Cover-up and downplay of COVID-19; massive restrictions on expression

Cover-up and downplay of COVID-19; massive restrictions on expression
(Photo credit: USAID Central Asia/ CC BY-ND 2.0/ https://flic.kr/p/2jysJtd)

Introduction

This report, which 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 for the period May to July 2020.

On 30th April 2020, the Tajikistani authorities finally confirmed the first infections of the coronavirus but persisted in blaming the media for “spreading panic” among the population through its COVID-19 reporting. Since then, the number of officially confirmed deaths has been consistently lower than estimates from civil society. The website kvtj.info, which is registered abroad and which records cases of deaths possibly associated with COVID-19, has been blocked in Tajikistan since 11th May 2020.

On 4th July 2020 President Rahmon signed into law new legislation regarding “false information” about the coronavirus, with serious implications for freedom of expression in Tajikistan. The new legislation, which came into force on 7th July 2020, includes amendments to the Administrative Code which punishes people for distributing “inaccurate” and “untruthful” information about COVID-19 through the press or through social and electronic networks with fines from 580 Tajik Somoni (TJS, about 50 EUR) or administrative detention for a period of 10 to 15 days for individuals to 11,600 TJS (roughly 1,000 EUR) for legal entities. Many civil society activists are concerned at the huge sum of fines for legal entities, which could potentially jeopardise independent media, information outlets and civil society organisations (CSOs) that have a duty to inform the public of developments concerning public health in a transparent manner.

There is widespread concern that the legislation will result in a practice where the only information which will be considered accurate and truthful is information and statistics provided by the government. The amendments could allow users of Telegram, Viber and Instagram to be prosecuted for sharing information which the state deems unreliable, as well as opening the door for monitoring of internal private correspondence. People wishing to share their experiences of COVID-19 on social media networks or journalists who quote these experiences could have to obtain an official certificate confirming the individual’s illness, or risk facing persecution for distributing false information.

An initial consequence of the newly adopted law is that there are far fewer discussions about the pandemic situation in the media and on social media networks. Some Tajikistani Telegram channels, which previously featured the latest developments in the COVID-19 situation in the country, have changed their names and stopped publishing information from non- governmental sources.

There have been ongoing reports of physical attacks on journalists by unidentified individuals in Tajikistan. In May 2020 ASIA-Plus journalist Abdullo Gurbati (also known as Avazmad Gurbatov) was attacked twice. He alleged that the first attack was in retaliation for his video reports about Tajikistan’s response to COVID-19.

The authorities continue to crack down on political opponents. According to Rakhmatillo Zoyirov, the head of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan (SDPT), each year the local authorities send a list containing the personal data of leading party members to the Ministry of Justice and to the local police which in turn begins to persecute the people on this list, resulting in harassment, intimidation and threats.

In June 2020, Hizbullo Shovalizoda, member of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being extradited from Austria. He was charged under Articles 307 part 3 (participation in the activities of an extremist community) and 305 (treason) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Tajikistan. On 7th July 2020 the Austrian Federal Administrative Court ruled that the Austrian asylum authorities had not acted legally during the extradition and had failed to take into account recent information about Tajikistan.

On 5th June 2020 the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Maksud Ibrokhimov, imprisoned founder of the public organisation “Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan, had been punished solely for his peaceful political activities and called on the government of Tajikistan to release him.

In another attempt to curb any criticism of the government, on 17th May 2020 the authorities sentenced ten residents of Khuroson district, who were protesting against the lack of action by the authorities to help flood victims, to between five to ten days’ administrative detention for “participating in an unauthorised rally”. A criminal case against the protestors was opened for allegedly "inciting mass protests" and "violating public order".

In May 2020, Chinese workers of the “Tajikistani-Chinese Mining Company” in Zarnisor, Sughd region, protested after they had not been paid for eight months. The protests were broken up by police and there are credible reports that police officers beat protestors with batons, causing serious injuries.

On 8th July 2020 criminal proceedings began at the Supreme Court of Tajikistan against 116 alleged members of the "Muslim Brotherhood" (“Ikhvon-ul-muslimin”). The trial is being held behind closed doors. The father of one of the suspects said that the authorities are yet to explain the reasons for his son's arrest. The new wave of arrests is widely seen as a consequence of the new Law on Counteracting Extremism. As previously reported, human rights activists had expressed their concern that those arrested were not allowed to contact relatives or to have independent legal assistance.

These developments are covered in more detail below.

