Declining civic space in Tajikistan

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On the basis of information provided by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Nota Bene, the CIVICUS Monitor – an initiative of the global CIVICUS civil society alliance – has published the following overview of the current state of civic space in Tajikistan:

Space for civil society has recently narrowed considerably in Tajikistan, due to increasing restrictions on alternative voices, independent media, NGOs and lawyers. After his visit to Tajikistan in March 2016, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, summed up the situation for civil society, stating:

‘I have found that a climate of fear has descended upon key sectors of civil society, stifling free expression in ways that will only lead to resentment and insecurity.’

Association

Most NGOs in Tajikistan are registered as public associations. Recent amendments to the Law on Public Associations brought new requirements for CSOs who receive foreign funding. Civic groups in Tajikistan are now required to report all foreign grants to a special state registry before they can use the funds. Civil society and international human rights bodies have expressed concern that the amendments could unduly impede organisations ability to access the funds they need to continue operating.

While the amendments entered into force in August 2015, it was unclear how the reporting requirement would be implemented in practice. Finally, in March 2016, the government adopted implementing regulations which required organisations to inform the Ministry of Justice within ten days of receiving foreign funding and to provide specifics on the source and nature of the funds, including how and when they will be used. The new rules allow the Ministry of Justice to take steps to “verify” the information. Using a government reporting form approved in August 2016, public associations have now begun documenting any receipt of foreign funds.

Pre-existing legislation grants the authorities the power to ensure that civic groups comply with the requirements of national laws and their own statutes. The ministries of justice, taxation and other government entities have recently increased the number of inspections of NGOs. Several NGOs have been warned, fined and/or subjected to liquidation lawsuits because of their alleged failure to comply with registration and other technical requirements. While a government decree from December 2015 sets out basic terms for inspections carried out by the Ministry of Justice, inspections by other authorities are not regulated in any detail. Unexpected and unnecessary inspections, checks and the threat of sanctions have created an environment of uncertainty and fear for civil society groups.

Cases against lawyers

According to the new Law on the Bar and the Practice of Law adopted in 2015, all lawyers who wish to practice law are now required to pass a qualification exam administered by a commission in which the Ministry of Justice plays a prominent role, as well as to regularly undergo re-certification. This threatens the independence of the legal profession in the country. Lawyers have also been subjected to increasing pressure, and several lawyers have been arrested and charged with criminal offences, giving rise to concern that they have been targeted in retaliation for their professional activities.

Following a closed trial, two lawyers – Buzurgmehr Yorov and Nuriddin Mahkamov – were convicted of inciting hostility, extremism and other charges and given lengthy prison sentences of 21 and 23 years, respectively. Both had represented members of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) who were charged with extremism-related offences after the authorities linked the IRPT to armed attacks that took place in the country in September 2015. The Supreme Court subsequently banned the party. International CSOs and other representatives of the international community responded with alarm to the conviction of the two lawyers. In a statementThe International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) stated:

‘These convictions, which continue a recent pattern of persecution of lawyers in the country, will contribute to the already poor climate for the independence of the legal profession in Tajikistan.’ [The government of Tajikistan] ‘…should ensure that criminal prosecution is not used by the executive as a means to limit lawyers in the exercise of their professional duty, and that lawyers do not suffer any reprisals due to their identification with their clients’ causes.’

Peaceful Assembly

Adopted in 2014, the new Law on Assemblies restricts peaceful assemblies in a manner which contravenes international best practice standards. The law requires assembly organisers to obtain permission in advance and it also establishes the grounds for prohibiting and restricting the conduct of assemblies. Among others, it restricts holding assemblies in the vicinity of government buildings, hospitals, schools, and historical and cultural monuments. It also does not provide for spontaneous assemblies and prohibits foreign citizens from participating in gatherings. Violations of the law may result in fines.

