Denialism of COVID-19 pandemic and continuous threats to freedom of expression

Introduction 

This report covers developments affecting the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Tajikistan was prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) for the CIVICUS Monitor and covers the period January to April 2020.

The reporting period was marked by the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However, this was denied by the Tajikistani authorities despite the alarming increase in deathsof patients with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 throughout March and April 2020. Doctors faced harassment and intimidation as officials urged them not to refer patients for testing. Dozens of doctors were reported to have died and many hospitals were filled with quarantined medical personnel and patients. The first cases of COVID-19 were only officially announced on 30th April 2020, when a World Health Organisation (WHO) delegation travelled to the country to investigate the health crisis.

On 16th April 2020 independent journalist Daler Sharipov was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment on what is widely regarded as politically motivated charges. Local and international civil society organisations called for Sharipov’s prompt and unconditional release. They expressed their concerns that the 32-year old journalist, who frequently wrote about controversial issues such as human rights and religion and has criticised government policies in these areas, was targeted in retaliation for his legitimate journalistic work.

A new Law on Counteracting Extremism signed by the President in January 2020 granted the authorities wide-ranging powers to restrict the rights to freedom of expression. In early 2020 all independent and privately-owned TV and radio outlets in Tajikistan were ordered to inform the authorities about their planned broadcasts each week - a move seen as a consequence of the new law on Counteracting Extremism. Shortly after the new law was signed, waves of arrests of 113 alleged members of the banned Muslim brotherhood took place. Human rights activists expressed their concern that those who were arrested were not allowed to contact relatives or to have independent legal assistance.

On 18th February 2020 the Supreme Court ruled to block the independent news outlet Akhbor after finding that it offers a platform to “terrorists and extremists”. Journalists working for Akhbor could now face criminal charges and be equated with militants or members of a banned organisation.

The blocking and disabling of websites, social media platforms and internet messages and the temporary blocking of internet access continued to be part of the authorities’ strategy to silence critical voices. By the end of April 2020, the websites of Asia Plus, Akhbor.com and Radio Ozodi were blocked.

Parliamentary and local council elections took place on 1st March 2020, with the ruling People’s Democratic Party winning 47 of the 63 seats. In the run-up to the elections, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) had criticised conditions which made fair and free elections impossible. For example, independent candidates were refused registration in the run-up to the elections.

These developments are described in more detail below.

Expression

Access to information during COVID-19

Until 30th April 2020, the Tajikistani authorities maintained that the coronavirus had not been detected in the country. They adopted a range of preventive measures and only made available general information about the virus. Citizens, however, had pressing unanswered questions as reports appeared on social media and from independent media outlets about a spike in deaths resulting from pneumonia, tuberculosis and typhoid fever in different parts of the country.

The bearers of bad news – doctors and independent journalists – were at risk of harassment and intimidation as officials urged doctors not to refer patients for testing. Dozens of medical doctors are reported to have died and many hospitals are filled with quarantined medical personnel and patients. A pattern of illnesses with prisoners suffering from fever and respiratory problems has been reported from penitentiary institutions. Until 30th April 2020, state television channels informed the public repeatedly that Tajikistan was free from COVID-19. Thus, citizens were caught between trusting the authorities and fearing that they were being misled.

When independent media outlets tried to obtain information and clarification from the authorities, they often faced obstacles. In a letter to Sirojiddin Muhriddin, the Foreign Minister of Tajikistan, dated 30th March 2020, RFE/RL-President Jamie Fly deplored attempts by the Tajikistani authorities to interfere with the coverage of the coronavirus situation of Radio Ozodi, its Tajik Service.

Officials with the Health Ministry, the Anti-Epidemic Commission, and your own ministry have refused to speak with Ozodi correspondents to answer their questions and have excluded them from press briefings. We suspect, bizarrely, that it was precisely our active reporting about the virus that led the government last week to ban Ozadis website and censor this coverage.”

On 21st April 2020, 18 Tajikistani civil society organisations and independent experts sent a letter to the Ministry of Health and Social Protection of the Population of the Republic of Tajikistan urging it to ensure transparency about the epidemiological situation in the country. In her reply on 23rd April 2020 the Deputy Minister of Health did not confirm any cases of COVID-19 but stated that in the first quarter of 2020 fewer cases of pneumonia (5013) had been registered than in 2019 (5792).

