By HRF’s Center for Law & Democracy
Last month, voters in Tajikistan took to the polls to elect their new Assembly of Representatives. However, these elections were neither free nor fair. Civil society has also been subject to restrictions on basic human rights such as freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion. The Internet and press in Tajikistan are also heavily censored. To understand how this small Central Asian republic devolved into authoritarianism, a study of its history and regime is an instructive lesson.
Tajikistan is a landlocked country in Central Asia, bordering Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China, with a population of a little over nine million people. Over 84% of the population belongs to the Tajik ethnic group, with Uzbeks comprising the next largest ethnic group, and the Kyrgyz and Russian ethnic groups comprising smaller percentages. Islam is by far the dominant religion, practiced by over 96% of the population.
Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, has imposed his authoritarian rule over Tajikistan since 1992. Elections have consistently been deemed unfree and unfair by international observers, and are used as a method of repression by the regime. Tajikistan’s de facto one-party system is very alarming. Similar to other fully authoritarian regimes, major opposition parties and candidates in Tajikistan are routinely excluded from competing in elections. After years of political persecution, harassment, and subjection to Rahmon’s zero-tolerance policy on dissent, the opposition in Tajikistan has shrunk to virtual nonexistence. Opposition parties such as Group24 and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan have been banned.
Within this context, Tajikistan went to the polls on March 1, 2020 to elect the 63-seat Assembly of Representatives, or Majlisi Namoyandagon. The parliamentary elections were an unsurprising, sweeping victory for President Emomali Rahmon’s ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party, which won 50.4% of the votes and 74.6% of the seats (equivalent to 47 seats). The remaining seats were assumed by pro-regime political parties, including the Party of Economic Reforms with 16.61% of the votes, the Agrarian Party with 16.5% of the votes, the Socialist Party with 5.15% of the votes, the Democratic Party of Tajikistan with 5.1% of the votes, and the Communist Party with 3.1% of the votes. Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan – the only independent opposition party left in the country – failed to win a seat in the new parliament with only 0.3% of the votes.
The recent elections are just one example of how the opposition has been persecuted by the regime. During Rahmon’s 27-year reign, members of the country’s peaceful political opposition have been arbitrarily incarcerated, tortured, exiled, murdered – eradicated by the Tajik regime.
Tajikistan is not a democratic country wherein the fundamental rights of citizens are respected, or wherein independence and separation of powers exist. It is instead ruled by a fully authoritarian regime, under which there is no guarantee of independence in the administration of justice or respect for fundamental rights.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan declared independence in 1991. A bloody civil war ensued almost immediately, displacing between 10 to 20% of the population, and resulting in tens of thousands of casualties, including many civilians, with some estimates indicating the death toll to be much higher.
Emomali Rahmon emerged as a key figure during the war, first becoming Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Tajikistan in 1992, and then president in 1994 when a new constitution created the presidency.
Rahmon has been in power since, having been re-elected to serve consecutive seven-year terms in 1999, 2006, and 2013. Rahmon was “elected” to his fourth term on November 6, 2013, with over 83% of the vote, facing no serious opposition candidates. While the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe did not monitor the 1999 election, its reports on both the 2006 and 2013 elections concluded that Tajikistan’s elections did not meet international standards or offer voters any meaningful choice.
In addition to having been elected in unfree and unfair elections, Rahmon has rigged referendums and used constitutional amendments to maintain his hold on power, including a 2016 referendum which resulted in the elimination of presidential terms limits and of faith-based political parties, including the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
Furthermore, it lowered the age to be eligible to run for president, paving the way for Rahmon’s son, Rustam Rahmon, to run in the 2020 presidential election. This was most recently evident on April 17, 2020 when Rustam was appointed chairman of the Tajik parliament’s upper chamber, the second-highest position in the country. This news has all but cemented Rustam’s appointment as president, should his father resign or be unable to carry out his presidential duties.
The use of legal artifices, such as constitutional amendments, is a tactic that provides a façade of legitimacy to Tajikistan’s regime, despite the lack of independence of the judiciary. Unlike a democracy – in which the separation of powers is promoted as a guarantee of independence that prevents, among other things, the concentration of power in decision-making – in Tajikistan, the judicial system is subservient to Rahmon. Acquittal in a trial is exceptionally rare, due process rights are often ignored, and there is little transparency in criminal proceedings, especially in trials involving members of the political opposition. Critics of the regime are often targeted and arbitrarily charged with crimes, as are members of their families, and allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings within the prison system are widespread.
Unable to hold the regime accountable for its abuses, the opposition and civil society are confronted with many obstacles, especially as they relate to the freedom of association and assembly.
