Continuous crackdown on civil society
This report, which covers developments affecting the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Tajikistan for the period from August 2022 to March 2023, was prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) for the CIVICUS Monitor.
Since the violent state suppression of mass protests in the Gorno Badakhshan Oblast (GBAO) in November 2021 and May 2022 (see previous update), the Tajikistani authorities have continued the crackdown on dissenting voices and civil society, targeting in particular those who have prominently criticised the authorities’ actions in the GBAO. Several journalists and human rights activists were detained and criminally prosecuted in this context. IPHR and partners have serious concerns about the non-transparent and politically-motivated nature of the trials, given that the proceedings took place behind closed doors and were marred by serious allegations, including lack of access to lawyers, torture, ill-treatment and other violations.
Among those who received long prison sentences are Manuchehr Kholiknazarov, Director of the Pamir Lawyers’ Association, and several other civil society members of the Commission 44 set up to investigate the November 2021 events in GBAO, whose closed trial began on 20th September 2022 at the Supreme Court in Dushanbe and who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in December 2022.
Additionally, outside the GBAO region, journalists, bloggers, civil society activists, independent lawyers and human rights defenders face intimidation and harassment, including by being interrogated, arrested and criminally prosecuted on charges initiated because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms.
In the reporting period, at least four journalists and several bloggers were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being found guilty in unfair trials on charges including spreading false information, participation in an extremist community and cooperation with banned organisations.
In particular, NGOs, activists and lawyers working on human rights have been subjected to threats and intimidation by the authorities aimed at pressurising them to drop or refrain from taking up politically sensitive issues or cases. Due to burdensome and complicated reporting obligations for NGOs, in particular with respect to their funding, many groups have been subjected to intrusive inspections of their activities by the Tax Committee, national security services, the Ministry of Justice and various other state bodies. In addition to being time-consuming and stressful for the targeted organisations, such inspections have often resulted in warnings and sanctions because of alleged violations of the law, and some NGOs have also been liquidated. In another blow to civil society, two renowned human rights NGOs which provided free legal aid to victims of human rights violations were liquidated: the Independent Center for Human Rights Protection (ICHRP) was liquidated by court order on 26th January 2023, and the Pamiri Lawyers Association (LAP) was liquidated at the end of 2022 without any court review – they were simply notified by the Ministry of Justice that the organisation had been closed down.
Human rights observers see this as part of a governmental strategy aimed at intimidating and repressing independent media and civil society in order to silence critical voices and to deliberately discredit and criminalise the legitimate peaceful work of human rights defenders (HRDs).
In December 2022, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor paid a visit to the country, sharply criticising the authorities for “creating a climate of fear for civil society” and called for an end to the persecution of HRDs in the country. She stated that “the situation of human rights defenders is deteriorating”, that lawyers, journalists and civil activists “are being targeted for their human rights work” and that “they have been confronted with a range of difficulties ranging from onerous administrative burdens to harassment, threats, criminalisation, closed unfair trials and imprisonment.”
Lawlor concluded that “human rights defenders are not the enemy, they are also working towards peaceful, just and fair societies and should not be conflated with actual extremists and terrorists.”
The crackdown on independent voices in Tajikistan continued throughout the reporting period. The authorities prosecuted journalists, bloggers and activists who made statements critical of the authorities, on charges of ‘’extremism’’ and ‘’terrorism’’. Most prosecutions concerned bloggers and civil society activists from GBAO who criticised the central government’s politics in the region and its crackdown on protesters.
In the reporting period, at least four journalists and several bloggers were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being found guilty of spreading false information, participation in an extremist community and cooperation with banned organisations in trials which failed to meet international standards of fairness.
In a report published on 28th December 2022, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also stated that the convicted journalists and bloggers wrote or posted videos on sensitive issues critical of local officials and advised that “the Tajik authorities must stop maintaining a climate of fear that effectively bans the media from taking a critical look at the government.” The cases include:
- Blogger Komyor Mirzoev, a Tajikistani citizen living in Moscow, who had repeatedly written critical blogs about the government’s “special operations” in GBAO, was allegedly abducted by security forces in September 2022 and deported to Tajikistan, where he was detained. The law enforcement agencies reportedly accused Mirzoev of participating in a criminal association. In October 2022, media sources reported that after a closed trial a court in Dushanbe sentenced Komyor Mirzoev to 10 years in prison, but the exact charges remain unknown.
- On 13th September 2022, a court in Dushanbe sentenced Mamadsulton Mavlonazarov, a journalist and retired security officer from GBAO region, to seven years in prison after finding him guilty of public calls to forcibly change the constitutional order and insulting a law enforcement officer via media or the Internet. Mavlonazarov had repeatedly been critical of the government's actions in GBAO.