Hospitals appeared to have become hot spots for the outbreak and for the spread of illnesses with COVID-19-like symptoms. Reliable sources in Tajikistan estimated that over a thousand patients had been admitted to hospitals with respiratory problems in the second half of April 2020. According to official figures 300 individuals had been hospitalised in Medical Centre No. 1 in Dushanbe with pneumonia symptoms by the end of April 2020; 136 of them were medical personnel. Medical doctors have complained about the absence of clear medical procedures to protect against the virus and the lack of sufficient protective equipment and clothing. Many reported having to buy protective equipment with their own wages. Doctors treating quarantine patients in hospitals reportedly receive one set of protective clothing which they must disinfect overnight by themselves, while doctors working in other medical institutions are instructed not to wear protective gear in order not to scare their patients.

There has also been an increasing number of reports about prisoners suffering from respiratory illnesses. Among those imprisoned is journalist Daler Sharipov, who was recently sentenced to one year’s imprisonment on fabricated charges, and independent lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov, who is serving a long prison sentence after being convicted on politically motivated charges. On 29th April 2020, the relatives of Buzurgmehr Yorov expressed their concern about the deterioration of his health as he has been suffering from a high fever. Mansurdzhon Umarov, head of the Main Department for the Execution of Criminal Sentences of the Ministry of Justice, denied that Yorov had any health problems in an interview with Radio Ozodi on 30th April 2020.

On 31st March 2020 the authorities suspended visits to prisoners with the exception of lawyers’ visits, but lawyers are often hesitant to see detainees in pre-trial detention for fear of infection.

Only on 30th April 2020 – on the eve of a visit from a delegation of the World Health Organisation (WHO) – authorities confirmed that there have been 15 positive tests for coronavirus in the country, with 10 in the northern region of Soghd and five in the capital city Dushanbe. At the same time, media and other reports indicate that the situation is far more serious.

Calls to release independent journalist

On 16th April 2020 Shohmansur District Court in Dushanbe sentenced independent journalist Daler Sharipov to one year’s imprisonment for inciting religious hatred under Article 189, part 1 of the Criminal Code. On 28th January 2020, officials from the State Committee for National Security (SCNS) detained Sharipov and charged him with “inciting national, racial, local or religious hatred”. The broadly worded formulation of Article 189 does not align with Article 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and is a prime example of the type of law that can be used illegitimately to punish expression of opinion that is not intended to incite and has no risk of causing hostility, violence or discrimination. In its concluding observations issued in August 2019 the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) urged Tajikistan to:

“Ensure the effective protection of independent journalists and media workers against any form of intimidation and refrain from using civil and criminal provisions, including the provisions on extremism, as well as other regulations, as a tool to suppress critical reporting on matters of public interest.”

And yet, developments in the case of Sharipov indicated that the authorities do not intend to comply with this recommendation. After the remand hearing on 30th January 2020 Sharipov was placed in the SCNS investigation-isolation facility in Dushanbe. In early February 2020, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a statement claiming that, in the past seven years, Sharipov had posted over 200 articles and comments of an “extremist nature aimed at inciting religious intolerance” on social media and that he illegally published 100 copies of a dissertation allegedly “developed in the context of the Muslim Brotherhood movement”, which has been banned in Tajikistan as an extremist organisation. The prosecutor’s closing statement mentioned Sharipov’s dissertation but not the 200 articles and comments which were said to be of an “extremist nature” that the journalist had allegedly disseminated. In court the prosecutor asked for a punishment of two years and four months’ imprisonment (Article 189, part 1 carries a maximum term of five years’ imprisonment).

According to his father, Sharipov wrote his dissertation “Mohammed and terrorism” in order to serve as a disincentive to young people who might be attracted to getting involved with terrorist and extremist groups. According to his lawyer, in his final statement in court Sharipov denied inciting hatred.

Following his imprisonment, local and international civil society organisations united to express concern that the 32-year old journalist, who frequently wrote about controversial issues such as human rights and religion and has criticised government policies in these areas, was targeted in retaliation for his legitimate journalistic work. They called for Sharipov’s prompt and unconditional release. Amnesty International also issued an urgent action update. 

