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HRW World Report 2001: Tajikistan FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Human Rights Watch Press Backgrounder on Tajikistan
October 5, 2001
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HRW Reports on Tajikistan


Tajikistan shares a 1,200 kilometer border with Afghanistan and is one of the countries identified by military planners as a possible base of U.S. military and humanitarian operations in the region. Tajikistan has been a low priority for U.S. foreign policy makers since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Suddenly, it has become a strategic partner in the U.S. government's counter-terrorism campaign following the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.. It is also a potential haven for tens of thousands of displaced people seeking to flee Afghanistan.

Tajikistan was embroiled in a civil war from 1992 to 1997 that took a disastrous toll on the civilian population and crippled its economy. Four years after a U.N.-brokered peace accord, high-profile political assassinations and other forms of political violence remain common, and discord reigns among government military and political leaders.

Tajikistan has serious human rights problems. The government has obstructed political opposition, severely restricted the media, and arrested people on religious grounds. Police and security forces are notorious for brutal torture and ill-treatment.

Tajikistan is the poorest of the post- Soviet republics. United Nations agencies estimate that 80 percent of the population of 6.5 million live below the poverty line. Two years of severe drought have resulted in catastrophic food shortages, and humanitarian organizations have predicted the starvation of one million people in upcoming months should emergency food supplies not become available.

The country's four major geographic regions are home to distinct regional and ethnic groups, which play a critical role in internal politics and were crucial in determining loyalty in the civil war. These regions are Sugd (formerly Leninabad) province in the north, bordering Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan; the northeast, including the Gharm and Karetegin valleys; Khatlon province in the south, bordering Afghanistan; and Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, in the Pamir mountain range, bordering Afghanistan to the south and China to the east.

Human Rights in Tajikistan

The 1992-1997 Civil War and its Aftermath
The civil war in Tajikistan broke out in May 1992. While its most active phase lasted a mere six months, hostilities continued through December 1996, claiming as many as 50,000 lives and displacing more than 800,000 people. The conflict was the culmination of a power struggle between a communist-led government that was dominated by people from Leninabad (known as "Leninabadis"), and an opposition coalition that drew support primarily from people whose origins were from the northeast ("Gharmis") and Gorno-Badakhshan ("Pamiris"). The government was supported in the civil war by people from Kuliab ("Kuliabis)," a district in the southern Khatlon province. The United Tajik Opposition (UTO) was an amalgam of nationalist and Islamist parties and movements. The war's greatest destruction and toll in civilian deaths was in the south, where Kuliabis and their allies conducted campaigns of "ethnic cleansing" against local residents of Gharmi and Pamiri origin.

At the height of the war as many as 150,000 Tajiks fled to northern Afghanistan, to regions dominated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks; all were repatriated by 1997. Until 1998 the UTO enjoyed the support of the pre-Taliban government in Afghanistan, in particular President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his defense minister, the late Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud, both ethnic Tajiks. The UTO established military bases and training camps in northern Afghanistan, from which they conducted regular cross-border raids into Tajikistan.

Emomali Rakhmonov, a Kuliabi, led the government that emerged victorious in December 1992; in subsequent years it gradually came to be dominated by Kuliabis. In September 1994, the government and the UTO agreed to a ceasefire brokered by the U.N. The U.N. Mission of Observers to Tajikistan (UNMOT) was established to monitor the ceasefire.

A breakthrough in negotiations followed the Taliban capture of Kabul in 1996, which alarmed all Central Asian governments and, significantly, Russia, a key actor in Tajikistan and mediator in the peace negotiations. Many observers of the region believe that the prospect of the UTO remaining in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan convinced Russia of the need to accept the integration of the UTO into the Tajik government, which had been a key UTO demand.

A peace accord signed by the UTO and the government in June 1997 provided for, among other things, UTO representatives to be appointed to 30 percent of all government posts. In the four years since the peace agreement, this and other major elements of the accords have not been implemented, including the demobilization of UTO troops and reform of government security and law enforcement institutions. Small-scale fighting between former opposition members and government troops, and between rival government groups, has broken out repeatedly. Parts of northeastern Tajikistan remain largely under the control of former UTO fighters who have rejected the terms of the peace settlement. Also, as political and criminal violence worsened, the country became increasingly impoverished, and corruption, drug-trafficking and hostage-taking rose sharply.

