The reporting period saw a serious deterioration in the protection of fundamental freedoms due to a violent crackdown, mainly on protesters, by security forces in the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) (an autonomous region in eastern Tajikistan) in November 2021 and, again, in May 2022.
This report, which covers developments affecting the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Tajikistan for the period from July 2021 to July 2022, was prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) for the CIVICUS Monitor.
The reporting period saw a serious deterioration in the protection of fundamental freedoms due to a violent crackdown, mainly on protesters, by security forces in the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) (an autonomous region in eastern Tajikistan) in November 2021 and, again, in May 2022. As part of this crackdown, dozens of protesters were detained, with widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment, as well as extrajudicial killings of detained protesters. The crackdown was also accompanied by repressive measures targeting the wider population in the region, including months-long shutdowns of the internet and mobile phone networks throughout the region. In addition, in a development of serious concern, human rights defenders working in the region were arrested on trumped-up charges (including Manuchehr Kholiknazarov,Director of the Pamir Lawyers’ Association and Ulfatkhonim Mamadshonova, human rights activist and independent journalist). Several bloggers were prosecuted for expressing their opinions about the situation in the GBAO on social media and four independent Dushanbe-based journalists were physically attacked by unknown persons after conducting an interview with human rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshonova from the region.
During the reporting period, the authorities continued to restrict citizens’ right to freedom of expression both on- and offline, including outside the GBAO region, by intimidating, harassing and criminally prosecuting journalists, civil society activists and other outspoken citizens. The authorities continued to misusevaguely worded criminal legislation on ‘’extremism’’ and other offencesto suppressfreedom of expression. In ongoing trends of concern, independent media websites and social media networks have been temporarily or permanently blocked without any right of appeal; journalists, bloggers and activists have been prosecuted for posting public comments on online articles; readers have been interrogated or arrested for 'liking' or 'reposting' information on social media; journalists, bloggers, activists and public figureshave been targeted by trolling and cyberbullying, resulting in self-censorship.
The environment for freedom of association remained restricted with public organisations experiencing difficulties with registration. Moreover, authorities used trumped-up or unwarranted charges to prosecute human rights defenders, independent lawyers and members or supporters of opposition parties.
These developments are covered in more detail below.
Protests remain rare in Tajikistan due to risks faced by protesters, including criminal prosecution. The implementation of restrictive laws and excessive use of force by the authorities against protesters makes it virtually impossible for citizens to gather to peacefully express their dissatisfaction.
In recent years, large-scale protests have only taken place in the GBAO region and have often been met with excessive use of force by security forces and with repressive measures aimed at preventing new protests. This has resulted in an environment of fear inhibiting the right to peaceful assembly.
During the reporting period, authorities cracked down on protesters in the GBAO region on two occasions, as described below.
Violent suppression of protests in the GBAO region
The November 2021 events
On 25th November 2021, protests primarily broke out in Khorog, the capital city of the GBAO region, after security forces fatally wounded Gulbidin Ziyobekov, a young man from the Roshtkala District, while detaining him on suspicion of kidnapping. As Ziyobekov was detained, two other men reportedly sustained injuries after being shot at.
On the same day, relatives and protesters carried Ziyobekov’s body to the main square in Khorog, demanding an investigation into the incident. Crowds of protesters grew quickly, calling for the withdrawal of the military stationed in Khorog, the dismantling of military checkpoints in the city and the removal of the newly appointed Governor, Alisher Mirzonabot.
While most protests were peaceful, there were also violent protests. There are allegations that the authorities used excessive force to repress protests and that security forces fired indiscriminately into the crowd killing two protesters, Tutisho Amirshoyev and Gulnazar Murobbekov, and injuring seventeen others. Several security force officials were reportedly injured by violent protesters who were armed with sticks and stones. The violent mass protests continued for several days, and the central government authorities immediately blocked the internet connection in the GBAO region for four months until 21st March 2022 – depriving the population of their right to access information.
Local authorities and representatives of the protesters agreed to establish a group of 44 representatives of civil society and government bodies, called Commission 44, to investigate the events that took place between the 25th and 28th November 2021 in Khorog and the Roshtkala District. Several members of this group also joined the Investigation Team set up by the Prosecutor General’s Office to conduct a joint investigation into Ziyobekov’s death and the lethal use of firearms against demonstrators. Commission 44 representatives repeatedly criticised the authorities for obstructing a thorough and transparent joint investigation.