While these rights are formally protected by the constitution, in practice, the regime prevents them from being exercised by tightly restricting the ability of the opposition to stage demonstrations; no protests may take place without the permission of local governments, and activists cannot easily organize without fear of retribution from the regime.
Civil society organizations and NGOs cannot operate without significant regime interference. Likewise, freedom of expression is heavily curtailed by the regime, and the media cannot operate independently. Freedom of religion is also heavily restricted; in its 2019 annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom classified Tajikistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” with regard to religious freedoms.
The current challenges that the opposition and civil society face in Tajikistan, are a culmination of almost three decades of Emomali Rahmon’s authoritarian rule. With the outcome of the recent parliamentary election, as well as a presidential election due to take place later this year, the opposition and civil society will continue to remain under threat — whether Rahmon is once again “elected” or his son, Rustam, assumes power. The following are specific case studies that highlight the severity of the country’s history of persecuting opposition figures and civil society members.
In 2012, opposition movement Group24 was formed by Tajik anti-corruption activists seeking free and fair elections, respect for rule of law, and recognition for those victims who had been violently suppressed by Tajik security services. Two years later, the regime outlawed the organization, citing it as ‘extremist.’ Group24 members have been subsequently threatened, attacked, arrested, and arbitrarily detained by Tajik authorities. In March 2015, the group’s head, Umarali Kuvvatov, was murdered in Istanbul by Tajik intelligence services.
The movement’s deputy head, Sharofiddin Gadoev, has also paid a high price for his involvement with Group24. Faced with threats of imprisonment and death, Gadoev fled Tajikistan to continue his activism. In 2018, Gadoev and other activists founded the People’s Movement for Reform and Development in Tajikistan to mobilize citizens in the lead-up to Tajikistan’s 2020 elections. Russian Federation intelligence services contacted Gadoev to discuss his work with government officials, and Gadoev traveled to Moscow to advance his movement’s objectives.
On February 14, 2019, Gadoev was instead abducted by Russian and Tajik intelligence services in Moscow. Members from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Russian Federal Security Service handcuffed Gadoev, wrapped his head in tape, and placed a plastic bag over his head. With his personal belongings confiscated, Gadoev was placed on a commercial Somon Air flight from Moscow to Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital. Somon Air personnel joined Tajik intelligence agents in beating Gadoev, who was taken to a basement of the Tajik Ministry of Internal Affairs upon landing. Somon Air is conveniently headed by Hasan Assadullozoda, Emomali Rahmon’s brother-in-law and chief of Tajikistan’s largest commercial bank.
Prior to his trip, Gadoev recorded an ominously prophetic video, stating: “If you see this video, it means I have been murdered, kidnapped or that I have gone missing… If I suddenly turn up […] declaring that I am in Tajikistan and that I have returned of my own free will, you must not believe this.”
The day after Gadoev’s abduction, the Tajik Ministry of Internal Affairs publicly announced that Gadoev had voluntarily returned to Tajikistan. Under threat from an operations group commanded by National Security Council generals, Gadoev, his mother, and his sister were forced to appear in staged videos, stating that he had returned to Tajikistan on his own accord.
This was not the first example of the Tajik government’s campaign of open persecution against Gadoev’s relatives: Gadoev’s father died as a result of torturous beatings by Tajik law enforcement interrogators; his mother became seriously ill while living in a constant state of fear; and the health, families, and property of his siblings have come under threat by the Tajik government.
While detained, Gadoev was continuously beaten and denied access to legal representation or due process. He was given three options: be tortured and killed; imprisoned; or cooperate with the officials and remain under their control. On February 16, 2019, Saimumin Yatimov, the head of Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security, told Gadoev that his future work would be financed if he cooperated by condemning the activists of opposition groups globally. Gadoev was also told to support the policies of Rahmon and his son, Rustam, who would partake in the 2020 presidential election.
Thanks to the persistent intervention by the global human rights community and European diplomatic corps, Gadoev was released on March 2, 2019 and returned abroad. As it became evident, the kidnapping was direct retaliation for having protested against the Tajik government and revealing its rampant corruption. As Gadoev explained in his talk at the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum, such incidents are an all-too-common experience for Tajikistan’s activists who are plagued by authoritarian rule and battle corruption at every level of the government.
In 2015, the Tajik regime banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) – Tajikistan’s largest opposition group, and the only legally registered Islamic political party in Central Asia – by designating it a ‘terrorist organization’ on politically-motivated grounds. In fact, the regime has been accused of using the threat of Islamic extremism as another excuse to crack down on dissent, insomuch that the persecution of IRPT has expanded to include lawyers who were defending its members.
