The authorities continued to impose sweeping restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly to silence critical voices. Police and security services continued to persecute human rights lawyers and their families. A human rights lawyer was tortured in detention and had his sentence extended to 28 years’ imprisonment following three unfair trials. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people were subjected to violence, arbitrary arrest and discrimination. The authorities forced thousands of women to remove their hijabs to comply with the law on traditions.
Public order and counter-terrorism concerns, real and perceived, dominated the political agenda. The authorities relentlessly invoked national security issues to justify ever harsher restrictions on perceived dissent, on the grounds that these measures ensured stability and preserved cultural traditions.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression noted in his June report that since his 2016 visit to Tajikistan the “draconian restrictions on opposition voices and the squeezing of civil society” had continued to worsen. He concluded that “the Government is obligated under human rights law to reconsider its entire approach to restricting the opposition, the media, the Internet, and civil society as a whole.”
By December, less than half of the 2,000 lawyers registered nationwide had managed to requalify and were licensed to practise. Amendments introduced in 2015 to the law on the legal profession increased government control over the licensing of lawyers and significantly cut the total number of lawyers licensed to practise, drastically reducing citizens‘ access to justice.
Persecution of defence lawyers
Defence lawyers who took up politically sensitive cases, or cases related to national security and counter-terrorism, faced increasing harassment, intimidation and undue pressure in connection with their legitimate professional activities. Human rights lawyers faced arbitrary arrests, prosecutions on politically motivated charges, harsh prison sentences and the harassment of their families and colleagues. Many human rights lawyers fled the country for safety.1
The case of Buzurgmekhr Yorov
In February, the Supreme Court in Dushanbe, the capital, turned down the appeals against the prison sentences of human rights lawyers Buzurgmekhr Yorov and Nuriddin Makhkamov who had represented several members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Dushanbe City Court had sentenced them to 23 and 21 years’ imprisonment respectively in October 2016, following a blatantly unfair trial. Both lawyers were found guilty of “arousing national, racial, local or religious hostility” and “public calls for violent change of the constitutional order of the Republic of Tajikistan”, charges they consistently denied. The state media portrayed Buzurgmekhr Yorov as a “terrorist sympathizer” and therefore a “terrorist” himself.
In February, Firdavs District Court in Dushanbe started hearings into a third criminal case brought by the authorities against Buzurgmekhr Yorov on new fraud charges, allegedly in response to complaints made against him by members of the public.
In March, in the second trial of Buzurgmekhr Yorov, the Supreme Court found him guilty of disrespecting the Court and insulting government officials in his final statement to Dushanbe City Court in October 2016. He was sentenced to an additional two years’ imprisonment. The trial was opened in December 2016 when he was in the pre-trial detention centre number 1 (SIZO) in Dushanbe.
In April, Buzurgmekhr Yorov’s wife was informed of a fourth criminal case brought against her husband for allegedly insulting “the leader of the Nation”. In August, he was sentenced to an additional three years’ imprisonment on charges of fraud and of insulting “the leader of the Nation” in statements he made in court during his original trial in response to the fraud charges brought against him. The total length of his sentence was 28 years. The family could not find any lawyers willing to represent Buzurgmekhr Yorov as they feared reprisals from the authorities after human rights lawyer Muazzamakhon Kadirova, who represented him in 2016, had to seek protection abroad.
In September, the authorities allowed Buzurgmekhr Yorov’s mother to visit him in SIZO 1. He told her that the guards subjected him and other cellmates to regular beatings, including to the head, using their legs, arms and batons while insulting, humiliating and threatening them. He spent several days in the SIZO medical centre following one of the beatings. Buzurgmekhr Yorov was put in solitary confinement at least four times as punishment for what the SIZO Director explained to the media were “violations of the detention regime”. The SIZO Director denied all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of Buzurgmekhr Yorov.
Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people
Consensual same-sex sexual relations were not criminalized but continued to be highly stigmatized. Since 2014, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) included “homosexuality and lesbianism” in its list of “amoral crimes, prostitution and procurement”. LGBTI people were targeted in two public campaigns to prevent and combat “amoral behaviour” and crimes against “morality” launched in 2015 by the Office of the Prosecutor General, MIA and the State Committee on Women’s Affairs and Family. LGBTI individuals were subjected to violence, arbitrary arrests, detention and discrimination, including being forcibly registered on MIA lists. In October, the Minister of Internal Affairs announced that the names and personal details of 367 individuals suspected of being LGBTI had been entered on an MIA register ostensibly to protect them and to “prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS”. The authorities accused NGOs working with LGBTI people in the context of sexual health of undermining traditional cultural values.
In August, President Rahmon signed into law amendments to the Law on Traditions regulating the practice of cultural traditions and celebrations. The amendments compelled citizens to wear traditional dress at cultural celebrations or ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals. Women in particular were prohibited from wearing black at funerals.
In the same month, police and local officials approached over 8,000 women who were wearing the Islamic headscarf (hijab) in public places, ordered them to remove it because it was against the law and asked them instead to wear a headscarf tied behind the head in the “traditional Tajik way”. Dozens of women were briefly detained, many had their hijabs forcibly removed. Women wearing western-style dress were not targeted. Government officials claimed that the hijab was a form of “alien culture and tradition” and a sign of “extremism”. Shops selling Islamic clothing were raided by security forces and many were forced to close.
Repression of dissent
Dozens of members and associates of banned opposition groups, such as Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and Group 24, and their families sought protection abroad. Party and Group 24 activists in exile reported that in retaliation for their actions abroad, such as conducting peaceful protests at international meetings and conferences, police and security services threatened, detained, questioned and in some cases beat family members, including elderly relatives and children, in Tajikistan. Local authorities publicly shamed relatives branding them as “traitors” and “enemies of the state”.
Freedom of expression
The authorities continued to impose sweeping restrictions on freedom of expression and the media and controlled virtually all forms of access to information. Journalists continued to be subjected to intimidation and harassment by police and security services. Tens of journalists were forced to flee the country fearing reprisals for their critical reporting.
In May, the authorities unblocked access to some social media sites and search platforms, such as Facebook, Vkontakte and YouTube. However, access to media platforms considered to be promoting “extremism”, such as BBC, CNN and Ferghana.ru, continued to be blocked.
In July, Parliament adopted new legislation granting the police and security services new powers to obtain information about internet sites visited by individuals. The law was proposed following claims, which were not substantiated, by some officials that over 80% of internet users accessed sites with “extremist” content.
- In the line of duty: Harassment, prosecution and imprisonment of lawyers in Tajikistan (EUR 60/6266/2017)