by Human Rights Watch
The Tajik government is arresting, imprisoning, and torturing members of the country’s peaceful political opposition, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today. The government is also targeting perceived critics abroad, seeking their detention and extradition back to Tajikistan, and has forcibly disappeared critics abroad only to have them reappear in Tajik custody.
Tajikistan’s deteriorating human rights situation worsened dramatically in the last year with the forced closure of Tajikistan’s leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) in September 2015. In March, an opposition figure, Umarali Kuvvatov, was shot dead in Istanbul in circumstances that point to involvement or acquiescence by the Tajik government.
“Tajikistan is in the midst of the worst political and religious crackdown since the end of the country’s civil war, with hundreds of people landing behind bars for no other reason than their peaceful political work,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Tajikistan’s human rights crisis is expanding by the day, but the response of Washington, Brussels, and other international partners has fallen seriously short.”
Recent research by Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee uncovered a wide-ranging campaign by Tajik authorities to detain, imprison, and silence peaceful opposition activists and perceived critics at home and abroad. Dushanbe has sought the detention and forcible return to Tajikistan of peaceful political activists in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Moldova,Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere.
Since a wave of arrests that began on September 16, Tajik and other observers, including the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, estimate that Tajik police and security services have arrested hundreds of members of the Islamic Renaissance Party on politically motivated charges. A major trial of 16 senior party leaders began on February 9, 2016.
Authorities have also targeted lawyers, journalists, and ordinary citizens who have posted statements critical of the government of President Emomali Rahmon on social media. Hundreds of perceived critics and their family members have fled the country, according to observers’ estimates. Some have been tortured in detention.
In December 2015, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee interviewed 30 political activists and their relatives in Moldova and Turkey. Earlier, the organizations conducted research in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and phone interviews with activists in Germany. The groups found a range of egregious violations during the crackdown.
In addition to Kuvvatov’s killing, another activist, Maksud Ibragimov, was stabbed, forcibly disappeared in Russia, returned toTajikistan, and sentenced to 17 years in prison. Two others have been forcibly disappeared – in Russia and Tajikistan – and 10 others detained abroad on extradition requests by Tajik authorities in Russia, Belarus, Moldova, and elsewhere. At least 20 peaceful activists have already been imprisoned, with sentences ranging from three to 29 years. Some 200 members of the IRPT have been arrested, while others and their relatives are under house arrest. Five lawyers have been detained, and others harassed.
Tajikistan should immediately and unconditionally release everyone imprisoned on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said. It should also allow the Renaissance Party, Group 24, and other peaceful opposition groups to operate freely and exercise the freedoms of assembly, association, expression, and religion, in accordance with international human rights norms and Tajikistan’s constitution.
Tajik authorities should ensure all detainees and prisoners their due process rights, including access to counsel of their choosing and visits with relatives. Tajik authorities should also meaningfully investigate all allegations of torture and enforced disappearances, including disclosing the whereabouts of those forcibly disappeared. Tajik authorities should also immediately stop persecuting lawyers who seek to represent opposition members.
While the US, European Union, and other international actors have expressed concern about some aspects of the crackdown, the international response has been largely muted. These actors should publicly and privately press the Tajik government to end its crackdown on political opposition parties and enact targeted measures, including visa bans against Tajik officials if there is no improvement. They should further use Tajikistan’s upcoming review by the UN Human Rights Council on May 6, to raise strong concerns on the crackdown, putting authorities on notice that further measures could be taken in case the situation continues to worsen.
The US government should also designate Tajikistan a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), for its systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious and political freedoms without further delay, the organizations said. Such a designation by the Obama administration would send a strong message to the Tajik government that its crackdown should end immediately, and would afford the executive branch with the authority to enact a broad range of targeted measures, including curtailing all aid not related to humanitarian programs, such as military assistance, and banning visits to the US by Tajik officials deemed to be participating in severe human rights abuses.
“Tajikistan’s opposition and the lawyers who represent it are under attack. The time for mere statements of concern has long passed,” said Marius Fossum, Norwegian Helsinki Committee regional representative in Central Asia. “Now is when Tajikistan’s international partners, including the US and EU, should send President Emomali Rahmon a clear message: repression will no longer be cost-free.”
Photo: Tajik President Emomali Rahmon