown on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. The government has jailed hundreds of political activists, including several human rights lawyers, and closed down opposition parties.

In September 2015, following clashes between government forces and militants associated with Tajikistan’s deputy defense minister, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, authorities arrested dozens of IRPT members, accusing them of involvement in the violence, despite a lack of evidence. In June 2016, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court sentenced 13 party leaders to lengthy prison terms, including life in prison for 2, on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. The sentences followed an unfair trial initiated in retaliation for their peaceful political opposition, and reflect the government’s pervasive manipulation of the justice system and egregious violations of the right to freedom of expression.

Human Rights Watch has interviewed numerous sources who report that various IRPT activists in prison, including Mahmadali Hayit and Rahmatullo Rajab, have been tortured.

Kuzov is being held in Korydalos prison in Athens. He has told Human Rights Watch that he fled Tajikistan in September 2015 fearing arrest after Tajik police and security services began persecuting him and other party members. He had been in hiding in a third country for the last two years, before attending the human rights conference organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Warsaw. In August, Kuzov’s family members were also forced to flee Tajikistan, following nearly two years of continuous harassment and repeated interrogations by Tajik security services.

Tajik authorities have charged Kuzov with various crimes of “extremism” under Tajikistan’s criminal code including “public calls for carrying out extremist activity” (art. 307(1)(2)) and “organizing an extremist community” (art. 307(2)(1)). Authorities routinely invoke article 307 charges in politically motivated cases.

Despite reforms outlawing torture, as defined under international standards, in Tajikistan’s criminal code, torture is an enduring problem in Tajikistan. Police and investigators often use it to coerce confessions, and Human Rights Watch has received many credible reports of people associated with political opposition groups being tortured.

As a party to the Convention against Torture and the European Convention of Human Rights, Greece is obliged to ensure that it does not forcibly send anyone to a place where they face a real risk of persecution, torture, or other inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment.

The European Court of Human Rights has issued a number of rulings that sending anyone back to Tajikistan would be a violation of the European Convention because of the serious risk that the person would be tortured or subject to inhuman and degrading treatment. The court also rejected as unreliable assurances from the Tajik government that it would not subject anyone sent back to prohibited treatment, saying that such assurances did not satisfy the host government’s obligation not to return the individuals to places where they faced such risk. The court has yet to issue any subsequent ruling that circumstances in Tajikistan have substantially changed and that extradition or forcible returns to Tajikistan would not violate the convention.

“Kuzov urgently needs protection,” Swerdlow said. “Greek authorities should make sure they don’t send him back to Tajikistan, where it’s clear he is at serious risk of abuse and wouldn’t get a fair trial.”

Human Rights Watch

October 12, 2017

HRW: “Tajikistan: Stop Persecuting Opposition Families”

US, EU Should Urgently Address Retaliation.

(Bishkek) – Tajik authorities have detained, interrogated, and threatened relatives of 10 peaceful opposition activists who took part in a conference in Germany on July 9, 2017, in retaliation for the peaceful exercise of their fundamental rights, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today.

Activists provided details about 10 incidents in cities around the country that have been sanctioned by the Tajik government at the highest level. Tajik security services officers and local officials publicly shamed, banned from leaving the country, and threatened to confiscate the property of the activists’ relatives, and in one case threatened to rape an activist’s daughter.

“The Tajik government’s vicious campaign of intimidation against dissidents’ relatives is widening and becoming ever more brazen,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The simultaneous actions by security services and local officials across numerous cities suggest a policy of collective punishment sanctioned at the highest levels, which should end immediately.”

Hundreds of political activists, including several human rights lawyers, have been jailed in the widening crackdown on free expression, and opposition parties banned. The authorities are also violating the rights of family members who remain in the country, primarily relatives of members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and the opposition movement Group 24. National and local officials mobilize vigilante groups of “concerned citizens,” including school officials, who surround relatives’ homes and brand the families “enemies of the people.”

Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) chairman Muhiddin Kabiri addresses a conference attended by Tajikistani opposition activists in Dortmund, Germany on July 9, 2017.

 © 2017 IRPT

The latest string of attacks was retaliation against opposition activists who attended the July 9 conference in Dortmund, Germany, marking the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that formally ended Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. On July 10, Tajik media reported that a pro-government security analyst, Saifullo Safarov, deputy director of the Strategic Research Center of the Office of the President of Tajikistan, appeared on national television condemning the opposition activists who attended the Dortmund conference. He stated that their attempts to unite into a coordinated opposition movement posed a “serious threat” to Tajikistan’s national security.

Earlier incidents of retaliation occurred in September and December 2016, when activists abroad engaged in peaceful protests.

IRPT activists provided detailed accounts to Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee about violations against their families committed by authorities between July 7 and July 10 in the capital, Dushanbe, and seven other villages and cities across the country. In each case, security services officers explicitly linked their visits and abusive actions to the participation of the people’s relatives in a peaceful political conference in Dortmund, Germany.

The United States, the European Union and its member states, and other international partners should urgently address the growing pattern of retaliatory attacks in Tajikistan as part of the wider deteriorating human rights situation there and publicly condemn the abuses, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said. Washington, Brussels, and other actors should consider asset freezes and visa denials to Tajik officials and government entities that take part in these abuses.

