These are challenging times for human rights in Tajikistan. Freedom of expression, freedom of association, non-discrimination and other fundamental rights and freedoms have recently come under increasing pressure in the country. A new report, based on monitoring by Nota Bene (Tajikistan) and prepared together with International Partnership for Human Rights (Belgium), provides an overview of key developments in these areas in the last few months.
At the end of 2015, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon was declared “Leader of the Nation”. In this capacity, he will enjoy life-long political influence and immunity from prosecution. Draft amendments to the constitution, which will be subjected to a referendum in May this year, would abolish all limitations on the number of times Rahmon can be re-elected.
In February 2016, the Supreme Court began hearing the cases against leading members of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), who have been charged with “extremism” offenses because of their alleged involvement in armed attacks that took place in the country in September 2015. The trial is held behind closed doors and there are serious doubts about the fairness and impartiality of it. The trials against other IRPT members are expected to start soon. Following the September 2015 events, which the authorities have portrayed as a coup d’état, the IRPT was banned as “extremist” and mass arrests of its members were carried out.
There are concerns about growing restrictions on internet and cell phone communications. A requirement for internet and cell phone providers to channel their services through a new national communications center, which is to established by the end of the year, may enable the authorities to further step up control over such communications. Arbitrary blocking of websites continues, and security services have been granted broad powers to restrict access to internet and cell phone services during counter-terrorism operations.
New media legislation proposed by the government would allow prosecutors to initiate the suspension of media outlets for three months – without a court decision – if the outlets have failed to address alleged violations about which they have been warned. Prosecutors would also be able to request courts to close down media outlets on these grounds. When information about the proposed amendments emerged, representatives of the journalist community voiced strong criticism about them, saying that they risk legitimizing censorship. As a result, the amendments were sent back for additional revision. Media outlets already operate in an environment of intimidation in the country and self-censorship is widespread.
The Ministry of Justice has finally elaborated draft regulations for the implementation of the new requirement for NGOs to report all their foreign grants to the government, which was introduced last August. The draft regulations set out the procedure for reporting information about grants, but they do not clarify whether grants can be used before they have been officially registered nor do they establish any time limit for decisions on registration. These are key points for NGOs, which fear that the new reporting procedure may be used to obstruct the implementation of their activities.
Other new regulations adopted by the Ministry of Justice set out the terms for NGO inspections carried out by this body, an issue that has not previously been regulated in any detail. These regulations provide, among others, that NGOs should be given prior notice of inspections and a written summary of the outcome of them, and that the same NGOs cannot be targeted by inspections more than once in two years. While this is a welcome development, it remains of concern that the grounds for carrying out inspections are very broad and that the new regulations leave room for additional ad hoc inspections, as well as for inspections by other bodies than the Ministry of Justice.
Another remaining concern is that NGOs risk serious sanctions, including closure because of alleged violations of technical and administrative requirements. Following months of uncertainty, Nota Bene was informed in January 2016 that the district court considering the Tax Committee lawsuit brought against it last year had dismissed the case on procedural grounds. The Tax Committee had requested that Nota Bene be closed down for allegedly using “gaps” in the legislation when registering with the authorities.
New legislation adopted last year introduced a requirement for all lawyers to undergo certification and regular re-attestation with a new non-independent body and broadened the grounds on which lawyers may be denied a license. Practicing lawyers need to re-certify their status by the end of March 2016 in order to continue to work without interruption; however, most lawyers have not yet had their status renewed. The two lawyers defending the rights of arrested IRPT members, Buzurgmehr Yorov and Nuriddin Mahkamov who were arrested on fraud charges in September and October 2015, respectively, remain in pre-trial detention.
The authorities have recently stepped up efforts to decrease the role of Islam in public life and to counter expressions of Islam considered “alien” to the country. Last year there were reports about raids on retailers selling “inappropriate” Muslim clothing, as well as of cases of forcible shaving of bearded Muslim men. While police representatives have previously denied that any official orders have been given for such measures, statements made by the Khatlon region police head in January 2016 reinforced concerns that they have in fact been part of law enforcement practice. He said that 162 veil-selling shops were closed down and the beards of close to 13 000 men “brought to order” in his region in 2015. Later he insisted that this was a result of “awareness-raising”. Over 1000 mosques were also closed down in 2015 under the country’s restrictive legislation on religion, and draft legislation approved by the parliament would prohibit giving children names that are “alien” to national and spiritual traditions.
At the end of his visit to Tajikistan on 3-9 March 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression said that he is alarmed about “increasing restrictions on opposition parties, civil society and the media over the past year” and warned that these measures “generate tensions and long term instability”. A detailed report about the findings of his visit is forthcoming.
The report has been prepared within the framework of the project “A Transnational Civil Society Coalition in Support of Fundamental Rights in Central Asia”, which is jointly implemented by Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Nota Bene, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and International Partnership for Human Rights.
See also: Central Asia: Report highlights worrying trends of stifling dissent, December 2015