Mass arrests, trials and repression against local residents continued. Criminal cases were initiated against dozens of protesters, who were handed prison sentences during unfair trials for alleged attacks on state officials, hooliganism, illegal possession of arms and cutting trees during the protests.These trials were reportedly in violation of procedural requirements as in many cases the verdicts were prepared before court hearings took place, and the hearings lasted no longer than two to four hours before the judge announced the verdict. According to human rights defenders, none of those arrested had access to a lawyer, some were held incommunicado, and some were severely beaten in custody.
There are also concerns around the forcible return of people originating from the GBAO region to Tajikistan, whom the authorities regard as leading supporters of the protests. Among those returned, arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms are popular blogger and Mixed Martial Arts fighter Chorshanbe Chorshanbiev, and Amriddin Alovatshoyev (see below).
Authorities conducted concerted media smear campaigns against local residents. Starting in November 2021, the local TV Station Badakhshon was instrumentalised by local authorities to discredit local unofficial leaders and residents who they claim were involved in the protests.
Local citizens (often low-ranking public officials, teachers, doctors and students) were coerced by security forces to make statements in support of the authoritiesand denouncing the protests and local activists. Badakhshon daily news regularly covered the detention of local residents and showed detainees making televised confessions. The TV anchor referred to them as “criminals” even though they were only under preliminary investigation, mentioning their names and even their places of residence.
Civil society representatives subsequently accused the authorities of failing to conduct a thorough, impartial and effective investigation, and tensions remained high.At the beginning of February 2022, the Head of the Prosecutor Office in GBAO, Parviz Orifzoda, announced that the criminal case concerning the use of firearms by law enforcement agencies against protesters in Khorog on 25th and 26th November 2021 had been closed due to the lack of criminal elements in the actions of law enforcement agencies.
The May 2022 events
Tensions in Khorog once again ran high from 14th May 2022, when around 1,000 people gathered to peacefully demand the resignation of the regional leader Alisher Mirzonabot, and an effective investigation into the death of Gulbidin Ziyobekov. In response, the authorities delivered an ultimatum: if the demonstrators did not disperse by 4 p.m. on 16th May 2022, they would be removed by force.
Credible reports indicate that at this hour military and special forces forcefully dispersed several hundred people protesting in Khorog city centre.
The violent dispersal in Khorog left at least one person dead and several wounded. On 16th May 2022, the authorities also cut off the internet in the entire region. Attacks by security forces on civilians continued on 17th and 18th May 2022, with the reported use of tear gas grenades and live ammunition.
The violence spread to other areas of the GBAO region, in particular Rushan District, where local residents attempted to block the road to Khorog with their cars in order to prevent a military convoy from passing. On 18th May 2022 the Ministry of the Interior announced that it would carry out an “anti-terrorist operation” in Rushan, where mobile, landline and internet communication was subsequently cut, and people were denied the right to leave or enter the district. Local witnesses reported that snipers and military helicopters were used that day to fire live ammunition at civilians.
The crackdown in Rushan led to casualties amongst protesters and the security forces.
Posts on social media based on eyewitness reports indicate that security forces arbitrarily searched houses, seized mobile phones and detained residents. There are also allegations of torture and deliberate extra-judicial executions of people detained during the crackdown. Since 16th May 2022, at least 40 civilians are reported to have been killed.
According to independent news sources, one of the latest victims was Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, an influential local leader, who was shot dead by government troops on 22nd May 2022. Hundreds of residents of GBAO have been arrested, including civil society activists and journalists.
Crackdown on local media and civil society
Against the backdrop of the events in the GBAO region described above, Tajikistani authorities have cracked down with unprecedented severity on critical bloggers, journalists and human rights activists across the country. Security forces have conducted house searches, arrests for alleged membership of an extremist organisation, there have been physical attacks on journalists and forcible returns of critical bloggers originating from GBAO and living in Russia and their subsequent arrest (more information and cases under expression below).
The whole region remained cut off from the internet and mobile phone network until the end of June 2022, making it extremely difficult to get verified information from this region.
