Tajikistan: LGBT CSO forced to close and state restricts online communications

This update covers developments affecting civic space in Tajikistan since October 2017. It has been prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and its partners from Tajikistan, Nota Bene and the Lawyers’ Association of Pamir.

During this period, an independent journalist who heads a well-known comedy club team was arrested after making allegations of corruption among local authorities. Other developments of concern included the government's moves to restrict the use of online telecommunications and messenger services. In addition, an NGO promoting LGBT rights announced that it had been forced to close down after being targeted by a series of intrusive inspections by authorities. This case illustrates the difficult environment in which civil society organisations, especially those addressing minority rights and other sensitive issues, operate in Tajikistan. New information also emerged about the authorities' efforts to track down and register LGBT people, which has negative implications for their rights to freedom of association and assembly as well as other fundamental rights.

Association and Peaceful Assembly

NGO forced to close following inspections

As reported previously on the Monitor, tax and other authorities have recently carried out a growing number of inspections of NGOs, thereby interfering in their work and creating stress and uncertainty for staff. Following these inspections, NGOs have been warned and sanctioned for alleged violations, as identified by the authorities. Human rights groups, especially those working on sensitive issues such as minority rights, are among the most frequently targeted by inspections.

In November 2017, Rohi Zindaghi (Life Path), an NGO working on LGBT rights in the Sughd region of northern Tajikistan, announced that it had been forced to close down following a series of inspections by the local administration, fire safety officials, the prosecutor's office and other official bodies. The chair of the organisation said that they made this decision due to the endless number of inspections, though the inspectors had only found minor violations. According to the chair, the organisation had been under constant pressure from the authorities since it started working on the rights of sexual minorities a year and a half ago. The organisation had been “advised” to drop this issue of sexual minority rights if it wanted to continue its work.

In December 2017, the parliament approved amendments to the country’s Criminal Code, thereby increasing penalties for violations of fire safety regulations. According to the new provisions, violations may result in heavy fines and imprisonment of up to three years for individuals responsible for ensuring that safety regulations are observed. At the same time, administrative penalties for such violations were abolished. Civil society representatives expressed concern that the new provisions may be used to pressure NGOs, since they are frequently subject to inspections by the Fire Safety Service, as well from other official bodies. 

Authorities keep track of and register LGBT people

In a development that may have negative implications for the right to freedom of association and assembly for the LGBT community, the authorities have tracked down and registered LGBT people. According to an article by Interior Minister Ramozon Rahimzoda, which was published in October 2017, the names and details of 319 allegedly gay men and 48 lesbians have been included in a government registry introduced in 2016. Measures to detain and register LGBT people have been taken as part of law enforcement operations entitled “Morality” and “Purge”, which have been jointly carried out by the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Interior Ministry and the State Committee on Women’s Affairs and Family for the purpose of preventing and combating so-called offences against morality and amoral behaviour. IPHR issued a statement of concern over this registry based on the sexual orientation and gender identity of individuals, declaring that this is in itself a violation of the rights of LGBT people and it also could be used by the authorities as a tool to persecute sexual minorities. While same-sex relations were de-criminalised in Tajikistan in 1998, LGBT people face widespread intolerance and hostility and are often subjected to intimidation, arbitrary detention and blackmail by law enforcement officials.

Reported attack on opposition leader

In another case, an opposition leader was the subject of an attack which he believes was politically motivated.

Rahmatillo Zoirov, leader of Tajikistan's opposition Social Democratic Party, reported being attacked in Dushanbe on the evening of 9th November 2017 as he was walking his dog. According to Zoirov, a man and woman approached him, insulted him and called him “a bad Muslim” and “a traitor”, while another man came up to him from behind and struck him with a metal bar. Zoirov threw up his right hand to protect his head, severely injuring his hand in the process. He was also hit on his shoulder and back. He slipped and fell when the attackers disappeared. Zoirov said that several police officers who were nearby witnessed the assault but did not intervene and that law enforcement authorities did not take appropriate measures when he called to inform them of the incident. A week later, after the attack on the opposition leader had been covered by media, police announced an investigation and search for the perpetrators. However, in mid-December, Zoirov said that police had told him that the investigation had been closed since the perpetrators could not be identified.

The Social Democratic Party, which Zoirov has led since 1998, is the only remaining opposition party in Tajikistan. It is officially registered with the authorities but has never had representation in the parliament.

Convicted lawyer transferred to prison colony

Lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov, who was detained after working on politically-sensitive cases and sentenced to 28 years in prison following unfair trials, remains behind bars. In mid-December 2017, local media reported that he had been transferred to Dushanbe’s Strict Prison Colony no. 1 from the pre-trial detention facility where he had been held up till then. As covered in the previous update, in September 2017 Yorov’s family raised an alarm over allegations that he had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment in the detention facility. Amnesty International launched an urgent action on his behalf. The Ombudsman’s Office said it found no basis for the allegations of torture and ill-treatment after visiting Yorov, but these allegations are not known to have been thoroughly and impartially investigated and serious concerns remain about Yorov's well being.