Blocking of the internet continues

The blocking (and in some cases disabling) of websites, social media platforms and internet messengers and the temporary blocking of internet access continue to be part of the authorities’ toolkit to put pressure on independent media outlets, bloggers and social media users and to limit the dissemination of critical reports. At the time of writing the sites of Asia Plus, Akhbor.com and Radio Ozodi were blocked. The media site Akhbor.com, run by former Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty journalist Mirzo Salimpur from Prague and exile media sites affiliated with the banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT movement) such as Payom.net and Tajinfo.org continue to be permanently blocked in Tajikistan and only accessible inside the country via VPN.

Censorship used to ‘fight’ against extremism and terrorism

As reported by Radio Ozodi, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, in January and February 2020 all independent and privately-owned TV and radio outlets in Tajikistan received two telegrams from the State Inspection for the Supervision of Television and Radio Broadcasting. On 31st January 2020 it ordered media outlets, under threat of sanctions, to “send an email to the State Inspection every week detailing the planned broadcasting programme”. On 4th February 2020 the State Inspection urged media outlets to report on developments with government policies.It was believed that these telegrams were sent in connection with the implementation of the recently adopted Law on Counteracting Extremism.

On 18th February 2020, according to state news agency Khovar, the Supreme Court formalised the blocking of Akhbor.com, when it ruled that the news outlet, which routinely quotes emigrants representing opposition groups such as the IRPT (banned in 2015) and Group-24, offers a platform to “terrorists and extremists”. Mirzo Salimpur, the head of Akhbor.com, told IPHR on 15th April 2020:

“Journalists who work for Akhbor could now face criminal charges and be equated to militants or members of a banned organisation. And internet users might get into serious trouble for sharing or liking our reports.”
Withholding press licences and accreditation

On 21st January 2020 a camera operator, two reporters and a driver from Radio Ozodi, received official accreditation but more than half a dozen staff remain unaccredited. On 23rd January 2020, Harlem Désir, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, commented on his Twitter page that the “accreditation of four journalists of Ozodi Radio in Tajikistan is a first step” and that he hopes “accreditation will be granted to the entire team. Journalists must be able to work freely without undue restrictions”. Under Article 30 of the Media Law of Tajikistan, accreditation entails aspects of “authorisation” or “permission”, which contradicts international standards. In an expert analysis of the 2013 amendments, the OSCE called for the concept of accreditation to be amended and for the law to ensure that the criteria and guarantees of accreditation are clear, including the possibility to appeal refusals to provide accreditation. These recommendations have not been acted upon.

Pressure on journalists in exile

According to a report issued by the London-based Justice for Journalists Foundation in April 2020, the relatives of at least six exiled journalists were subjected to harassment and intimidation between 2017 and 2019, and reports of pressure against journalists in exile have increased since 2017.

Parliamentary elections criticised

Parliamentary (Lower House) and local council elections took place on 1st March 2020, with the ruling People’s Democratic Party winning 47 of the 63 seats. The Social Democratic Party, widely regarded as the only opposition party following the 2015 banning of the Islamic Renaissance Party, received just 0.3% of the votes and failed to win a single seat.

In the run-up to the elections, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticised conditions which made fair and free elections impossible:

“The level of respect for fundamental freedoms has deteriorated further since the last election, and the choice between political alternatives is limited due to the lack of independent media and a functioning opposition.”

Independent candidates were not allowed to stand – for example, journalist and social activist Solekhov Samidaminovich could not register as a candidate because the electoral authorities claimed that 17 of his 504 support signatures were forged. Of the seven political parties that participated in the election campaign, none reported irregularities except the SDPT (Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan). A final election observation report from the OSCE was published on 27th May 2020.

On 27th March 2020 President Rahmon’s son, Rustam Emomali, was elected to the parliament’s upper house (Majlisi milli), and on 17th April 2020 he was elected as speaker of the parliamentary upper house. These moves ensure him the second most powerful position in the country after the president.

Legislative Developments

On 2nd January 2020 President Rahmon signed a series of laws and changes that significantly strengthened fundamental legal safeguards to prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment in the criminal justice system.

