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Tajikistan: International bodies alarmed at pressure on media and civil society
©Jacopo Romei/Tajik sister/CC BY-SA 2.0/https://flic.kr/p/b4y3ER
Tajikistan: International bodies alarmed at pressure on media and civil society
©Jacopo Romei/Tajik sister/CC BY-SA 2.0/https://flic.kr/p/b4y3ER
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This update covers developments relating to civic space and the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Tajikistan from April to July 2019. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) prepared the report as part of its cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.

During the period covered by the update, a development of key importance was the UN Human Rights Committee’s review of Tajikistan’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Following its review in July 2019, the Committee adopted conclusions and recommendations reflecting civil society concerns on fundamental rights and freedoms in the country. Another UN human rights body, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited Tajikistan in July 2019. The Working Group raised both past and recent cases of enforced disappearances, including cases in which opposition activists were forcibly returned to Tajikistan from other countries. A third UN human rights body, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion on the case of lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov in May 2019. The Working Group found that the detention of Yorov, who was sentenced to close to 30 years in prison after defending opposition members, was unlawful and called for his immediate release.

Following a wave of protests, in April 2019, the president cancelled an earlier order adopted by the Anti-Monopoly Service, which required mobile phone providers to increase rates significantly for internet access and online calls. While this was welcome, other developments related to internet use were less encouraging, such as new cases of arbitrary blocking of news sites, social media platforms and Google services. Pressure on media and journalists also continued. According to available reports, the authorities deprived a journalist working with the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) of his accreditation and intimidated the family of another independent journalist based abroad to pressure her to return to Tajikistan. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media criticised these developments.

The parliament passed new legislation in May 2019 that granted the authorities wide powers to limit freedom of expression in times of martial law. During its review of Tajikistan’s record, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed regret that national law on public emergencies allows for more extensive restrictions on rights than allowed by international human rights law.

Civil society organisations learned that they had been excluded from the process of drafting a new Law on Non-Commercial Organisations and only had the opportunity to provide comments in May 2019 when the draft was almost finalised. The draft law contains problematic provisions; in particular, NGOs fear that some existing organisations may face difficulties retaining their legal status under the new law due to the lack of clear wording. The UN Human Rights Committee criticised the “chilling” impact of previously adopted NGO legislation and urged the Tajikistani authorities to ensure that any regulations affecting NGOs are consistent with the country’s international obligations.

In May 2019, the authorities reported that more than two dozen prisoners died in connection with a riot in a high-security prison outside Dushanbe, where many individuals convicted on extremism and terrorism charges are serving their sentences. However, the exact circumstances of these events remained unclear and both civil society organisations and UN experts called for a thorough, impartial and independent investigation into them and the deaths of the prisoners. In another case, official statements that 14 prisoners died of food poisoning during a prison transfer in July 2019 gave rise to questions as relatives reported signs of abusive treatment on the bodies of the dead prisoners and officials ordered journalists to stay away from the hastily organised funerals.

International engagement

UN Human Rights Committee reviews Tajikistan’s record

At its session in Geneva, on 2-3 July 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Committee reviewed Tajikistan’s third periodic report on the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The day before the review of the state report, civil society representatives had the opportunity to brief Committee members on issues covered by the review. Tajikistani and international NGOs also submitted alternative reports for the review. IPHR, the NGO Coalition against Torture and Impunity in Tajikistan and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights submitted a joint alternative report, which focused on torture and ill-treatment in Tajikistan and highlighted the shrinking space for civil society organisations and activists there. Representatives of the organisations also participated in the NGO briefing with the Committee.

During its interactive dialogue with Tajikistan’s government, the Human Rights Committee raised a number of issues of serious concern to civil society, including issues relating to restrictions on freedom of expression, the worsening conditions in which NGOs operate, the ongoing use of torture and the rights of national, sexual and religious minorities. The concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee were made public on 25th July 2019. The Committee criticised, among others issues, state control over the media resulting in self-censorship; periodic blocking of media platforms and social media; harassment of independent journalists, opposition members, and lawyers working on politically sensitive cases; frequent inspections of NGOs resulting in fines or even closure of some NGOs; and problematic legislation affecting NGOs (see more below). The Committee also voiced concerns about undue restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly set out in the 2014 law on assemblies; state interference in the exercise of religion in ways that are incompatible with the Covenant; and reports of deep-rooted discrimination against LGBTI individuals. It made corresponding recommendations. The Tajikistani government is expected to submit the next state report, detailing the implementation of the Committee’s recommendations by July 2025.

UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visits Tajikistan

On 1-5 July 2019, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited Tajikistan, meeting with government officials, relatives and lawyers of victims of disappearances, as well as civil society representatives. In a statement issued at the end of the visit, the Working Group concluded that Tajikistan faces significant challenges in dealing with the issue of enforced disappearances. The Working Group said: “Very little has been done to deal with issues related to truth, justice, reparation and memory in relation to the civil war that took place between 1992 and 1997”, noting that it is estimated that thousands of individuals may still be unaccounted for since the war.

The UN experts also expressed concern at information about recent cases of enforced disappearances, including of citizens residing abroad who have been forcibly returned to Tajikistan. The experts said: “In some cases, these individuals have appeared in detention in Tajikistan after a short period of disappearance; in a few others their whereabouts are still unknown,” noting that the authorities have denied these allegations. International NGOs have reported on the arbitrary detention, forcible return and enforced disappearances of political opposition activists from Tajikistan residing abroad, including in the case of Sharoffiddin Gadoev, covered in the previous Monitor update. Gadoev was arbitrarily detained in Moscow on 14th February 2019, only to reappear in Dushanbe the following day. The Tajikistani authorities held him for more than two weeks, without disclosing his whereabouts or bringing any charges against him until they transferred him back to the Netherlands, where he has refugee status.

The Working Group called for further improvements, as well as effective implementation of legal provisions for the registration of those deprived of liberty and the notification of family members. It also called for the establishment of a simple, accessible and effective mechanism which would allow families to locate their loved ones speedily.

During their five-day visit to Tajikistan, the UN experts were granted a short visit to the high-security prison in the Vakhdat district outside Dushanbe where a prison riot took place on 19th May 2019. According to official information, three prison guards and 29 inmates were killed in the riot, which prisoners initiated “for the purpose of destabilising the situation in the prison colony and organising an escape”. The authorities said that imprisoned members of the banned terrorist group, the Islamic State first killed the three prison guards and five other prisoners, while 24 prisoners died during the operation to put down the riot. Those who died included imprisoned members of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which the Supreme Court banned as extremist in 2015. The UN Working Group urged the Tajikistani authorities to conduct a thorough, impartial and independent investigation, in accordance with international standards, in order to determine the circumstances in which the inmates were killed during the riot and how their remains were identified. Prior to this, the Civil Society Coalition against Torture and Impunity in Tajikistan had also called for a thorough investigation into the cause of this and other recent prison riots, bringing perpetrators to justice, informing the public about the results of such investigations and granting independent experts and civil society access to detention facilities for monitoring purposes.

A final report on the visit of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances is due to be presented in September 2020.


The authorities cancel drastic internet price increase

As covered in the previous Monitor update, in March 2019, Tajikistan’s Anti-Monopoly Service requiredmobile phone providers to implement a drastic price increase for internet access. The Service adopted an order on 4th March, setting out new minimum mandatory tariffs for mobile internet use, which were double the previous rates. The order also provided for greatly increased minimum rates for making calls using so-called Next Generation Network (NGN) services and similar services introduced by Tajikistani operators. The impact of the measure was significant as many internet users in Tajikistan use mobile internet primarily and NGN calls are a popular and affordable method to keep in touch with relatives working and residing abroad. Costs of internet access were already previously high in global comparison.

The Anti-Monopoly Service’s order sparked a wave of criticism on social media. A number of civil society organisations appealed to the Service to reconsider the price increase, saying that this measure would restrict citizens’ access to information and negatively affect the activities of educational institutions and government agencies, as well as international cooperation. Youth activists in Dushanbe collected signatures on an appeal to the president to stop the move. Because of the protests, the authorities eventually dropped the price increase. On 23rd April 2019, the president’s office announced that the president had rescinded the decision of the Anti-Monopoly Service, ordered costs for internet and mobile services to be returned to the previous level, and initiated measures against those responsible for the price hike. The head of the Anti-Monopoly Service was dismissed. The following day, the Anti-Monopoly Service officially annulled the controversial order.

New cases of arbitrary blocking of websites

As previously covered in the Monitor, the Tajikistani authorities regularly and arbitrarily block access to internet resources. During the period covered by this update, new cases were reported.

