Tajikistan: NGOs, lawyers and journalists under pressure

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This update has been prepared for the CIVICUS Monitor by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and its partners in Tajikistan, Nota Bene and the Lawyers’ Association of Pamir.

As part of his Central Asia tour, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres visited Tajikistan from 11th to 12th June 2017. Following a meeting with Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, Guterres informed journalists that he had discussed human rights issues with the president and had offered to assist with the implementation of recommendations from the country’s most recent UN Universal Period Review (UPR), an international assessment of the human rights situation in a country. During Tajikistan’s UPR in May 2016, over 200 recommendations came from other states on how the country could improve respect for human rights, including the protection of freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Association

NGO legislation and inspections

As IPHR and its partners reported previously, the draft Law on Non-Commercial Organisations is still under consideration by the Ministry of Justice and it is unclear when it will be submitted to parliament. The government is also developing a new draft Civil Code, which will include provisions on the registration of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

According to amendments to the Law on the Fight against Corruption, which came into force in June 2017, each year NGOs, political parties and international organisations operating in Tajikistan must provide a detailed assessment of the risks of corruption in their activities to anti-corruption authorities. These authorities will analyse and process this information, but no details about how this will be done or what follow-up action may be taken have been provided. The new rules state that the government will regulate the procedure and methodology separately. The requirement to carry out anti-corruption assessments also applies to government bodies. However, as the new legislation was introduced against the background of a worsening operating environment for NGOs, civil society actors fear that the new provisions may be used to put further pressure on NGOs and to unduly interfere with their activities.

NGOs continue to be subjected to intrusive inspections of their activities, which contribute to a high level of stress and uncertainty for those targeted. In several recent cases, NGOs have been informed that inspections revealed violations of national law, requiring them to remedy these violations or else face consequences.

Pressure on lawyers

As we also previously reported on the Monitor, lawyers have recently come under growing pressure in Tajikistan. A strict new law on the licensing of lawyers has been enforced and lawyers working on politically-sensitive cases have been intimidated, harassed and subjected to criminal prosecution.

In a briefing published in May 2017, Amnesty International drew attention to this alarming trend, concluding that:

“To be a lawyer, and particularly a human rights lawyer, comes with unprecedented risks in present-day Tajikistan”.

According to the briefing, the number of licensed lawyers in the country has decreased from 1,200 to 600 as a result of the new licensing procedure introduced in 2015, which is administered by a body connected to the executive branch. Amnesty International also pointed out that lawyers who have defended members of the political opposition have been charged with offences related to national security, imprisoned after closed and unfair trials, or forced to flee the country in fear of reprisals against them and their families. The harassment and prosecution of these lawyers has served as a warning to others, who have become increasingly wary of litigating cases of a political nature or those that involve complaints against authorities.

The case of lawyers Buzurgmehr Yorov and Nuriddin Mahkamov is particularly problematic. These two lawyers were arrested in autumn 2015 after defending political opposition members and were sentenced in October 2016 to over 20 years in prison on charges of extremism and other offenses. As already reported on the Monitor, several additional criminal cases have been initiated against Yorov on questionable grounds, and he has already been given additional prison time on some of these charges. His lawyer and family members have also been subjected to pressure. Another lawyer, Shukhrat Kudratov was imprisoned on fraud and bribery charges in 2015 after working on high-profile cases and is reportedly still in prison, although he should have qualified for release under a general amnesty on the 25th anniversary of Tajikistan’s independence in 2016.

Peaceful Assembly

Ahead of Victory Day, celebrated every 9th May to commemorate the end of World War II, local authorities refused to permit a so-called Immortal Regiment march in Dushanbe to honour people who died and fought in the war by carrying photos of them. According to a statement from the Khovar State News Agency the march was not among the events planned for the Victory Day celebrations and current circumstances did not allow for additional events to be included. The statement also said that it is contrary to Islamic values to publicly display pictures of people who have died. Nevertheless, approximately 300 people took to the streets of the capital for the march on 9th May, holding pictures of their relatives who were part of the Soviet army in WWII. They were able to march and carry the photos without interference from the authorities. The Immortal Regiment marches began as a grassroots movement in Russia a few years ago, and subsequently national authorities endorsed these events, which have become an important feature of Russian Victory Day celebrations. These marches are also organised in several other countries in the region.

Expression

Challenges to press freedom

At a roundtable meeting organised by media outlets in Dushanbe on 3rd May 2017 – World Press Freedom Day – journalists discussed the challenges they currently face in the country. These include:

  • intimidation and pressure;
  • restrictive editorial policies because of the fear of repercussions for critical reporting;
  • lack of access to information on issues of public interest due to the refusal of public authorities to make information available; and
  • financial vulnerability, particularly given the recent financial downturn.

In the current repressive climate, self-censorship is widespread and several media outlets have been forced to close down. The roundtable participants also drew attention to the fact that a growing number of journalists have left Tajikistan. According to the head of the Coalition of Women Journalists, a survey showed that as many as 20 journalists have recently left the country for a variety of reasons, including pressure, lack of support and financial difficulties.

Recent international ratings have confirmed the worrying state of press freedom in Tajikistan. The annual World Press Freedom Index, which was published by Reporters without Borders in April 2017, ranked Tajikistan 149th out of 180 countries. Another press freedom rating published by Freedom House rated Tajikistan as “not free” with a score of 87 out of 100, where 100 is considered the least free.

Interference in state media

In a development that reflects government interference in state-owned media, journalists have reportedly been instructed to always use President Emomali Rahmon’s full title when referring to him. In other words, they are expected to refer to him not only as the president of the country, but also as “the founder of peace and national unity of Tajikistan” and “the leader of the nation”, titles that were bestowed on him through a 2015 law. This law also granted him lifelong immunity from prosecution.

Website blocking

As reported on the Monitor, an increasing number of websites have been blocked in Tajikistan in the last few years. The government’s Communications Service has denied responsibility for the lack of access, but internet providers have stated that they have received informal orders from the Service to block certain sites. At the end of May 2017, internet providers restored access to Facebook, YouTube and other social media resources that were blocked in 2016, enabling users to access them directly without using anonymisers. Other websites, including independent news sites, can still not be accessed from within the country.

Human rights journalists awarded

On World Press Freedom Day, Tajikistan’s NGO Coalition against Torture and Impunity – a network of 11 NGOs and dozens of activists, lawyers and other experts – recognised a number of journalists and media outlets for their admirable efforts in covering torture-related issues and cases in the country. The Coalition thanked these media representatives for their contribution to combating torture and ill-treatment and for their support in promoting zero tolerance for such human rights abuses.