The U.N. mission, UNMOT, which at one time had at least 150 military observers and civilian personnel, withdrew from Tajikistan in May 2000, even though major provisions of the peace accord remained unimplemented. A small, Dushanbe-based U.N. peace-building office replaced it.

Continuing Political Violence

Assassinations of high-level political figures in 2001 reflected persistent internal power struggles among political leaders and regional groups, in a pattern persistent since the June 1997 peace accords. Three high-ranking political figures have been assassinated in 2001 alone, including Deputy Interior Minister Habib Sanginov, presidential foreign policy advisor Karim Yuldashev and, on September 8, Minister of Culture Abdurahim Rahimov.

Renewed fighting between former UTO members and government forces in 2001 highlighted shortcomings in the demobilization process and continuing distrust between the government and former UTO fighters. In June, former UTO field commanders based in the northeast took hostage at least four policemen in Teppa Samarkandi and fifteen members of a German humanitarian aid organization in Tavil-Dara. The kidnappers protested the arrest of former UTO members in connection with the murder of Habib Sanginov. All hostages were released unharmed. A military operation against the rebel fighters ensued. Local legal experts and journalists reported that government forces' indiscriminate fire killed and injured up to eighty civilians, and that Tajik law enforcement agencies beat and looted civilians in the operation and the sweep that followed. Authorities acknowledged six civilian deaths.

In addition, government-led military units and law enforcement agencies operate independently of the central government. Police and security forces often extort, kidnap, torture, and inflict wanton violence against civilians with impunity.

The Rakhmonov government has remained in power as a result of flagrantly fraudulent presidential and parliamentary elections in 1994, 1999, and 2000. President Rakhmonov was essentially the sole candidate to contest the 1999 presidential elections. Two of three opposition presidential candidates were denied registration on spurious grounds of having violated registration procedures, while a third candidate from the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) was registered against his will by authorities in an attempt to preserve a veneer of the democratic process.

A joint U.N.-Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission that monitored the February 2000 parliamentary vote documented state interference that included the obstruction or exclusion of opposition parties, a wholly arbitrary candidate registration process, grossly biased coverage by the state media, and numerous grave irregularities on election day. The ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) gained thirty of sixty-three seats in the parliament, while eighteen other seats went to ostensibly independent candidates who were either also PDP members or widely acknowledged to be solidly pro-government. The IRP gained two seats. Largely uncontested elections to the upper chamber of parliament resulted in the election of an overwhelming majority of presidential party members.

Former UTO members occupy senior positions in the government, and the IRP enjoys parliamentary representation, but in practice these officials and parliamentary deputies support official policy and the president on almost all points. In 2001 the government moved to consolidate its de facto one-party control by continuing to ban, deny registration to, or suspend those opposition parties blocked from participation in the presidential and parliamentary elections, and by harassing current and former UTO members. During May parliamentary by-elections the field was left open to candidates supporting the ruling party and the president because opposition candidates were denied registration on questionable charges of violating administrative procedure.

Religion and politics
Tajikistan is the only Central Asian republic that permits political parties of a religious character. Legalizing religion-based political parties was one of the major concessions made by the government in the peace negotiations, and the IRP plays a role, though marginal, in the nation's political life. The government has arrested scores of members of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), an Islamic group that supports the reestablishment of the Caliphate, or Islamic state, for Muslims by peaceful means. Like in Uzbekistan, Tajik courts convict Hizb ut-Tahrir members convicted on charges of inciting religious hatred, distributing anti-state literature, and membership in banned organizations. Whereas in previous years Tajik courts handed down sentences of between five and twelve years for such charges, they now hand down sentences of up to fourteen years imprisonment.

Freedom of Expression
The government severely restricts freedom of expression. The sole publishing house for publishing newspapers is owned by the state and denies access to government critics. The government monitors and "counsels" all news media, enforces pre-publication censorship, and imposes burdensome licensing procedures. Electronic media is either state-owned or is dominated by the state through the measures outlined above.

The authorities threaten or harass journalists and editors who publish views directly critical of President Rakhmonov or of certain government policies. A dramatic example was the July 2001 arrest in Moscow of Dodojon Atovullo, exiled editor-in-chief of the independent opposition newspaper Charogi Ruz (Light of Day). Atovullo has in recent years published articles accusing Tajik authorities of corruption and involvement in narcotics trafficking activities. Threatened with extradition back to Tajikistan to face charges of sedition and publicly slandering the president, he was released after six days after pressure from other governments and international organizations.

