Sliding downhill: concerns remain regarding the civic space situation despite releases

Despite the recent releases of an independent journalist and lawyer, the period under review was marked by several alarming developments regarding fundamental freedoms have occurred in Tajikistan in the period under review as the authorities continue to increase pressure on those who oppose, or who are perceived to oppose the government, as well as independent lawyers and journalists.

This update covers developments relating to civil society and civic freedoms in Tajikistan from April to August 2018. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) prepared this report as part of its cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.

International calls for protection of fundamental freedoms

Following a visit to Tajikistan in May 2018, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour called on the Government of Tajikistan to take steps to ensure that human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and others can carry out their work without hindrance, unnecessary administrative checks and fear of prosecution. Furthermore, in his statement, Andrew Gilmour urged the Tajikistani authorities to combat discrimination against women, youth, people with disabilities, as well as LGBTI people. He expressed particular concern about the requirement for the mandatory registration of LGBTI persons as this has exposed them to increased persecution.

During his visit, Andrew Gilmour met with university students for a discussion on human rights. He refuted assertions made by some students that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) only reflects Western values and challenged them to find one of the 30 articles of the UDHR that did not apply to them.

In a conversation with students and teachers, the UN representative condemned the practice of states committing human rights violations for so-called security reasons, stressing that development, security and human rights protection are interrelated and mutually complementary. He stressed that it is “repression and attacks on the rights of communities that invariably fuel anger, extremism, violence and instability”. He stated:

“Without a vibrant civil society and the exercise of fundamental freedoms neither security nor development can be truly sustainable - as we have seen in so many places.”

Expression

Journalist released from prison after international outcry

In a positive development in the case of imprisoned journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov, on 22nd August 2018 the Soghd Regional Court ruled to change his punishment and release him from detention. The independent journalist had spent eight months behind bars.

However, Khayrullo Mirsaidov’s convictions under three articles of the criminal code remained in force, and he was ordered to pay 80,000 somoni (around 8,000 USD) in fines and contribute 20% of his salary to the state for the next two years.

On 11th July 2018, a court in Khujand sentenced Mirsaidov to 12 years in prison for the charges of embezzlement, forging documents and dissemination of false testimony. As reported previously on the Monitor, journalist and head of NTV comedy club team Khayrullo Mirsidov was arrested in December 2017 on charges of embezzlement, document forgery, falsely reporting about a crime, as well as inciting national, racial or other hatred. The criminal case against Mirsaidov followed accusations he made of corruption by local authorities.

Besides being widely criticised in Tajilkistan, including on social media, civil society and international organisations condemned and criticised the initial sentencing of the journalist and called for his immediate and unconditional release, saying the case is another attempt by Tajikistan’s government to suppress critical voices in the country. Tajikistan NGO Coalition against Torture and Impunity called on the authorities not to penalise Mirsaidov for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.

Additionally, diplomatic missions of Great Britain, Germany, France, the USA in Dushanbe and the Delegation of the European Union in Tajikistan also expressed their concern over the verdict and commented on the verdict as a "harsh punishment incomparable with the gravity of the crime of which he was accused".

The US Mission to the OSCE also appealed to the Tajikistani authorities to reconsider the verdict against Mirsaidov noting that "full compliance with the rule of law, including fair trial, is in the interests of Tajikistan and is necessary to ensure international support for Tajikistan in the implementation of good governance and development goals".

In response to the international condemnation of the verdict, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a press release on 13th July 2018 stating that the discussion and criticism of the court verdict in the media "can be regarded as hindering the implementation of justice and go beyond journalistic ethics". 

UN condemns arbitrary detentions in Tajikistan

On 17th May 2018, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Mahmadali Hayit, deputy chairman of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) is being held in arbitrary detention in Tajikistan. Hayit was given a life sentence in 2016 after being charged along with a dozen other IRPT members with various crimes, including attempting to overthrow the state. According to the UN body, Hayit’s detention violates several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in particular articles 19 (expression), 21 (assembly), 22 (association), and 25 (political participation). The UN working group requested the government to “take the steps necessary to remedy the situation of Mr. Hayit without delay and bring it into conformity with the relevant international norms, including those set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.