- Independent journalists Abdullo Gurbati and Daler Imomali were convicted in October 2022 and given long prison sentences for expressing their critical opinions on issues that the authorities deemed as sensitive, including, in the case of Imomali, suggesting that a media group should be deployed to GBAO to ensure more transparent coverage of the events in November 2021. On 4th October, Gurbati was sentenced by the Shokhmansur District Court to seven and a half years in prison for allegedly publicly insulting an official, minor assault of an authority, and participation in an extremist group’s activities. On 17th October 2022, the same court sentenced Imomali to 10 years in prison after finding him guilty of illegal entrepreneurship, premeditated false denunciation and participation in a banned organisation. Both had been detained since 15th June 2022 and their trials were held behind closed doors and thus failed to meet international fair trial standards.
- On 4th November 2022, the Ismoili Somoni District Court in Dushanbe sentenced independent journalist Zavqibek Saidamini to seven years in prison after finding him guilty of collaborating with the banned “Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan” (IRPT) and the opposition “Group 24”. The journalist has repeatedly stated that he is not affiliated with any organisation, party or group nor is he cooperating with them. Both banned organisations have also denied any cooperation with the journalist. Saidamini, together with journalist Abdusattor Pirmukhammadzoda (see below), have openly protested against the imprisonment of their colleagues Abdullo Gurbati and Daler Imomali in June 2022.
- According to media reports,on 20th November 2022 imprisoned human rights lawyer Buzurgmehhr Yorov was sent to a punishment cell after allegedly criticising President Rahmon and was in poor health. Yorov was wrongfully imprisoned in September 2015 and sentenced to 22 years on trumped-up charges after he provided legal representation to members and leaders of the banned opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRTP). As reported previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, his prison sentence was reduced by four years under amnesty in October 2021.
- On 9th December 2022, blogger and activist KhushruzDzhumayev (Hush Gulyam) was sentenced to eight years in prison by the Supreme Court. He ran a popular YouTube channel featuring the culture and language of Pamiri people. As reported previously on the Civicus Monitor, security forces arrested Dzhumayev on 20th May 2022.
- On 26th December 2022, a Dushanbe court sentenced 44-year-old journalist and blogger Abdusattor Pirmukhammadzoda to seven years in prison. His trial began on 13th October 2022 in the Dushanbe detention centre behind closed doors. Relatives of Pirmukhammadzoda said that they have not yet received a copy of the sentence, but they know that the blogger was found guilty under Part 2 of Article 307 (3) ("Organisation of the activities of an extremist organisation") of the Criminal Code. In autumn 2022, a handwritten letter by Pirmukhammadzoda was smuggled out of prison where he described in detail the torture and ill-treatment he had suffered at the Vahdat police station following his detention. He alleges that he was forced to confess to the crimes after he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks. When Radio Ozodi requested the Supreme Court to confirm whether Pirmukhammadzoda’s torture allegations had been investigated, a judge replied that such a complaint had been made during the trial, but the prosecution had reviewed the allegations and had not been able to confirm them.
- On 22nd February 2023, according to media reports a criminal case was opened in Tajikistan against independent Journalist and blogger Rustami Joni, who is living in Prague. Reportedly, his mother-in-law was summoned to the Sino District Interior Ministry and told that a case had been opened against him under Articles 307 (violent change of the constitutional order) and 401 (mercenary activities) of the Criminal Code, and that if he comes back and repents and asks for forgiveness, he would be pardoned. Civil society activists believe the case was initiated after Joni criticised the Tajikistani authorities' excessive use of force in the GBAO.
- According to media sources, on 6th March 2023 Tajikistan's State Committee for National Security detained independent journalist Khurshed Fozilov in Panjakent (North East of Tajikistan). At the time of the writing it is not known on which charges the journalist has been detained. In his contributions to various media and websites, Fozilov often pointed out social grievances and criticised local government policy.
The authorities' crackdown on independent, effective human rights organisations continued. During her visit to Tajikistan in December 2022, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor said: “Human rights defenders are not the enemy”.
On the same day of Lawlor’s visit, International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and partners issued a joint statement expressing concern about the lengthy prison sentences handed down to several Tajikistani human rights defenders and journalists following politically motivated, non-transparent and unfair trials. The organisations criticised the fact that the human rights defenders and journalists were convicted on criminal charges related to participation in a criminal group and extremism, which were initiated in what appears to be retaliation for their human rights activities and journalistic work around the Tajikistani government’s repressive policies in GBAO. They called on the authorities to release the defenders and journalists immediately and unconditionally.
Two NGOs liquidated
Furthermore, two well-known human rights organisations were liquidated during the reporting period.
The renowned human rights NGO, the Independent Centre for Human Rights Protection (ICHRP) was liquidated by court order on 26th January 2023 in response to a claim from the Ministry of Justice on spurious and unsubstantiated grounds. IPHR and the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT) issued a joint statement on 10th March 2023 stating that the accusations levelled against ICHRP were contrived, far-fetched and clearly aimed at silencing the NGO because of its human rights work. Furthermore, the statement emphasised that the forced closure of ICHRP is contrary to Tajikistan’s international human rights obligations and at odds with its bid to join the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) trade preference regime, which requires compliance with core international human rights treaty obligations, including protecting the right to freedom of association. According to Asadullo Hakimzoda, Deputy Minister of Justice, the Somoni District Court in Dushanbe ruled to liquidate ICHRP on 26th January 2023, in response to a claim from the Ministry of Justice.