Expression

New restrictions on online communications

The government initiated new restrictions on online communications, raising concerns over the state's duty to protect the right to freedom of expression.

In late November 2017, the Communications Service gathered representatives of the country’s mobile phone providers and internet operators and demanded that they to stop providing so-called Next Generation Network (NGN) communications services for international IP addresses. NGN has been offered by a number of Tajikistani companies, making internet calls to regular and mobile phone numbers in Tajikistan at the same rates as domestic calls possible, irrespective of the geographic location of the caller. The services have been popular in particular among labour migrants and others residing abroad who wish to use voice communication with family and friends back in Tajikistan at a low cost. About one million people have obtained NGN numbers.

In a follow-up to this move, on 18 December 2017 the Communications Service sent an official letter to all mobile companies and internet providers, requiring them to disable NGN services and to report back on the measures taken to this end within five days.

The Communications Service argued that the use of NGN services for international calls threatens national security, but experts suggest that the move might have been motivated by economic rather than security considerations. As covered before on the Monitor, Tajikistani internet providers and mobile phone operators are now required to channel all international traffic through a so-called Unified Communications Centre that began operating under the state Tajik Telecom company in November 2016. In order to do so, they have to pay the centre a fixed per-minute rate, which has resulted in growing costs for such calls. Since the alternative low-cost NGN calls have been treated as domestic rather than international calls, they have not been routed through the Centre, thus depriving it of potential profits.

In an earlier letter to the presidential administration, which the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty obtained a copy in late December, the country’s Tax Committee explicitly used economic arguments to justify restrictions on NGN services. According to the Tax Committee, the widespread use of NGN and other online services for making international calls has resulted in decreasing tax revenues. For this reason, the Tax Committee proposed separate regulation of international NGN calls.

At the November meeting with mobile phone providers and internet operators, the Communications Service also expressed discontent over online messaging services, such as Viber, WhatsApp, Imo, Telegram and others, which have been deemed threats to national security. According to media reports, the Communications Service subsequently requested providers to look into blocking access to these services. Providers have pointed out that it is technically difficult to block access to such services since they are not internet sites but mobile applications mainly hosted abroad.

In early January 2018, audio and video communication stopped working for users of the country’s most popular messaging service, Viber. Operators told media that Viber had been blocked by the state Tajik Telecom through which most internet traffic is channeled. A few days later, the government’s Communications Service confirmed the interruption in audio and video communication through Viber, saying it was due to “technical problems”. The Service also stated that it had addressed the problems and restored access to Viber.

Journalist and comedy club head arrested

Independent journalist Hairullo Mirsaidov was detained in Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region on 5th December 2017. Three days later, he was placed in pre-trial detention on charges of embezzlement, inciting national, racial or other forms of hatred, forgery, and falsely reporting about a crime. Prosecutors did not disclose any details about the charges against him, as the investigation is considered secret. Later, however, a representative of the regional prosecutor’s office told media that the charges against Mirsaidov had been initiated based on online material by the journalist, as well as a request filed by the head of the regional Youth and Sports Department. 

In the previous month, Mirsaidov had publicly appealed to President Emomali Rahmon, the Prosecutor General and Sughd’s regional governor, over alleged corruption by the regional Youth and Sports Department in its dealings with an improvisational comedy club that he leads and that has represented Tajikistan in several international competitions held in post-Soviet countries. Mirsaidov claimed that the head of the department had obstructed the allocation of public funds for his club to travel to Russia to participate in a competition and demanded a bribe. He also said that after he complained, the regional authorities initiated a lengthy inspection of the club's activities, which was characterised by irregularities, as they attempted to discredit the club members as "criminals”. According to national law, the authorities are obligated to investigate allegations of misconduct by local officials, such as those claimed by Mirsaidov. Instead, however, criminal charges were brought against the journalist.

Several international human rights organisations denounced Mirsaidov’s arrest and called for his release. Tajikistan’s NGO Coalition against Torture and Impunity also issued a statement expressing serious concerns over his case and calling on the authorities to ensure that he is not penalised for the legitimate exercise of his right to freedom of expression. The Coalition stressed that freedom of expression covers satirical-comedic performances, in view of media reports suggesting that the charges of “inciting hatred” initiated against Mirsaidov may be related to content by the comedy club. In addition, the Coalition pointed out that the Criminal Code provision on “inciting hatred” is vaguely worded and open to arbitrary interpretation and application. Furthermore, no one should be held accountable for “falsely reporting a crime” unless he or she intentionally provided false information, which was clearly not the case with Mirsaidov.

Mirsaidov has worked as a correspondent for Tajikistan’s Asia Plus news agency, the regional Fergana News and Germany's Deutsche Welle, among others, reporting on issues related to human rights and environmental protection.