Human Rights Developments
Tajikistan's fragile human rights situation appeared ripe for improvement following a June 27, 1997, peace accord between the government and the United Tajik Opposition, which formally ended five years of civil war. In August, however, fighting erupted between rival government groups in the capital, Dushanbe, and in the southern and western regions of the country, resulting in at least thirty summary executions, abductions, rapes, and widespread looting. In early September, further fighting broke out between government militia and opposition forces in the east of Dushanbe in clear violation of the newly-signed peace accord. As the peace agreement began to be implemented in September and October, the capital witnessed at least seventeen explosions by unidentified perpetrators, brutal murders of ethnic Russians, the assassination of the son of the procurator general, and retaliatory kidnappings of family members of the commander of the presidential guard and rogue rebel leader Rizvon Sodirov. On October 16, fourteen members of the presidential guard were assassinated in their Dushanbe barracks by eighty armed and masked men, and at the end of that month, one of the groups defeated in the August combats conducted an armed attack on government forces on the Tajik-Uzbek border 80 kilometers west of Dushanbe. In the ensuing breakdown in law and order, human rights suffered a serious setback, as paramilitary groups and independent warlords continued to loot, threaten and harass civilians, and renewed hostage-takings; consequently, widespread fear and insecurity pervaded the country's population.
The government was unwilling or unable to control such activity and also arrested individuals on political grounds. Notably, it presided over the June peace agreement, and created a Commission on National Reconciliation, composed of twenty-six government and opposition members, to foster an atmosphere of trust and forgiveness and to facilitate conditions suitable for July 1998 national elections. The commission prepared a general amnesty, which the Majlisi Oli (the parliament) adopted into law on August 1, and oversaw the exchange of 167 government and 133 oppositiondetainees by by the end of October. However, the indefinite suspension of the commission's activities-due to the August and September hostilities-seriously undermined public confidence in the peace process and contributed to the persistent climate of insecurity.
The atmosphere of insecurity and violence severely disrupted the work of international organizations throughout 1997. In February 1997, a rogue rebel group led by the warlord brothers Bahrom and Rizvon Sodirov took seventeen people hostage in Obigarm, about eighty kilometers east of the capital, and in downtown Dushanbe. Among those kidnaped were five UNMOT (The U.N. Mission of Observers in Tajikistan), four U.N. High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and two International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) staff, as well as the Tajik Minister of Security. The hostages were released after two weeks; some had been beaten and abused. Non-essential staff from UNMOT and the other U.N. agencies were relocated to Uzbekistan until the end of April, and the U.N. suspended some programs for six months due to the security crisis.
On February 18, the day following the release of the hostages, unidentified gunmen assassinated seven people, including two ethnic Russian off-duty U.S. embassy guards, in Dushanbe. After opposition and warlord groups shot at the ICRC twice in June and July, the latter suspended its operations in Garm and the Tavil-Dara area.
Civil rights were severely repressed in the north. In April security forces stormed a prison in Khojand to quell a riot, killing at least twenty-four and wounding thirty-five others; unconfirmed reports indicated a substantially higher number of casualties. An assassination attempt on President Imomali Rakhmonov in Khojand at the end of that month, possibly linked to the prison riot, led to widespread arrests and persecution of political opponents. Among them was the May 23 arrest of Abdukhafiz Abdullaiev, the brother of the leader of the National Revival Movement, one of the main opposition movements in Tajikistan. Although originally arrested on charges of possession of narcotics, Abdullaiev was soon after charged with conspiring to assassinate the president. Suffering from cancer, Abdullaiev as of early November remained in detention, although the charges against him had not yet been confirmed.
UNHCR's activities in 1997 were significantly limited by security conditions inside and outside the country; however, large numbers of refugees and all but a few internally displaced persons were able to return to their homes in safety. In February, because of the hostage crisis, UNHCR suspended its program to repatriate Tajik refugees in camps in Afghanistan, and it did so again at the end of May, following the Taliban advance on northern Afghanistan. In mid-July, repatriation was underway again despite logistical and security problems resulting from the volatile situation in northern Afghanistan and the closure by Uzbek authorities of Termez and the Afghan-Uzbek border, ostensibly in reaction to the fighting in northern Afghanistan. At the beginning of October, renewed fighting between Taliban and anti-Taliban coalition forces spilled over into Sakhi camp close to Mazar-i-Sharif, resulting in at least two deaths, up to forty wounded, and serious shortages of food, water, and fuel in the camp. Following intense international pressure, Uzbekistan in late October agreed to open its border with Afghanistan to allow for the passage of the Sakhi refugees through Termez to Tajikistan. As of early November, close to 7,000 refugees from camps in northern Afghanistan had been repatriated. Although some returnees reported that other people illegally occupied their houses, refugee return operations for the most part were smoothly carried out. At this writing, however, large numbers of returnees in the south were without adequate winter shelter.