Expression

Blaming the messenger – independent media targeted

The Tajikistani authorities continued to react aggressively towards media reporting on COVID-19.The government only admitted that the virus was present in the country on 30th April – on the eve of a visit from a World Health Organisation (WHO) delegation (see previous Monitor update).

Even after the authorities announced the first officially confirmed coronavirus infections they continued to blame the media (see IPHR’s recent report on media freedom in Tajikistan) for “spreading panic” among the population because of its COVID-19 reporting. According to the government news agency Khovar.tj, on 7th May 2020, the press centre of the Prosecutor General’s Office warned that “legal measures will be taken against anybody who sows panic in the country”. Reportedly, the office added that rumours about an increased number of deaths associated with COVID-19, price increases, the lack of basic food items and necessities and the closure of major inter-regional roads were untruthful.

The number of officially confirmed deaths has been consistently lower than civil society estimates. A website, registered abroad which recorded an alternative list of deaths suspected to be associated with COVID-19, has been blocked in Tajikistan since 11th May 2020, just a few days after it was launched.

The website list is based on information submitted by internet users who are, among others, required to provide their personal details as well as information confirming that the deceased was likely to have been infected with the virus, such as the typical symptoms or whether burials had been conducted by medical personnel instead of relatives.

On 10th June 2020, the Tajik service of Radio Liberty, Radio Ozodi, published an official list of 10 medical workers who had died in the Khatlon region from April to 22nd May 2020. The leadership of the regional health department confirmed this information on 9th June 2020 but denied that the deceased had died from COVID-19, claiming that most of them had pneumonia. However, relatives of some of the deceased’s doctors reported that they were buried under heightened security measures and that their relatives were quarantined. 

Despite numerous reports from reliable sources about the death of medical doctors from the coronavirus, on 24th July 2020 the Minister of Health of Tajikistan, Jamoliddin Abdullozoda, claimed at a press conference that not a single doctor in the country had died from COVID-19.

Attacks on journalists

There have been ongoing reports of physical attacks on journalists by unidentified individuals in Tajikistan. In May 2020 ASIA-Plus journalist Abdullo Gurbati (also known as Avazmad Gurbatov) was attacked twice. He alleged that the first attack was in retaliation for his video reports about Tajikistan’s response to COVID-19.

At around 9:20 pm on 11th May 2020 two unknown men wearing medical masks attacked Gurbati near his house and beat him as he returned from a shop. When Gurbati started shouting the men left. He reported that he sustained injuries to his head, arms and legs and suffered from backache as a result of the attack. Gurbati immediately reported the incident to the police, but they reportedly only began investigating the incident on 14th May 2020 at Gurbati’s insistence. On 15th May 2020 the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated on its website that a case had been opened in relation to an incident of “hooliganism”, but that the attackers had not yet been identified. On 15th May 2020 Gurbati’s lawyer, Abdurahmon Sharipov of the NGO Independent Centre for Human Rights Protection, pointed out that Gurbati was at risk of further threats and attacks and called on the Ministry of Internal Affairs to protect him.

Gurbati recalled that the attack was deliberate as the attackers were waiting for him and did not steal anything from him. He also reported having received several anonymous threats by phone and on social media in the weeks prior to the attack. In April 2020 he received anonymous calls from a man threatening him, stating: “We’ll find you and deal with you“, and calling him a traitor.

On 29th May 2020 Gurbati was attacked for a second time as he drove to Khuroson district in southern Tajikistan to interview people affected by recent mudflows at a temporary camp. Soon after he arrived he was reportedly approached by three men who told him to stop filming or they would beat him. When Gurbati explained that he had the right to continue his journalistic work, the men attacked him. In a statement issued on 30th May 2020, the Ministry of the Interior accused Gurbati of ignoring requests by inhabitants of the camp not to film them and of planning to prepare “sensationalist materials”. However, Gurbati reported that he was beaten as soon as he got out of the car and “didn’t even have time to get to the camp site.” Gurbati lodged a complaint. Police identified the attackers and on 2nd June 2020, Khuroson District Court found three individuals guilty of petty hooliganism and fined them 580 TJS (the equivalent of approx. 50 EUR).

On 2nd June 2020, the Coalition against Torture and Impunity and other Tajikistani CSOs issued a joint statement calling on the authorities to thoroughly investigate the attacks on Gurbati. Regarding the 29th May 2020 incident, they pointed out that the attackers should have been charged with “obstruction of the lawful professional activity of a journalist”, a more serious crime.