“The catalogue of retaliatory abuse in Tajikistan simply for exercising freedom of expression is staggering,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “No one should be publicly shamed, pressured to divorce their spouse, or be threatened with having their child raped or property arbitrarily confiscated under any circumstances, let alone for the exercise of basic human rights.”

Dangara

On July 7, 2017, police and security services officers in Sebiston, a village in Tajikistan’s southern Dangara district, went to the home of the parents of Jannatulloh Komilov, an IRPT activist now based in Germany. The officers berated Komilov’s elderly mother, Saima Kulova, for her son’s opposition activities, and questioned and intimidated his brothers, Zubaidulloh and Ubaidulloh Komilov. The officials threatened to confiscate the family’s home and adjoining land unless Jannatulloh Komilov ceases his participation in opposition activities abroad. Two days later, officials returned, detaining Komilov’s father-in-law, Zubaidulloh Atovulloev, overnight.

Kulob

On July 7 and 8, several security service officers in the southern city of Kulob threatened the Turkey-based IRPT activist Bobojon Kayumov’s mother and father at their family home. The officers stated that unless Kayumov ended his opposition work and specifically refrained from participating in the Dortmund conference they would “demolish” the family’s home. The officers then forced the two to record a videotaped statement condemning their son’s activities. On July 9, officers detained Kayumov’s father, holding him at the Kulob city security services facility until nighttime, and repeatedly interrogated him.

Vahdat

Jamshed Yorov is a Germany-based lawyer and the brother of Buzurgmehr Yorov. a lawyer imprisoned in Tajikistan since September 2015. He is serving a 25-year sentence following a flawed trial on politically motivated charges after publicly announcing he would represent jailed IRPT members. Jamshed Yorov participated in the Dortmund conference and made a public statement on July 9.

The next day security services officers went to his family’s home in Vahdat, Tajikistan, and told Yorov’s wife, Dilbar Zuhurova, that she and her children were barred from leaving Tajikistan and would be imprisoned if they tried to leave. Yorov told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that officers pressured Zuhurova to divorce him, promising to supply her with food and money if she agrees. They also threatened to rape Jamshed’s 15-year-old daughter.

Pandovchi Sari dasht Village, Nurobod District

On July 8, security service officers detained Asomuddin Saidov, father of Poland-based IRPT activist Islomiddin Saidov, in the village of Pandowchi Sari dasht in Tajikistan’s central Nurobod district. The officers took the father to the Dushanbe security services detention facility for interrogation. They showed Saidov pictures of his son taking part in peaceful demonstrations in Warsaw in September 2016 and threatened to take “necessary actions” against his son if he would not cease his political activism. The officers also visited Islomiddin’s sister’s home in Dushanbe seeking to interrogate her.

On July 9 and 10, Pandowchi Sari dasht village officials summoned the father in front of a group of “concerned citizens” while officials and others denounced his son and the entire family for their “treacherous” political activities against the government. Officials and other people publicly shamed Saidov and exhorted him to bring his son back to Tajikistan to face justice.

Pakhtakor Village, Jayhun Village Council, Khatlon Region

On July 8, security service officers in the village of Pakhtakor in Tajikistan’s southern Khatlon region visited the home of Abdumuslim Rustamov, brother of IRPT activist Iftikhor Rustamov, as well as the separate homes of Iftikhor’s sisters Sabohat Khodjaeva and Zarnigor Rustamova, interrogating them about Rustamov’s political activities. They threatened further problems if he continues his opposition political activity.

On July 11, security service officers in the same village took Masnavikhon Faizrahmonova, the mother of the Austria-based IRPT activist and spokesman Mahmudjon Faizrahmonov, to the local security services building to be interrogated about her son’s activities. The authorities held a public meeting where various village residents condemned Faizrahmonov and his brothers for their political activities. Faizrahmonov told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that the community had ostracized his family and that his mother’s health markedly deteriorated following the public shaming.

Khujand

On July 7 security service officers in the northern city of Khujand summoned relatives of IRPT activist Ilhomjon Yakubov to their facility, where the officers interrogated them for hours about his activities and threatened them with further unspecified “consequences” if he continues his political activism.

Rudaki

On July 8, authorities in the Rudaki district went to the home of Muhammadi Teshaev, the former head of the IRPT’s chapter in this area. They interrogated his family members and threatened to confiscate their house if Teshaev does not stop his political work.

Dushanbe

Before the Dortmund conference, security service officers in Dushanbe went to the family home of Poland-based IRPT activist Gulbarg Saifova, a relative of the exiled IRPT chairman Muhiddin Kabiri, who is also based in Europe. Officers forced Saifova’s parents to videotape a recording denouncing Saifova’s and Kabiri’s activities. Saifova ran for parliament in the March 2015 elections but was forced to flee the country and seek refuge in Poland due to persecution for her association with the IRPT.

On July 7, police in Dushanbe’s Firdavsi district visited the home of Europe-based IRPT activists Mijgona and Sayriniso Amonova and interrogated their father. Police officers called the women “traitors” and pressured their father to seek their return to Tajikistan so they could ask forgiveness of President Emomali Rahmon.

 

Human Rights Watch

July 18, 2017