On 14th December 2022, the Ministry of Justice had accused ICHRP of several alleged violations of its statutes and national law after conducting an inspection of the organisation. Hakimzoda explained that during the inspection a number of deficiencies in the Centre's activities were identified. In particular, the organisation was accused of late submission of financial reports. According to media reports, the absence of branches and representative offices of the Centre in the regions of Tajikistan was considered one of the violations. According to Tajikistan's Ministry of Justice, some 500 NGOs were liquidated in the country in 2022. This is 3,5 times more than the year before, when 138 NGOs were closed down.
Many human rights defenders believe that ICHRP has been a thorn in the side of the authorities because of its independent, critical and efficient human rights work and that the decision to liquidate the organisation was a retaliatory measure. In recent years, ICHRP has worked on issues which the authorities perceived as sensitive, such as housing rights, and the provision of legal assistance to victims of forced evictions and other vulnerable groups such as journalists and victims of torture.
The court decision to close ICHRP comes against the background of a seriously deteriorating environment for civil society organisations and activists in Tajikistan in recent years.
Another human rights NGO, Pamiri Lawyers Association (LAP) was liquidated at the end of 2022 without any court review – they were simply notified by the Ministry of Justice that the organisation had been closed. LAP was one of the few civil society organisations in GBAO that worked on promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms and focused on incorporating international human rights standards into national legislation and law enforcement practices. It assisted in strengthening the principles of democratisation and tolerance. The organisation was a member of the Civil Society Coalition against Torture and Impunity in Tajikistan.
List of imprisoned human rights defenders and civil society activists
On 9th December 2022, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court handed down lengthy prison sentences to several human rights activists who were targeted for their efforts to monitor, document and assist victims of the government’s crackdown in GBAO. However, it was only on 26th January 2023 that the General Prosecutor’sOffice provided details about the criminal cases. Among those convicted were:
- Human rights lawyer and director of the LAP Manuchehr Kholiknazarov, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison on trumped-up charges of organising a criminal association and organising the activities of an extremist organisation. The trial at which these convictions were handed down began on 20th September 2022 behind closed doors and did not meet international fair trial standards. Not all the defendants had access to lawyers of their own choice, and both the press and relatives of the defendants were banned from attending the hearings, which limited public access to information about these court cases. There were allegations that the defendants were subjected to psychological pressure, including threats against family members and reports that some of the defendants had previously been subjected to torture and ill-treatment. When arrested, Kholiknazarov was a member of Commission 44, an independent investigation body composed of representatives of local civil society and law enforcement bodies which was set up to investigate the events following mass protests on 25th to 28th November 2021 in GBAO which followed the death of Gulbiddin Ziyobekov at the hands of law enforcement officials. In addition, he was an observer in the Joint Investigation Group led by the General Prosecutor’s office to look into the GBAO events. However, following the second wave of protests in GBAO in May 2022, which was met with a new wave of mass arrests and a heavy-handed response by authorities, on 28th May Kholiknazarov and 13 other members of Commission 44 were arrested and interrogated by the GBAO prosecutor’s office. Kholiknazarov was accused of allegedly “receiving money from the banned National Alliance of Tajikistan” and subsequently charged with “participation in a criminal association” (Article 187 of the Criminal Code) and “publicly calling for violent change of the constitutional order” (Article 307, part 2 of the Criminal Code). He was placed in pre-trial detention and was transferred to the pre-trial detention centre of the State Security Service (SCNS) in Dushanbe at the end of June 2022. The charges against him are manifestly unfounded and it is believed that they were brought in retaliation for his human rights work.
- Human rights defender and journalist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva was found guilty under ten articles of the Tajik Criminal Code, including organisation of a criminal association, murder, terrorism, treason against the state and attempted unlawful seizure of power, and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
- In addition to Manuchehr Kholiknazarov and Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, several other civil society members of Commission 44 were also sentenced to long prison terms at the trial on 9th December: activist Muzaffar Muborakshoyev and Khursand Mamadshoev (the brother of Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva), were sentenced to 29 and 18 years respectively. Another member of Commission 44, lawyer Faromuz Irgashev, was sentenced to 29 years in prison. The exact articles of the Criminal Code under which the defendants were convicted are not known, as their lawyers were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, but the charges are believed to have been linked to participation in a criminal association and extremism. Two other members of Commission 44 were sentenced to 18 years in prison in June 2022.
The human rights defenders convicted on 9th December were among at least 20 human rights activists and journalists who were arrested as part of a widening campaign against dissenting voices launched by the Tajikistani government in response to mass protests held in GBAO in November 2021 and again in May 2022. Those arrested had all spoken out about allegations of serious human rights violations characterising the government’s so-called ‘special’ or ‘anti-terrorist’ operations in the region, which included reports of the disproportionate use of force against mostly unarmed civilians, extrajudicial killings, torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary detentions and repressive measures targeting civil society and the wider population of GBAO.
Civic Space Developments