Tajikistan: UN rapporteur sounds alarm over worsening environment for civil society

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This update covers developments affecting civic space in Tajikistan from June to August 2017. It has been prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and its Tajikistani partners Nota Bene and the Lawyers’ Association of Pamir for the CIVICUS Monitor.

Association and Peaceful Assembly

As previously covered, the environment for civil society has worsened in recent months. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, raised concerns about this worrying trend in his final report from a March 2016 visit to Tajikistan, which he presented in June 2017. He highlighted, in particular, the deteriorating legal framework for nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), intrusive inspections of NGOs carried out by different state bodies and pressure against those NGOs receiving foreign funding. Kaye also pointed out that the 2014 law on assemblies disproportionately limits the ability of individuals to express their dissent in coordination with others. He concluded that such

“…legal developments and practices put significant pressure on civil society actors, narrowing the space for civil society organizations and peaceful demonstrations in the country”.

The Special Rapporteur further noted that new legislation on the activities of lawyers adopted in 2015 has undermined the independence of lawyers and that a pattern of detention and intimidation of lawyers working on politically-sensitive cases has contributed to

“…a widespread sense of insecurity among all critical voices in the country”.

The case of lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov is emblematic of that pattern and was highlighted by the Special Rapporteur in his report. Yorov was arrested in autumn 2015 after providing legal assistance to arrested political opposition members and since then has been subjected to protracted legal proceedings. As reported before on the Monitor, in October 2016 he was sentenced to 23 years in prison on extremism and other charges. Following this verdict, several additional criminal cases were opened against him. In March 2017, he was given two more years in prison on charges of showing disrespect to the judge during the first trial against him. In August 2017, he was sentenced to another three years in prison on charges of fraud and offending the Leader of the Nation, a title bestowed on current President Emomali Rahmon in 2015. As a result, his overall prison term was extended to 28 years. The prosecutor had requested a 17-year sentence against him, but under national law the court could at the most add five years to his previous prison term. The trial took place behind closed doors at the detention facility where Yorov is held.

International human rights NGOs have voiced concerns over reported cases of detentions, interrogations and threats of relatives of members of banned political opposition groups who live abroad following a Tajik opposition congress held in Germany at the beginning of July 2017. When commenting on this issue at a press conference on 21st July, Tajikistan’s minister of internal affairs said that, in his view, it cannot be considered persecution if the individuals in question “were summoned as witnesses or for the purpose of obtaining information” and that police had not received any complaints about violations of the “honour and integrity” of relatives of members of “banned groups”. The General Prosecutor similarly claimed that no relatives of such opposition groups had been subjected to pressure.

Expression

In the final report on his Tajikistan visit, Kaye also voiced concerns about legal and extra-legal pressure on journalists and media, internet censorship and surveillance, and the persecution of political opposition forces. He concluded that the government’s current approach to security and public order

“…focuses on repression” of critical voices and called on it to reconsider this approach, stressing that it “may be undermining the very […] goals the Government purports to be pursuing”.

According to media reports, in July 2017 the parliament adopted legislation granting law enforcement authorities new powers to obtain information about the internet sites visited by citizens. The legislation was initiated after a member of the parliament claimed that “80 percent” of the country’s internet users visit “undesirable” websites containing ”extremist” and “terrorist” content, without presenting any data to back up this claim. While it is not clear how the monitoring of website visits will be carried out, the initiative reinforces concerns about internet surveillance infringing on citizens’ right to privacy.

As previously covered on the Monitor by IPHR and its partners, earlier legislation adopted in November 2016 requires all internet providers in the country to channel their services through a so-called unified communications center operating under the state-owned Tajik Telecom company. The stated purpose of establishing this center was to improve informational security, but media watchdogs and experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression have warned that it strengthens the authorities’ ability to conduct surveillance of internet communications.

Many news resources, including the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (Radio Ozodi), Ozodagon and others, remain unavailable in Tajikistan, although access to major social media resources were restored in May 2017.

Photo featured with post: UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré/ CC BY

See also earlier updates on civil society developments in Tajikistan from June, April and March 2017.