In May 2022, Reporters Without Borders issued its World Press Freedom Index,which concluded that freedom of the press and freedom of expression continue to be seriously repressed in Tajikistan. Although Tajikistan’s rating slightly improved from the previous year (from 162 to 152 out of 180), it was still ranked amongst the most restrictive states in the world.
During the reporting period, the Tajikistani authorities continued to severely restrict freedom of expression both on and offline, putting pressure on independent media outlets and representatives, bloggers and activists. State-owned media increasingly engaged in state propaganda.
On an unprecedented scale, the authorities prosecuted journalists, bloggers and activists who made statements critical of the authorities, on charges of ‘’extremism’’ and ‘’terrorism’’. Most cases of prosecutions in the reporting period concern bloggers and civil society activists from the GBAO who criticised the central government’s politics in this region and its crackdown on protesters (see also the section on “Violent suppression of protests in the GBAO").
Intimidation of independent media and prosecution of journalists
Accreditation and Licensing
The authorities continued to attempt to control and put pressure on foreign media outlets by refusing, withdrawing or restricting journalists’ accreditation. Reports stated that law enforcement agencies restricted accreditation to three months in several cases, thus violating the national Law on Periodicals and other Media which provides that accreditation for local journalists of foreign media should be granted for one year.
The State Committee on Television and Radio continued to demand illegal fees for the renewal of broadcasting permits of independent media outlets. Only private, non-state-owned media outlets are required to have a licence.
Access to information
The National Association of Independent Mass Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT), an NGO, stated that it is becoming increasingly difficult for journalists to obtain information from local authorities in the country. A report published by the organisation in November 2021 found that even the Prosecutor General's Office, which oversees the implementation of laws, fails to comply with legal requirements on the provision of information. The process of receiving information from the authorities is challenging as it requires journalists to send a written request on a letterhead to obtain official confirmation even of urgent news. The authorities usually refuse to provide information over the phone. NANSMIT also noted that the press centres of ministries and departments often fail to respond to written requests from editors. According to local experts, when information on urgent news is not yet known, it results in an information gap which leads to disinformation and unreliable information.
Blocking of websites and internet shut-downs
The authorities continue to block websites arbitrarily or shut down the internet to suppress freedom of expression. From August 2021 until April 2022, there were several cases of short-term blocking of news outlets Asia Plus and Radio Ozodi, as well as Facebook. However, the blocking of internet and mobile phone services was most systematic in the GBAO region, where anti-government protests occurred (see the section on “Violent suppression of protests in the GBAO").
In a separate development, human rights activists reported increased activity by troll factories and state organised bloggers who carried out campaigns aiming to discredit and block critical voices online. Members of these troll factories abuse reporting mechanisms on Facebook or YouTube to file complaints against groups who are critical of the authorities and/or raise current issues of public concern. Typically, hundreds of trolls file complaints against such groups, which results in Facebook or YouTube blocking them.
IPHR has information from the reporting period about targeted attacks on women journalists through so-called "revenge porn", where they were threatened that compromising material would be published online if they did not refrain from critical reporting. These threats often lead to self-censorship.
Across Tajikistan the situation of civil society organisations and activists, in particular those working on human rights issues, has seriously deteriorated in recent years. NGOs, activists and lawyers have been subjected to threats and intimidation by the authorities in order to get them to drop or refrain from taking up politically sensitive issues or cases and tax authorities have subjected vocal human rights groups to excessive checks. During the reporting period, human rights defenders from the GBAO region were at heightened risk of repercussions for monitoring and documenting human rights violations in connection with the ongoing crisis in the GBAO (see “Violent suppression of protests in the GBAO").
Ongoing persecution of human rights lawyers & imprisonment of HRDs
Persecution and silencing of opposition
The authorities continue to crack down on anyone they perceive as political opposition.
As reported in the previous Civicus Monitor, a water dispute in April 2021 led to some of the worst clashes in years on the disputed Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in the Batken region where, according to official information, at least 55 people in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were killed and over 270 injured. Despite the ceasefire from May 2021 the border conflict in the Batken region continues to be an issue, with regular clashes occurring in January and March 2022. Government authorities did not provide official information on the border conflict and obstructed access to information for independent media outlets in the country. Independent sources told IPHR that apart from hindering access to information, the authorities tried to interfere in the editorial policy of media outlets to block reporting on the conflict. This thus leads to the spread of false information circulating on social media and to increased tensions.