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.
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.
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.