The current restrictive climate and the risk of reprisals discourage the organisation of assemblies that are critical of Tajikistan’s authorities and state policies. There have also been reports of arbitrary and excessive responses to peaceful gatherings of a non-political character, including the following case on the celebration of an Indian holiday:

In mid-May 2016, a community organisation and an Indian restaurant organised a Holi spring festival at a Dushanbe sports stadium with the permission of the authorities. When leaving the festival venue, dozens of young people and children were detained for several hours for allegedly “disturbing public order” because they had coloured their faces, hair and clothes for the festival. Police allegedly subjected some of those detained to verbal and physical abuse, allegations that were supported by an audio recording from the police station. In late May 2016, the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued a statement saying that police acted lawfully to prevent “riots and unrest” when detaining festival participants but that disciplinary measures had been taken against four police officers for “rude treatment.” Even though the Ministry of Internal Affairs took action to remedy the incident, there was no comprehensive, thorough and impartial investigation. Civil society groups have called upon Tajik authorities to conduct an inquiry into allegations of human rights violations committed by security forces while holding suspects in detention.

Expression

Freedom of expression is under serious threat in Tajikistan. In the 2016 Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index, Tajikistan‘s ranking fell a dramatic 34 places – it now ranks 150th out of 180 countries.

Problematic legislation

Amendments to the Law on the Media adopted in July 2016 established the grounds for suspension and closure of media outlets. In the face of criticism from journalists, a draft provision allowing prosecutors to suspend media outlets without a court order was removed prior to the adoption of the law. The final provisions require a court decision both for the suspension and closure of media outlets.

While libel was decriminalised in 2012, insulting the president and government officials is still subject to criminal liability, a factor which has a significant impact on freedom of expression. Amendments to the Criminal Code adopted by the parliament in November 2016 extended the ban on insulting or slandering the president to the Leader of the Nation, a lifetime title that was bestowed on the current President Emomali Rahmon in 2015. People convicted of this offense may be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

Pressure on independent media and journalists

Independent media and journalists face intimidation and threats, and as a result, self-censorship is widespread in Tajikistan. Following his visit to the country in March 2016, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, observed the prevalence of self-censorship and in particular, the coercive methods employed by the authorities to impede reporting on politically sensitive issues. In a statement, he noted:

‘Tajikistan’s law extends important formal protections to the independent media and non-governmental organisations, but journalists and civil society activists nonetheless face harassment in the deepening atmosphere of restrictions.’

At the same time, the current economic downturn has negatively impacted the financial sustainability of independent media outlets.

According to a review of the National Association of Independent Media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT), four independent media outlets were closed down in the past year, while several others are currently on the brink of closure, and more than ten journalists have been forced to leave the country. In a statement issued in response to the closure of the independent Nigokh newspaper in November 2016, NANSMIT and the National Media Council, a self-regulatory journalism body, stated that they had documented attempts to intimidate and harass journalists from this outlet, as well as interfere with their work.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has reported growing pressure on its Tajiki service, Radio Ozodi; its journalists have been intimidated, interrogated by security services and portrayed as “unpatriotic” in state media. The following example is illustrative:

On 25th November, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs revoked the accreditation of six Radio Ozodi correspondents without explanation. According to RFE/RL, the suspension came after the Foreign Ministry contacted the service’s Dushanbe bureau regarding a story about the appointment of President Emomali Rahmon’s daughter Rukhshona Rahmona to head the Ministry’s International Relations Department and requested that it remove this story from its site, which the service refused to do. RFE/RL noted that this was the second time in the same month that Radio Ozodi was asked to delete a story. On 5th December, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs restored accreditation to the six journalists.

Blocking of websites and restrictions on communication

Arbitrary blocking of news sites, social media sites and other online resources has become a regular occurrence in Tajikistan in the last few years. The government’s Communications Service has consistently denied responsibility, suggesting that internet providers are to blame. However, internet providers have reported receiving informal orders from the Communications Service to block sites. For example, on the eve of the referendum to amend the constitution in May 2016, access to the independent ‘Asia Plus’ news site, the Tajik service of RFE/RL and the opposition ‘Ozodagon‘ news site were blocked. The Communications Service denied any involvement, but representatives from internet service providers told journalists that they had received informal instructions to block the sites. At the beginning of 2017, the news sites were still unavailable inside the country.

In November 2016, a new unified communications centre began operating under the state Tajik Telecom company. All internet providers and mobile phone operators are required to channel internet and telecommunications services through this centre. While the stated purpose of the communications centre is to improve informational security, media watchdogs and civil society groups have expressed concern that it will enable the authorities to increase control over the internet and mobile phone communications, thereby endangering freedom of expression and the right to privacy.

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Image featured with post: Photo by Carol Mitchell / CC BY