On September 28, 2015, Tajik lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov was arrested on charges of forgery and fraud while representing 13 senior members of the IRPT. He was detained shortly after issuing a statement on the torture of IRPT political leaders, in which he specifically referenced one of his clients and called on lawyers, human rights defenders, and activists to protect the prisoners. During his trial in October 2016, he was charged with “calling for the overthrow of the Tajik regime” and “inciting social unrest,” and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
On March 16, 2017, the Supreme Court extended Yorov’s sentence by two additional years, in response to an incident in October 2016, when Yorov recited a poem about foolishness during a closed-door trial. The poem, attributed to Persian poet Omar Khayyam and Persian philosopher Avicenna, read, in part: “…with these ignorant few who foolishly/consider themselves the intelligent ones of the world/should be donkeys, because they are so deep in donkeyness/that they call ‘blasphemous’ whomever is not a donkey.” For this, Yorov was charged with “contempt of court” and “insulting a government official.”
On August 4, 2017, a state prosecutor requested an additional 17-year extension to Yorov’s sentence in separate criminal proceedings that had begun in February and May 2017. In mid-August, the court added three years to Yorov’s sentence during a closed-door trial; his family was only informed of this decision the following week, on August 23rd. Under Articles 58(4) and 68(3) of Tajikistan’s Criminal Code, the total amount of imprisonment time that a defendant can serve is 25 years. Yorov had already reached that limit with the three-year extension, which put him at a total of 28 years of imprisonment.
Yorov and his first defense attorney, Nuriddin Mahkamov, were among the human rights lawyers who were imprisoned for defending members of the IRPT. They all were charged with “incitement of interracial hatred,” “plotting to overthrow the government,” “document forgery,” and “support for extremist activity,” as a result of their involvement with the IRPT. Mahkamov was detained shortly after agreeing to take on Yorov’s case, and was issued a 21-year prison sentence, without any evidence of wrongdoing, in the same trial as Yorov in October 2016.
Another one of Yorov’s lawyers, Muazzama Qodirova, fled to Germany in late March 2017 after being threatened with prosecution for leaking information related to Yorov’s case to international media outlets. At that point, the only defense available to Yorov was a lawyer appointed by the regime. Yorov’s family had difficulty finding a new defense attorney for Yorov, and Zarina Nabieva, his wife, took on the defense of her husband. In November 2019, it was announced that Yorov would have his prison term shortened by six years as part of a mass amnesty.
For his outstanding defense of human rights, Yorov was shortlisted for the Václav Havel Prize in 2019. He is also the recipient of the 2019 Faiziniso Vohidova Human Rights Prize, for his contribution to the development of democratic institutions and civil rights in Tajikistan, and of the 2020 Homo Homini Human Rights Prize, for his dedication to the promotion of human rights, democracy, and non-violent solutions to political conflicts.
The case of Buzurgmehr Yorov — targeting a lawyer for simply doing his job — demonstrates the extent to which the regime in Tajikistan will go to persecute its opposition.
The cases of Sharofiddin Gadoev and Buzurgmehr Yorov are only two examples of the suffering that the opposition and civil society in Tajikistan have endured under the authoritarian rule of Emomali Rahmon. While Gadoev and Yorov come from different backgrounds – one an opposition leader, the other a lawyer – they share the unfortunate experience of having been targets of the Tajik regime. Not only did they go through brutal forms of repression, including abduction and imprisonment, but the regime also expanded the scope of its repression to go after their families and lawyers as a form of retaliation for their work.
The recent parliamentary elections in Tajikistan are a reminder of the state of authoritarianism that exists, and the dangers that dissenting voices in the country face. The parliamentary elections have further maintained the grip of the People’s Democratic Party over the country, and it is expected that the 2020 presidential election will prolong Rahmon’s time in power or result in a succession of power in which his son, Rustam, will become president.
With the upcoming presidential election, the international community must pay close attention to the developments taking place in Tajikistan, and seize this moment to expose the human rights violations taking place in the country and place pressure on the regime.
The Human Rights Foundation’s (HRF) Impact Litigation program, for example, demonstrates the power that international bodies can have on holding authoritarian regimes responsible for the human rights violations they have committed. HRF’s team of international attorneys provides pro bono legal representation to prisoners of conscience before international courts and semi-judicial bodies, such as the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD).
Each case submitted presents an opportunity to achieve a positive outcome for the entire country – in the form of international public and legal pressure for greater transparency, and indisputable evidence of violations, a necessary component of any potential transitional justice effort. HRF has had a 100% success rate petitioning the UNWGAD, and peaceful opposition figures and civil society members from Tajikistan who have been arbitrarily detained and deprived of their liberty, fall under the category of the types of cases that HRF’s attorneys have taken on.
The Tajik regime’s systematic persecution of the opposition and civil society demonstrates that it has evaded accountability for years – but with support from the international community, this no longer has to be the case.