New legislation on coronavirus reporting

On 4th July 2020 President Rahmon signed into law new legislation regarding the spread of “false information” about the coronavirus which severely curtails freedom of expression in Tajikistan. The law came into force on 7th July 2020 and punishes journalists, bloggers and civil activists who distribute “inaccurate” and “untruthful” information about the COVID-19 pandemic through the press, social networks “or other electronic means”. Fines range from 580 TJS (approx. 50 EUR) for individuals to 11,600 TJS (approx. 1,000 EUR) for legal entities (see also IPHR’s recent report on the “Human Rights Impact Assessment of the COVID-19 Response in Tajikistan)

The changes to the Law of the Republic of Tajikistan, “On Amendments and Additions to the Code of Administrative Offences” amend Article 374(1) of the Administrative Code as follows:

“Dissemination of false information using the media, the internet or other telecommunication networks: The distribution of knowingly false information using the media, the Internet or other electronic communication networks in the event of the emergence and spread of diseases which are dangerous to humans, or when restrictive quarantine measures are in place, or information that is not realistic about protective measures and other measures taken to ensure the safety of the population shall be sanctioned by a fine for individuals from 10 to 20 (individual indicators) or administrative detention for a period of 10 to 15 days and for legal entities - from 150 to 200 indicators for settlements.”

Many journalists and human rights activists are concerned that in practice - and without an expert commission to review individual cases - the only information which will be considered to be accurate and truthful will be that which is approved or issued by state bodies.

There is also concern that people wishing to share their experiences of COVID-19 on social media networks may be required to have an official certificate confirming their illness, or risk facing persecution for distributing false information. The inclusion of “other networks and electronic communication networks” could permit users of platforms such as Telegram, Viber and Instagram to be prosecuted for sharing information which the state deems unreliable, as well as opening the door for state monitoring of private correspondence.

The first effects of the adopted law became immediately visible: according to human rights defenders (HRDs) there are far fewer discussions about the pandemic situation in the media and on social media networks and information flow has been greatly reduced. Some Tajikistani Telegram channels which previously provided information about the pandemic have changed their names and stopped publishing information from alternative sources.

Before the law was passed, numerous Tajikistani civil society groups, media outlets and journalists had called on the President and the Head of the Upper Chamber of Parliament not to sign or adopt the amendments.

Persecution and silencing of opposition

On 12th June 2020, the Supreme Court of Tajikistan sentenced Hizbullo Shovalizoda, member of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, to 20 years in prison. The case was heard behind closed doors and Shovalizoda’s relatives were informed about the verdict by phone. On 5th May 2020, the General Prosecutor's Office made a public statement saying that Hizbullo Shovalizoda had been extradited from Vienna to Dushanbe with the assistance of the Austrian authorities. Shovalizoda was charged under Articles 307 part three (participation in the activities of an extremist community) and 305 (treason) of the Criminal Code of Tajikistan.

Shovalizoda had arrived in Austria in 2019 and applied for asylum, but the request was refused. On 22nd January 2020 he was detained and on 4th March 2020 he was extradited to Tajikistan, despite protests from the Tajikistani opposition in exile. However, on 7th July 2020, the Austrian Federal Administrative Court ruled that the decision of the Austrian authorities to refuse asylum to Shovalizoda and consent to his expulsion from the country were illegal. The Court found that the asylum authorities had also ignored information from the public prosecutor’s office in Eisenstadt where an application by the Tajik judicial authorities to extradite Shovalizoda had not been granted. The reason for this decision was that the application was predominantly political in nature and therefore no extradition proceedings were initiated. Furthermore, the Court found that the asylum authorities had relied on outdated information about the situation in Tajikistan when deciding on the expulsion. 

In a separate development, on 5th June 2020 the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) concluded that Maksud Ibrokhimov, imprisoned founder of the public organisation “Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan”, had been punished solely for his peaceful political activities. The Working Group called on the government of Tajikistan to take urgent measures to ensure Ibrokhimov’s immediate release. Furthermore, the Working Group urged the authorities of Russia and Tajikistan to “pay compensation for the illegal arrest, secret detention of Ibrokhimov in prison and deportation to Tajikistan”, and said that the Russian government must “identify those responsible for the illegal delivery of Ibrokhimov and punish them to the fullest extent of the law.” Ibrokhimov was kidnapped in 2015 on Russian territory and forcibly returned to Tajikistan, where he was sentenced on 24th June 2015 to 17 years in prison in a closed court hearing which did not meet international fair trial standards.