On 16th July 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee issued an opinion, finding the arrest and detention of businessman and opposition politician Zayd Saidov to be in violation of the ICCPR, and calling on the Tajikistani government to immediately release him. In early 2013, Saidov had organised a committee of businesspeople, political scientists, and former public servants to discuss the creation of a new political opposition party entitled “New Tajikistan Party”, leading to his arrest on 19th May 2013 on charges of “bigamy or polygamy” (Article 170), “illegal deprivation of an individual’s freedom” (Article 131), rape (Article 138), fraud (Article 247), and bribery (Article 319) and subsequently sentenced to 29 years in prison.

Restrictions on online communication

On 13th June 2018, Tajikistan’s Parliament approved an amendment of Article 179 of the Criminal Code which relates to "public calls for the commission of terrorist crimes and (or) the public justification of terrorist activities". In accordance with the new amendment, the Article was supplemented by a new definition "via the Internet", meaning that criminal responsibility and long terms of imprisonment as punishment for public calls for terrorism could potentially threaten online users.

In several recent cases in Tajikistan users of social networks have been sentenced to prison sentences for posts related to materials which are alleged to contain terrorist content, or for reposting communications of organisations and movements whose activities are banned in the country. In two recent cases citizens were convicted of posting materials of extremist content and sentenced to six and nine years’ imprisonment for “incitement to extremist activity”.

It should be noted that in 2017 the Tajikistani Parliament allowed law enforcement authorities to access to information on websites via an amendment of the Law on Operative-Investigative Activities.

Access to social media sites such as Facebook, as well as certain news sites, including Asia-Plus, continued to be periodically blocked by some internet providers, including in August 2018.

Association

CSO joint letter on politically motivated persecutions

In a joint letter to the European Union of 23rd July 2018, the NGOs Civil Rights Defenders, Freedom Now, Human Rights Watch and Norwegian Helsinki Committee raised concerns about “the ongoing widespread crackdown to dismantle and discredit the country’s peaceful political opposition”. The statement estimated that between 100 and 200 opposition members are presently behind bars, including members of the country’s leading opposition party the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) which was banned in 2015 after authorities declared it a terrorist organisation; members of the political movement Group 24; and other opposition figures such as Zayd Saidov”.

Additionally, the statement highlights that six human rights lawyers have been detained on politically motivated charges since 2014: Shukhrat Kudratov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Buzurgmehr Yorov (sentenced to 28 years’ imprisonment), Jamshed Yorov (who was released in September 2016 and subsequently left the country), Nuriddin Makhkamov (sentenced to 21 years’ imprisonment), and Dilbar Dodojonova.The signatories to the appeal call on the European Union to seek the release of the above-mentioned persons, to urge the Tajikistani authorities to bring perpetrators of torture and ill-treatment to justice and to postpone any negotiations concerning the Generalized Scheme of Preferences + (GSP +) until the Tajikistani authorities have released all those imprisoned on politically-motivated grounds.

In another positive development lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov was released from detention on 24th August 2018 having spent four years in a correction facility in Dushanbe. 

Retaliation against relatives of opposition leaders

Public outcry followed the denial of permission to leave the country for four-year old Ibrohim Hamza Tillozoda, who suffers from life-threatening cancer. Ibrohim Tillozoda is the grandson of Mukhiddin Kabiri, leader of the opposition political movement Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and son of Ruhullo Tillozoda, both of whom left Tajikistan in 2015 to avoid political motivated persecution, which labeled the party as a terrorist group. It is believed that this case is a collective punishment imposed due to the boy’s relations with the opposition.

The situation caused a public outcry and a petition gathered over 110 000 signatures, while International organisations joined the call. Due to public pressure, Ibrohim and his family were finally given permission on 1st August 2018 to leave Tajikistan.

Tajikistan of “special concern” as far as freedom of religion concerned

In May 2018, the US State Department published a report on freedom of religion in 2017, listing Tajikistan as a country of "special concern". The report indicates that in 2017, the Tajikistani authorities arrested more than 220 people on charges of extremism and involvement in extremist groups. According to the report, authorities refuse to register religious minority organisations. In addition to bans on other religious organisations considered extremist, Jehovah's Witnesses were also banned. All mosques operating under the Hanafi madhhab operate with the permission of the Ulema Council. Additionally, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan allegedly installed video surveillance cameras in order to control their activities.