New York, Brussels, Paris (24/1 – 86)
The increasing human rights violations committed by Tajikistan state security officials are a cause for alarm. United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor told Tajikistan to protect its human rights defenders and stop their persecutions from state security agencies.
The special rapporteur visited Tajikistan from November 28 to December 9 and met various representatives from the Tajik government and state institutions as well as numerous human rights defenders, including members of NGOs, human rights lawyers, journalists and bloggers and members of grassroots movements.
During her visit, Lawlor visited Khujand, the provincial capital city of Sughd province, Tajikistan’s northern most province, to meet the local human rights defenders as well as representatives of the regional Ombudsman.
Lawlor said from her various discussions during the mission, there was a limited understanding of the concept of human rights defenders in Tajikistan.
“I also heard with sadness that being considered a human rights defender often carries a negative connotation, and some members of civil society even avoid being referred to as defenders,” she said in her end-of-mission statement.
She also discussed with the Ombudsman on the adoption of a specific Law on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders which she believes would greatly contribute to raising awareness about those who carry out legitimate and peaceful human rights work.
“[It] would significantly contribute not only to their protection, but also their acceptance and recognition within society,” she said
The special rapporteur said that she was aware that the difficult geopolitical and economic situation faced by Tajikistan. Pressures coming from the situation in Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine and tensions with Kyrgyzstan all contribute to a delicate geopolitical and security situation which leaves its mark on government policies and actions, she added.
She, however, lamented the fact that human rights defenders have in some cases been labelled as extremists, terrorists and/or foreign agents as a consequence of the harsh regional dynamics.
“The law on preventing extremism, the law on combatting terrorism, and article 307 of the Criminal Code are three pieces of legislation used to criminalize and arrest human rights defenders,” she said.
Lawlor appreciated the establishment of a National Action Plan on Human Rights for the implementation of recommendations from United Nations human rights mechanisms despite its slow implementation process and pointed out to “the lack of genuine, meaningful consultation with and full involvement of members of civil society”.
Another positive development was the adoption of the Anti-Discrimination Law (Law on Equality and Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination) in July 2022, which she termed as “a significant step into the right direction”.
Despite such positive recent developments, Lawlor highlighted the ambivalent cooperation between the Tajik government and the NGOs.
While appreciating NGOs’ involvement in working groups drafting new legislation and policies, at the same time there were “many of the same human rights defenders and NGOs reported feeling not consulted, under significant pressure and operating in an increasingly tightening and unpredictable environment.”
“Some defenders have even been reluctant to meet with me in person, for fear of possible reprisals in the future,” Lawlor revealed.
She also received reports that human rights defenders being subjected to excessive number of inspections and informal questioning. While the Tax Committee can carry out inspections every two years and the Ministry of Justice every three years, the State Security Committee may carry out inspections anytime.
“Human rights defenders and their NGOs are facing significantly increased administrative burdens, which may have a crippling effect especially on small, under-resourced and grassroots organizations,” she said in the statement.
As human rights defenders face increasing persecutions abroad, they might be forced to seek refuge abroad, requiring visa from embassies operating in Dushanbe. However, these embassies, including those of the European Union, the United Kingdom, and United States, have failed in providing such assistance and engagement as required by their own guidelines.
“Many defenders complained of a lack of meaningful engagement from embassies and international agencies. They told me they feel abandoned and have to rely on each other for support. One said they felt left alone with their problems,” Lawlor lamented.
The special rapporteur called on the Embassies, the EU Delegation and international organizations including the UN and OSCE, should further demonstrate solidarity and build trust with human rights defenders.
This could be achieved by, among other things, by meeting them in private or public, inviting them to their events, visiting them in their offices, raising awareness about their role and observing trials.
“Building the necessary trust with defenders will not happen overnight, but embassies and international agencies should continuously strive for it,” she said.
Lawlor also pointed to the lack of independence for the judiciary, which is “crucially important for a democratic society and for the rule of law” despite being “formally prescribed in the Constitution and other relevant legal instruments”.
“This has a direct impact on the ability of human rights defenders to receive a fair trial and to adequately represent clients,” the special rapporteur emphasized.
She also pointed out to the significant decrease of Tajik lawyers since the adoption of the Law of Lawyers in 2015 and the that some lawyers have been charged under article 307 of the Criminal Code for extremism-related offences.
“Once criminally charged, lawyers are no longer able to practice as attorneys, even if the charges are subsequently dropped and the persons are acquitted,” she said.
“The lack of sufficient amount of lawyers, compounded by the pressures exerted on them, especially those who are taking up cases of human rights defenders or persons accused of terrorism or extremism, in practice results in an environment where it is very difficult, and often impossible, to find attorneys ready to represent human rights defenders.”
Lawlor was also deeply troubled by apparent clampdown on dissenting voices, including those seen as not respectful, nor in accordance with the country values, traditions, and interests.
“My meetings during these past two weeks indicated that the crackdown on independent journalists working on human rights defenders started in 2016,” she deplored.
The special rapporteur revealed that within the past 6 months, some 20 journalists and bloggers have be reportedly arrested and detained.
Since 2015, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has imposed a climate of terror that facilitates the harassment of journalists and encourages them to censor themselves, as reported by Reportes sans Frontier.
“Journalists are only able to express themselves freely on online platforms such as YouTube but do so at risk of being persecuted,” the report said.