Protests and tensions lead to internet restrictions

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

On 10th September 2018, Michelle Bachelet, the newly appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted the human rights situation inTajikistan during her Opening Statement to the 39th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Bachelet added that those who “legally and peacefully express dissenting views” are subjected to intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrests and detention, at times marked by ill-treatment. She further stated that: 

“The heavy-handed policies intended to counter or prevent violent extremism are likely to be counterproductive; we encourage the authorities to focus on promoting human rights when developing and applying such policies."

Expression

Restrictions on online communication

Between August and September 2018 several social media sites and online platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Youtube were blocked. The internet restrictions were imposed after Mahmadali Rasulov, a representative of Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB), uploaded a video to Facebook alleging that in February 2018 GKNB chief Saymumin Yatimov had been involved in a plot to assassinate opposition politician in exile Muhiddin Kabiri.

Protests in different parts of Tajikistan have led to internet restrictions. Recent events in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in eastern Tajikistan and Khujand, the administrative centre of the northern Sughd region (described in the peaceful assembly section) also left citizens unable to access online content. Shortly after protests took place in the administrative centre of GBAO, Khorog on 6th November 2018, the internet connection was cut off in the entire region. It was also reported that access to social media and some news outlets, like Asia Plus, Ozodi and others were blocked throughout the country. According to reports, internet access was restored in GBAO on 24th November 2018. Authorities however, claimed that the lack of internet service was due to technical reasons.

Peaceful Assembly

Concerns about the deteriorating situation in the city of Khorog

During an official visit to GBAO, President Emomali Rahmon expressed his dissatisfaction with the level of crime in the region and instructed the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the GKNB to address the criminal situation in the region’s administrative centre, Khorog. On 15th September 2018, during a meeting, the President gave officials a one-month deadline to establish order in the region and neutralise the “five or six criminals” he claimed were at the root of the region’s problems. He also sanctioned, if necessary, the deployment of armed forces to fight these criminal groups. After his visit, President Rahmon removed several individuals at the head of regional law enforcement agencies from their positions, as well as individuals in the regional and city administration.

On 16th October 2018, a meeting was held with representatives of the regional administration, security and law enforcement bodies where the results of the operation were presented. On 20th October 2018, the state news agency Khovar reported that during this period, security bodies had confiscated some 186 firearms, including 72 automatic rifles and two grenade-throwers from armed groups said to be under the control of “five-six criminals” who have not been named. 

On 20th October 2018, the Interagency Commission in Khorog (which includes law enforcement and state bodies to oversee legal order in the region) also warned the population that any gatherings of young people in Khorog would be regarded as participation in a criminal group. As no state of emergency has been declared in the city, this provision could violate the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Gatherings in mahallas (neighbourhood communities), restaurants, canteens and gyms could also be deemed illegal and restaurant owners could face charges if they allow such gatherings to take place. Participation in “meetings” will be regarded as participation in a criminal group, which entails criminal responsibility in accordance with Article 187 of the Criminal Code that provides for punishment from 8 to 20 years’ imprisonment.

The behavior of the police provokes protests in the region. According to reports, on the night of 4th November 2018, the head of the Special Police force OMON opened fire on residents using a traumatic pistol. Two young men were injured. According to an official statement of the Interagency Commission, the OMON General was forced to fire at the young men after they attacked a traffic police car. The Commission added that the attack was organised by one of the informal “criminal” leaders Khursand Mazarov. 

The incident caused an outcry among local residents who gathered in a protest rally on 6th November 2018, demanding an immediate investigation into the incident and that the police officer responsible be brought to justice. The protesters also demanded the removal of police checkpoints in the city. The protest ended after the newly appointed head of the region Yodgor Fayzov promised an investigation. Despite this, right after the protest the internet connection was mysteriously cut, leaving the entire region without access to information. The internet connection was reportedly resumed only on 24th November. The protesters vowed to resume their protests if their demands were not met. 

Prison riot in Khujand, Tajikistan

According to reports, on the night of 8th November 2018 a riot broke out at the high-security prison in the city of Khujand. There was no official reaction or comment on the events until 23th November. In the absence of an official statement, conflicting reports circulated regarding the reasons behind the riot. Initially, it emerged that the riot was organised by Islamic State (ISIS) supporters. These reports appeared to be based on the fact that many inmates held in this prison were convicted of religious extremism offences, including membership to ISIS. Other sources reported that the riots were caused by prisoners protesting against the severe prison conditions, including the systematic use of torture and ill-treatment. Some news agencies have quoted anonymous sources in law enforcement agencies as saying that the riot was provoked by the actions of a prison officer who forced an inmate to stand naked in the rain, a humiliating punishment used against inmates who are believed to be planning to escape.

Various reports claimed that the riot broke out around 10:00 pm and shortly afterwards the prisoners allegedly took control of the prison killing two security officers. It is not clear whether the other security officers were taken hostage or if they managed to leave the premises before the riot was suppressed by special police forces. According to local residents, the arrival of the police at around 10:30 pm was immediately followed by gunfire. Such reports suggested that the law enforcement officials did not attempt to negotiate with the inmates but used armed force immediately, causing multiple deaths and injuries of prisoners.

On 23th November 2018, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan made an official statement about the incident as he met reporters after a meeting in Brussels. He stated that 21 prison rioters had been “neutralized” (killed) during the confrontation, and that two inmates had been killed when trying to help prison guards. The rioting prisoners reportedly killed two prison guards and wounded five others as they were trying to escape from prison. He told reporters that a special group comprising representatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office are investigating the riot and that further information will be available once this is completed. On the same day it was reported that the Head of the Correctional Department of the Ministry of Justice had been dismissed from his position.

According to other sources, at least 47 inmates and two security officers were killed and at least 100 were wounded as a result of the operation. This information is supported by Temur Varqi, a dissident journalist currently residing in Europe, saying that 47 bodies were handed over to relatives without the right for religious burial ceremony.