In late April 2019, Reporters Without Borders and the National Association of Independent Mass Media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT) called for an end to website blocking in Tajikistan, saying that the independent news site Asia-Plus had been inaccessible for the past five months, the Fergana and Abkhor news sites for several years and other news resources intermittently. Referring to the decision to cancel the price increase on internet services (see above), the two organisations urged the Tajikistani authorities “to show the same common sense by unblocking news sites”.

On 7th May 2019, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, made a similar appeal, calling on the Tajikistani authorities to reinstate access to numerous web resources, including online media, social platforms and Google services. The OSCE Representative referred to reports that social media and messenger applications, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram had been intermittently blocked in the country in the past ten days, and that news sites such as AsiaPlus, the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Avesta remained unavailable.

Following the reported riot at the prison in the Vakhat district on 19th May 2019, which left more than 30 people dead (see more above in the section of the Tajikistan visit of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances), there were new reports of the blocking of Google services and social media sites. These sites later became available again.

Journalists under pressure

In a new example of pressure on independent media, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Tajikistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry revoked the accreditation of the service’s video journalist Barotali Nazarov (pen name: Barot Yusufi) in June 2019. According to the service, an official from the Ministry seized Nazarov’s credentials and told him that he was banned from reporting “temporarily” for repeatedly mentioning the IRPT in his reports. The country’s largest opposition party, the IRPT was banned as “extremist” in 2015 and its leaders have been imprisoned. RFE/RL Acting President Daisy Sindelar described the move against the journalist as a “flagrant attempt to coerce and intimidate our Tajik Service, which is one of the country’s few remaining sources of independent news.” The service also said that four other journalists working with RFE/RL’s bureau in Tajikistan were currently lacking accreditation as the renewal of their credentials is pending, in one case since 2017.

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir called on the Tajikistani authorities to reinstate Barotali Nazarov’s accreditation and to issue accreditation to his RFE/RL colleagues, saying that accreditation “should not serve as a tool to control content or restrict the flow of information”. In the same statement, Désir also called on the Tajikistani authorities to ensure the safety of journalist Humayra Bakhtiyar and her family members, who government officials reportedly intimidated in an attempt to put pressure on her to return to Tajikistan. In an interview with the Global Journalist’s Project Exile, Bakhtiyar said that she left Tajikistan in 2015 after being subjected to a wave of harassment by the security services, including surveillance, media and social media attacks, and threats because of her critical reporting. While living in Tajikistan, Bakhtiyar covered corruption, political affairs and other sensitive issues for news outlets such as Asia-Plus and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. She currently lives in Germany, where she has been granted asylum. According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the security services have been harassing Bakhtiyar’s relatives in Tajikistan since 2017, including by interrogating her father and threatening to kidnap his family members unless he convinces his daughter to return to Tajikistan.

In its concluding observations the UN Human Rights Committee called on the Tajikistani authorities to ensure “the effective protection of independent journalists and media workers against any form of intimidation”.

New legislation provides for wide-ranging restrictions on free speech during public emergencies

In May 2019, Tajikistan’s parliament adopted new legislation on martial law, which the president later signed into law. This legislation grants the authorities wide powers to restrict freedom of expression during times of martial law, including by taking control of communications and publishing systems, and imposing censorship on media and communications. In its concluding observations on Tajikistan, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern that legislation on states of emergency are not compatible with the requirements of article 4 of the ICCPR, which regulates the use of measures derogating from the Covenant during public emergencies. The Committee was also concerned that the Tajikistani authorities have used emergency powers to block access to internet and mobile communication without a court order and without officially declaring a state of emergency.

Attempts to prevent media coverage in follow-up to incident involving the death of prisoners

On 8th July 2019, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Interior issued a statement saying that 14 prisoners had died when being transferred from the northern Sughd region to Dushanbe and southern Tajikistan as part  of a convoy of over 100 prisoners. According to the statement, the prisoners developed food poisoning symptoms after sharing three loaves of bread. In contrast to previous cases of deaths in prison, the Ministry immediately made the names of the dead prisoners public. The Ministry also announced that the General Prosecutor’s Office had opened a criminal investigation into the case, on the grounds of food poisoning.

