Persecution of civil society continues with worrying new legislation on the horizon
The situation for civil society in Tajikistan remains worrisome. As described below, major concerns include pressure on outspoken media outlets and journalists, blocking of websites, intrusive inspections of NGOs, criminal charges brought against lawyers working on high-profile cases and other measures restricting the exercise of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.
Currently a new law on Non-Commercial Organisations drafted by the Ministry of Justice is under consideration. No civil society representatives were invited to join the Working Group developing the draft law. Though the Ministry of Justice has indicated that public hearings on the draft law are planned, there have been no further updates thus far. It is also unclear when the draft law will be finalised and submitted to the parliament.
Given the already difficult environment for NGOs, there are concerns that the new draft law may introduce further restrictions on the sector.
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, existing legislation grants authorities broad powers to supervise NGOs. Since the beginning of 2017, a number of NGOs have been inspected by the Ministry of Justice, the Tax Committee and other state institutions. As a new practice, inspections are often carried out simultaneously by several state entities. According to Tajik law, the purpose of inspections by the Ministry of Justice is to examine the statutory activities of NGOs and gauge its compliance with the organisation's objectives as outlined in the statutes and relevant legislation. However, NGOs under inspection have also been required to provide documents related to their internal affairs, such as records of incoming and outgoing mail, as well as documents demonstrating their compliance with legislation that does not apply with their statutory activities.
While the inspections have typically not found any serious violations, they have caused stress and concern among NGOs.There is widespread sentiment among NGOs that authorities are seeking to tighten control of their activities.
Several human rights NGOs have reported difficulties with re-registering in early 2017. They have eventually been granted re-registration, but the process has taken longer than other organisations oriented towards other issues and also re-registering during the same period. By law, NGOs are required to re-register when they change their legal address or amend their statutes.
Cases against lawyers
Several lawyers have been arrested and charged with criminal offences in recent months. Buzurgmehr Yorov and Nuriddin Mahkamov, who had represented members of the banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), were convicted of extremism and other charges and sentenced to 21 and 23 years in prison, respectively in October 2016. After this sentencing, several additional criminal cases have been initiated against Yorov on questionable grounds. In mid-March 2017, the Supreme Court sentenced him to two additional years in prison on charges of allegedly showing contempt for court during the original trial against him, when he quoted an 11th century Persian poet. That same month, a local court held a hearing on fraud charges against him on the basis of purported complaints from citizens. A fourth criminal case is pending against him on charges of publicly insulting the Leader of the Nation, a title bestowed on President Emomali Rahmon in 2015. According to Yorov’s wife, these charges are also related to statements he made during the original trial, which were subsequently reported in media, although the trial was held behind closed doors. If found guilty on the additional charges brought against him, Yorov may face many more years in prison.
Yorov’s family has been unable to find a lawyer willing to take on his defence. Muazzama Kodirova, who previously represented Yorov, fled the country because of fears for her safety. She told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Tajik authorities had threatened to launch a criminal case against her for allegedly leaking information about her client's case to foreign media. She has applied for asylum in Germany.
The current restrictive climate continues to discourage the organisation of peaceful public protests. There also concerns about the forcible dispersal of other types of peaceful gatherings, leading to a situation wherein even gatherings on non-political issues are occasionally disrupted by security forces. On 1st April 2017, police burst into the venue where an international education fair had started in Dushanbe and dispersed the attendees in a rough manner, destroying video and photo material. The fair was to inform graduating high school students and their parents about opportunities for studies abroad. The organisers maintained that they had obtained the necessary permits for the fair, which was the third of its kind, but the Ministry of Education refuted the claim.
In a statement issued after the incident on 1 April 2017, the Ministry of Education also claimed that the Multikid Education Centre, which organised the fair, arranged study abroad programmes, cooperating with foreign organisations without having the required license.
Tajikistan’s NGO Coalition against Torture and Impunity expressed concern about the dispersal at the education fair and encouraged victims and witnesses of abusive actions by police during the incident to contact the NGO coalition which would document the cases and provide legal assistance.
As featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, outspoken media outlets and journalists have recently come under increasing pressure in Tajikistan. Several media outlets have been forced to close down and over a dozen journalists have fled the country since last year.
Human rights defenders are concerned that new regulations approved by the government in late February 2017 may create new obstacles to registering media outlets, resulting in cases of undue interference from security forces in media outlets' activities. In order to qualify for registration, publishing houses, printing houses and media outlets are now required to obtain a certificate of approval from the National Security Committee. The new regulations do not elaborate on the nature of this required certificate or the grounds on which it will be issued. Publishing houses, printing houses and media outlets are also required to obtain certificates from the government agency for standardisation, the fire safety service, and health services prior to applying for registration.
The following case caused concern over the excessive measures taken by tax authorities in response to alleged tax violations of media outlets operating at the regional level:
- As reported by the National Association of Independent Mass-media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT), on 16th March 2017 tax officials appeared without warning at the regional offices of a number of nation-wide media outlets and organisations in the city of Khujand and sealed these offices after ordering the employees to leave. The tax officials argued that this measure was needed because an inspection had revealed that the media outlets and organisations, which included Asia Plus, Zamon, Tojikoni Jahon and NANSMIT, violated the requirements of national tax legislation because their employees paid income tax in the capital rather than at the place of residence. After the incident gained media attention and representatives of the journalism community expressed concern, the head of the regional Tax Committee apologised for the behaviour of the tax officials involved, declaring that they may have been over-zealous in sealing the offices of the media outlets and organisations. Despite this admission, the Tax Committee maintained that the inspections preceding these measures were lawful and justified. According to NANSMIT, a few days after the incident, tax authorities and the media outlets and organisations in question settled the issue concerning the payment of income tax.
Arbitrary blocking of websites remains a regular practice in Tajikistan. Dozens of websites that do not feature on official state lists of websites have been blocked by the authorities due to alleged extremist and terrorist content are unavailable in the country, expect through proxy servers. Among these blocked sites are independent news sites, such as Radio Ozodi, Ozodagon, Inosmi, Fergana News and Eurasianet, as well as social media sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Odnoklassniki.