On 23rd June 2020 Rakhmatillo Zoyirov, head of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan (SDPT), circulated a statement on social media networks detailing reports of the local authorities persecuting, threatening and intimidating members of the Social Democrats. According to his statement, each year the local authorities send a list containing the personal data of leading opposition party members to the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry allegedly submits the list to the local police which then initiates persecutions against the persons on the list. On 13th July 2020, at a press conference, the Deputy Minister of Justice, Asadullo Hakimzoda, stated that the “list of SDPT members is intended for internal use and will not be provided to other state bodies”.

Peaceful Assembly

On 17th May 2020, flood-affected residents of the Khuroson district in Khatlon region blocked the Bokhtar-Dushanbe road for several hours to protest against the government's failure to provide rapid and efficient disaster relief and to draw the authorities' attention to their difficult situation. The disaster occurred on the night of 14th May 2020, when a powerful mudflow descended on several villages in the Khuroson region, flooding dozens of residential buildings. Two people were killed in the mudslides, houses were destroyed, and damage was caused to the region's agriculture and infrastructure.

Residents claimed that only after this protest action did the head of Khatlon region and the deputy prime minister visit the site and assess the situation. They stated that if they had not protested no one would have cared about their situation and that they would have been left to their own devices without any support. 

After the protest action the authorities of Khuroson reportedly warned local residents about the consequences of participating in new protests and “harsh suppression of the actions of provocateurs.” The Prosecutor's Office of the Khatlon region subsequently opened a criminal case against six Khuroson residents for allegedly "inciting mass protests" and "violating public order". 

On 16th July 2020, Abdurahim Rakhimzoda, prosecutor of Khatlon region, announced at a press conference in Bokhtar that ten residents had been detained for periods ranging from five to ten days for participating in an unauthorised rally. The fate of those residents against whom a criminal case was initiated remains unclear at the time of writing.

In a separate development, on 20th May 2020 Chinese workers from the “Tajikistani-Chinese Mining Company” went on strike in the town of Zarnisor in the northern Sughd region. According to independent Akhbor news, the workers had told “Spaces of the East” (a Chinese website) that for about eight months they had not received their salaries, and because of the spread of COVID-19 they wanted to return to their homeland. Several days before, a colleague from Henan province had died. The authorities had claimed that he had died of gastrointestinal disease, but workers believed that he had contracted COVID-19. They also expressed concern that several other colleagues had been infected with the coronavirus but that they had not been provided with adequate medication and proper treatment. 

The protests were broken up by police. A spokesman from Sughd Ministry of Internal Affairs told Radio Ozodi that “the policemen who arrived at the scene fired shots into the air in order to calm the rioters, with no casualties or injuries”. According to the police, some protesters smashed glass doors and windows of the company building during the protests.

However, Chinese workers told “Spaces of the East” that “police officers had beaten them with batons, and that some protesters were seriously injured”. The Tajikistani Ministry of Internal Affairs has not issued any further comment on the incident.

Association

Research centre’s activities suspended

In June 2020, Ismoili Somoni District Court of Dushanbe suspended the activities of the Zerkalo Centre for Sociological Research for two months at the request of the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry of Justice accused the centre of non-compliance with labour law provisions, by allegedly violating the registration procedures of employees.

The head of the research centre, Kahramon Bakozoda, told Radio Ozodi that the Ministry of Justice checked the organisation's activities at the end of last year. Due to the lack of a full-time lawyer, the centre submitted a report to the Ministry in March 2020. As for the paperwork, he noted that the Ministry of Labour, Migration and Employment of the Population of Tajikistan had regularly checked the research centre’s activities since 2010, and never noted any complaints. Asadullo Gakimzoda, Deputy Minister of Justice of Tajikistan, confirmed that the department received a report from the centre on how it intended to address outstanding issues. He stated that it is up to the court to decide whether the organisation can resume its activities. 

Counterterrorism and human rights

On 8th July 2020 criminal proceedings began against 116 alleged members of the "Muslim Brotherhood" (“Ikhvon-ul-muslimin”) at the Supreme Court of Tajikistan. The trial is being held behind closed doors. The father of one of the suspects said that the authorities have still not explained the grounds for his son's arrest.

According to news reports, opposition and government critics believe the arrests are an attempt to intimidate the public. They have demanded that the trial be conducted openly and with the participation of representatives of media and civil society.

As previously reported on the Monitor, in early 2020, not long after the new Law on Counteracting Extremism came into force, there was a wave of arrests of alleged members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Human rights activists had expressed their concern that those arrested were not allowed to contact relatives or to have independent legal assistance.