However, information from relatives of the dead prisoners cast doubt on the official explanation of how the prisoners died. The relatives of several of the prisoners reported that the bodies of their loved ones were covered with bruises and had fractures, and pictures shared on social media showed bodies of dead prisoners with traces of apparent beatings. Relatives also told RFE/RL that the bodies of dead prisoners had to be hurriedly buried under supervision of officials and that authorities ordered journalists to stay away from the funerals. In one example, officials present ordered RFE/RL correspondents who had travelled to Baghalak to cover a burial on 8th July to leave the area. Some families declined to speak to RFE/RL, saying that authorities had told them not to be in contact with journalists. In response to a question posed by RFE/RL about the signs of abuse on the bodies of dead prisoners, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior said that “none” of the relatives of the inmates who died during the transfer had “approached the ministry with a complaint”. Reports indicating that at least some of the prisoners who died had been convicted on extremism and terrorism charges reinforced concerns about the circumstances of their death and the possibility that the authorities may be seeking to cover up the real reason they died.

Association and Peaceful Assembly

Concerns about new legislation affecting NGOs

In 2015, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Justice initiated the process of drafting a new Law on Non-Commercial Organisations. Although this law will directly affect NGOs, the government did not invite civil society organisations to participate in the drafting process, nor consult them in the course of it. In May 2019, civil society organisations received information that a new working group had been created under the Ministry of Justice to develop a new draft Law on Non-Commercial Organisations. No civil society representatives had been invited to participate in the working group this time either. Therefore, when learning about the new initiative, civil society organisations sent a joint letter to the Ministry of Justice, requesting that civil society representatives be included in the working group and that civil society be consulted on the draft legislation. Following this, the Ministry of Justice provided the NGOs with the most recent draft for comment and feedback, which they submitted to the working group at the end of May. However, it remains unclear whether the government will take the NGO feedback into account when finalising the draft law.

While local NGOs welcomed some provisions of the new draft law as improvements compared to the current situation, they found other provisions problematic. In particular, they fear that some organisations may face difficulties retaining their legal status under the new law. The draft law, of which local NGOs received a copy, did not feature any requirement for existing organisations to re-register with the authorities. However, it set out that all non-commercial organisations will be registered and supervised by the Ministry of Justice, unlike at present, when some organisations are registered with the Tax Committee and are overseen by this body. At the same time, the draft law did not set out any mechanism by which organisations currently registered with the Tax Committee can easily transfer to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. Under existing legislation, the only way organisations can change their legal status is by first being liquidated by court order. Thus, the lack of clear provisions on this issue may result in organisations registered with the Tax Committee being forced to close down and re-apply for registration with the Ministry of Justice, thereby risking having their applications rejected or stalled on arbitrary grounds.

As covered before on the Monitor, civil society organisations working on human rights issues have recently faced growing pressure in Tajikistan and some groups have been forced to close down. Against this background, it is of particular concern that the draft law lacks clarity regarding the legal status of existing organisations.

In its concluding observations on Tajikistan adopted in July 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee regretted the lack of information about the new draft Law on Non-Commercial Organisations. The Committee also expressed concern that amendments to the Public Associations Act, which the president signed into law in January 2019, have a “chilling effect” on the activities of NGOs. These amendments introduced new reporting obligations for public associations and charged the Ministry of Justice, which oversees the work of such organisations, with informing relevant authorities about any suspicion that an organisation may be used as a cover for the financing of terrorism or extremist activities. Civil society groups are concerned that the vague wording of these provisions may result in implementation unduly restricting the activities of public associations. According to the government, the amendments were aimed at implementing recommendations issued by the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF). However, while the FATF requires governments to take appropriate measures to ensure that local NGOs are protected from the risk of being misused for terrorist financing purposes, it has also stressed that such measures must be consistent with international human rights obligations.

The UN Human Rights Committee called on the Tajikistani government to ensure that any existing or future regulations governing NGOs fully comply with the ICCPR and “do not lead in practice to undue control over or interference in the activities of NGOs”.

UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issues opinion on the case of imprisoned lawyer

In May 2019, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued its opinion on the case of lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov, concluding that his detention is arbitrary and violates international human rights law. The Working Group called on the Tajikistani authorities to release Yorov immediately and grant him compensation, as well as to ensure a full and independent investigation into the circumstances of his detention and take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of his rights. As previously covered on the Monitor, the Tajikistani authorities arrested Buzurgmehr Yorov in September 2015 after he took on the defence of IRPT leaders. Following closed trials, he was subsequently sentenced to a total of 28 years’ imprisonment on a range of spurious charges. He has allegedly been subjected to abuse in detention.

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