Several independent television stations operate in the country, but critical or controversial content carries the risk of arbitrary closure. Dushanbe remains without independent radio or television stations, as authorities there have denied them operating licenses for the past three years.

Northern Afghanistan

Approximately 10,000 Afghans who fled fighting in northern Afghanistan in 2000 have remained trapped in the border area. Tajik authorities have refused them entry, claiming that the presence of armed combatants among the refugees poses too great a security risk to Tajikistan, and that the country lacks the necessary economic and social resources to accommodate them. The displaced continue to live in squalid conditions in various points along on the border between the two countries-the majority are on islands in the Pianj River-and are frequently caught in crossfire between United Front and Taliban forces. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees has stated that up to 50,000 people could flee towards Tajikistan in the event of U.S.-led military operations against the Taliban; others put this estimate at 120,000. Refugees are fleeing the threat of military action following the September 11 attacks; forced conscription by the Taliban; politically motivated attacks by the Taliban against ethnic groups believed to be sympathetic to the opposition; fighting between Taliban and United Front forces; as well as the growing humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, exacerbated by the onset of winter.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Role of Uzbekistan

In September 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush linked the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to Osama bin Laden. The Bush statement suggested that the IMU might be a target of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The IMU is an armed group of fighters from Central Asian states that seeks the establishment of Shar=ia (Islamic law) in Uzbekistan. It is based primarily in Afghanistan and is closely connected with the Taliban. In August 1999 the IMU launched armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan from bases it then held in northeast Tajikistan, and in August 2000 passed through Tajikistan to launch incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The IMU's military commander, Jumaboi Khojiev (known as Namangani), and many IMU fighters, have reportedly trained in northeastern Tajikistan-in areas where Tajik government control is weak-and have held bases there sporadically since at least 1997. They reportedly enjoy the support of former UTO field commanders, with whom they fought as allies during the civil war. Former UTO combatants who were not integrated into Tajikistan's security forces were reported to have participated in the IMU=s incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The presence of IMU fighters on Tajik territory has exacerbated already hostile Uzbek-Tajik relations. In April 2000 IRP leader Said Abdullo Nuri, at the behest of President Rakhmonov, persuaded the IMU to leave Tajikistan, but Uzbekistan has regularly accused Tajikistan of continuing to harbor IMU militants. In January 2001, Namangani, under pressure from Tajik authorities who themselves were under pressure from other Central Asian governments, was believed to have again quit bases in Tajikistan for Afghanistan.

Uzbek forces bombed Tajik territory during joint Kyrgyz-Uzbek military operations against the IMU in 1999, and in 2000 took unilateral action to lay antipersonnel landmines along the Tajik-Uzbek and Uzbek-Kyrgyz borders. Tajik authorities have said some thirty civilians have been killed and dozens wounded by landmines. A visa regime between the two countries took effect in 2000, making the already tense border controls more arduous.

The Role of Russia

Tajikistan is closely tied to Russia in the area of national defense. It is the only Central Asian country with Russian military units on its territory: more than 10,000 Russian border guards are stationed along the Tajik-Afghan border, and at least 10,000 troops of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division are headquartered in the capital and stationed in detachments throughout the country. More than 1,500 additional Russian troops have recently been sent to Tajikistan.

The Russian military presence in independent Tajikistan predates the civil war. The border guards and the 201st Motorized Rifle Division made up the majority of a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) peacekeeping force in Tajikistan in 1997; a small number of troops from Uzbekistan's army also took part. CIS forces also helped provided security to UNMOT, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and personnel of other international organizations. Further, the 201st Motorized Rifle Division played a strategic role in the civil war by providing material support to the Kuliabi-based paramilitary groups.

Tajikistan has since at least 1997 facilitated the transport of Russian and Iranian military supplies to the United Front opposition in Afghanistan, in particular via airports in Dushanbe and Kuliab. Since September 11, Russia has increased its material support for the United Front delivered via the Dushanbe airport.

Russia’s consent was undoubtedly needed for any possible deployment of U.S. forces in Tajikistan. Soon after the September 11 attacks President Rakhmonov announced that Tajikistan would consider all means of cooperation with the U.S., but these comments were subsequently retracted. It was not until September 25, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia's cooperation in the anti-terrorist campaign that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov stated that Dushanbe airport could be used by U.S. forces should the need arise.