  • One law which came into effect on 2nd January 2020, is the Law on Counteracting Extremism, which contains a worryingly vague definition of extremism as “actions able to weaken the national security and defence capability of the state”, “public calls for a violent seizure of power”, a “change in the constitutional order” and “actions aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, local or religious hatred”. Article 17 stipulates that access to extremist propaganda on the internet or other telecommunication networks must be stopped or limited immediately.According to this law, the Government Communications Service has the right to control all websites and social networks and restrict users’ access to them if it deems necessary. This means that the Government Communication Service together with the State Committee for National Security or any other law enforcement agency has the right to immediately block any websites or social networks without a court decision, if it considers them extremist. In addition, the law permits the authorities to fight extremism not only within Tajikistan, but also among Tajik labour migrants. Furthermore, the law allows the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to seek international recognition that organisations and groups which were banned in Tajikistan on charges of extremism are indeed extremist.

Association

In February 2020 the Ministry of Justice announced that more than 2,500 public associations are operating in the country. In addition, in accordance with the Law on Registration of Legal Entities and Individual Entrepreneurs, 232 other forms of non-profit organisations are registered: 194 associations, 14 public funds and 24 non-profit organisations.

On 29th March 2020, the Ministry of Justice made an announcement on its website which presented a form of financial statements, which can be downloaded by public organisations from the website for submission to the ministry. All submitted reports are placed on a separate page of the Ministry of Justice website. At the time of writing, 272 public associations’ reports were posted on the site.

In accordance with the Law on Public Associations, in addition to annual financial reports, public associations must provide detailed information on the type and source of financing, the project for which it is intended and the beneficiaries and partners involved in the project. There is no system for the provision of online submissions, which becomes a serious problem for public associations located in remote and inaccessible regions of the country.

The legislation does not define penalties for failing to notify the Ministry or missing deadlines. In practice, the Ministry of Justice requires public associations to pay a fine for untimely notification, in accordance with Articles 475 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (committing actions that go beyond the goals and objectives defined by the charters of public organisations). Failure to provide timely notification of funding, and failure to provide annual information to the Ministry of Justice, are not actions that go beyond the goals and objectives specified in the charter of the PA. The fines under this article range from 5,800 to 11,600 somoni (approximately 568 to 1,136 USD).

During the reporting period, inspections and prosecutions of NGOs by various state bodies, including the Ministry of Justice, the State Tax Committee and the Labour Inspectorate continued. The authorities do not assist in preventing violations of the rules, but specifically look for the smallest - mostly technical – errors in order to subsequently impose high fines or the closure of the NGO concerned. Inspections are also initiated in relation to organisations that are most actively involved in protecting human rights and activities aimed at protecting vulnerable or marginalised groups.

Counter terrorism and human rights

In early 2020, shortly after the new Law on Counteracting Extremism came into force, there was a wave of arrests of alleged members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood (Ihvan al-muslimin). In early February 2020, the Prosecutor General confirmed that 113 people from Dushanbe, Vahdat, Rudaki, Nurek, Bokhtar and the Sughd region had been detained. About 30 of them - residents of Isfara and Istaravshan of the Sogd region - were released from custody in early February 2020. They were detained for 10 to 20 days.

On 19th March 2020, Yusuf Rahmon, the Prosecutor General of Tajikistan, informed Parliament that the authorities had identified a hitherto unknown terrorist group and identified dozens of “leaders and active members” of an alleged “criminal extremist-terrorist community” called “Jamaat Muwahiddin” in Tajikistan’s penal colonies.The Prosecutor General stated that 37 prisoners in the YaS-3/1 correctional colony and 28 prisoners in the YaS-3/2 colony have been convicted of membership in this organisation and that a criminal case against 29 of the leaders and active members of the Jamaat Muvahiddin has been sent to court.

On 24th March 2020, the criminal case against Sangin Komil Tagoev, the first of hundreds accused in the high-profile case of Ikhvan al-muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) came to an end with Tagoev being sentenced to a year in prison. The “Muslim Brotherhood” movement has been banned since 2006 in Tajikistan. Human rights activists expressed concerns that those arrested were not allowed to contact relatives or to obtain independent legal assistance.