International human rights organizations urge Tajik authorities to free human rights

04/05/2016 15:06
Asia-Plus
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DUSHANBE, May 4, 2016, Asia-Plus – Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee on May 4 released a statement urging Tajik authorities to immediately and unconditionally release four human rights lawyers and two sons of another lawyer “who are imprisoned or detained on politically motivated charges.”

The statement also notes that Tajik authorities should stop harassing and targeting independent lawyers.

“The authorities have arrested, imprisoned, and intimidated numerous attorneys since 2014, in retaliation for representing political opponents or their willingness to take on politically sensitive cases, the groups said.  Other rights lawyers have received death threats and have been threatened with trumped-up charges.

“The Tajik government is tightening the screws on lawyers it deems trouble, locking up those who represent the opposition alongside its political foes,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.  “Each day these lawyers spend behind bars is a disgrace and brings shame on Tajikistan’s judicial system.”

The statement says that for more than a year, the Tajik government has systematically targeted the country’s peaceful political opposition, arbitrarily detaining, imprisoning, and torturing its members and supporters, as well as securing the extradition of – or failing that, kidnapping – perceived critics living abroad.

The Tajik authorities’ unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression and association reportedly deteriorated further in 2015, including with the forced closure of Tajikistan’s leading opposition party, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), in September, and arrests of dozens of its members.  In March 2015, an opposition figure, Umarali Quvvatov, was shot dead in Istanbul, in circumstances that point to involvement or acquiescence by the Tajik government.

Since 2014, Tajik authorities have arrested or imprisoned at least five human rights lawyers – Shuhrat Qudratov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nouriddin Mahkamov, Dilbar Dodojonova – and Firouz and Daler Tabarov, sons of Ishoq Tabarov, another lawyer, the statement says, noting that Zokirov was released after two lengthy periods of imprisonment.  The others remain behind bars, either after dubious convictions or awaiting trial on specious charges.  Others, including a well-known human rights lawyer Fayzinisso Vohidova, have been harassed and threatened with spurious criminal charges.

Authorities reportedly first prosecuted Qudratov and Zokirov, who represented a high-profile opposition figure, Zayd Saidov, on fraud charges.  Saidov is a former government minister who signaled an interest in forming a new political party and is now in prison on trumped-up charges.  Since the second half of 2015, authorities have threatened to arrest lawyers who seek to represent detained members of the IRPT.

The Tajik government has also taken steps to extend its control over the legal profession, significantly curtailing its independence.  In November, authorities approved a new law requiring all lawyers to renew their legal licenses with the Justice Ministry, instead of the independent bar association or licensing body, and to retake the bar examination every five years.  Lawyers told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that the exam included questions on a broad range of subjects unrelated to law, such as history, culture, and politics.  They said they have concerns that the test, administered by the government, is being used to exclude those who take on politically sensitive cases.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers state that lawyers “shall not be identified with their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions,” and that they must be able “to perform all their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.” Furthermore, lawyers “shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards or ethics.”

The statement says that the United States, the European Union, and Tajikistan’s international partners should press the Tajik government to release immediately lawyers imprisoned and detained on politically motivated charges and ensure that all lawyers are able to conduct their work without fear of threats or harassment, including arbitrary arrest or prosecution. International partners also should press Tajikistan to uphold its international obligations to respect freedom of association, assembly, and expression.  Countries participating in the upcoming review of Tajikistan’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council on May 6 should raise concerns about the crackdown against lawyers and the country’s peaceful opposition.

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