Some 23,000 internally displaced persons who fled Tavil-Dara during fighting in 1996 were able to return home safely by mid- July. Also in July the International Organization of Migration (IOM) completed its program to return 1,896 internally displaced persons from Gorno Badakhshan toDushanbe and Khotlon province. In the wake of the August fighting in the capital, nonetheless, some of the displaced elected to return permanently to southeastern Gorno Badakhshan.
Hostage-taking, practiced throughout the past four years, persisted during the year, keeping the population in the grip of insecurity. Government militia forces, opposition commanders, and rogue rebel groups kidnapped one another at regular intervals, requiring the constant mediation of the Joint Commission and UNMOT. During the February hostage crisis, in a blatant mockery of the government's lack of authority, the Minister of Security himself was captured by the rogue Sodirov group. The Sodirov group in July and August again kidnapped nine people, among whom were Amonullo Negmatzoda, Tajikistan's chief mufti, his brother, and two of his sons. Although the government had pledged on several occasions to provide secure working conditions for international personnel, as of this writing Rizvon Sodirov and many of his supporters were still at large.
Security concerns kept the international community out of Garm and the Karategin Valley. Accurate and comprehensive information on the human rights situation was thus difficult to obtain. In Tavil-Dara and Garm, credible reports surfaced of increasing restrictions on dress for women and other restrictions linked to Islamic practice.
Chaos prevailed over law enforcement. The government admitted that criminal elements riddled its security forces and most citizens opted to keep silent in the face of mistreatment rather than risk retaliation by the police themselves. At road checkpoints throughout the country government, opposition, and independent armed groups regularly harassed, beat, and threatened the civilian population.
The government controlled the majority of the country's television and radio stations and newspapers, and most journalists continued to exercise careful self-censorship. In February, authorities denied accreditation to Nezavisimaya gazeta (Moscow) journalist Igor Rotar on the grounds that he had been "unscrupulous and biased" in his reporting on certain events that took place in Tajikistan. In the wake of the May 30 assassination attempt against President Rakhmonov, Russian journalist Aleksey Vasilivetsky was arrested and detained-allegedly on charges of possession of narcotics-following unpublished interviews with members of opposition political parties and dissident government employees. In late May, a journalist working for the Moscow-based newspaper Pravda-V had her accreditation confiscated following the publication of articles said to be critical of the president. Later that month a Russian team of journalists investigating the Khojand prison riot and the assassination attempt received threats from local authorities and was advised to leave because the team allegedly had not obtained appropriate accreditation. In July, a ruling issued by the Ministry of Culture ordered the temporary closure of nongovernmental television stations that did not possess an operating license, although no government body had established such a procedure.
Nonetheless, several new newspapers emerged with the founding of new political parties. The formerly dissident newspaper Charogi Ruz made its appearance in Tajikistan after an absence of five years.
The Right to Monitor
Almost no monitoring was carried out by local groups in 1997. Severe security restraints placed upon international personnel, particularly the U.N. and ICRC, limited their ability to monitor. International personnel throughout 1997 were shot at, robbed, and otherwise hampered in their humanitarian aid and information-gathering activities. The government continued to deny the ICRC access to prisons in accordance with the organization's standard procedures, while insufficientsecurity guarantees prevented it from operating in the Tavil-Dara and Garm regions from July to early November. Although the government committed itself to establish a national civil rights institute, it had failed to do so as of this writing.
The Role of the
UNMOT's limited field presence in 1997 prevented it from monitoring and deterring abuse. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, through its field offices in Shaartuz, Dusti, and Kurgan-Tiube and through its head office in Dushanbe, conducted ongoing interventions. As in 1996, the Russian-led Confederation of Independent States' troops continued to be the target of criminal and political attacks, mostly in Dushanbe, and were accused of supporting the central government's forces during the August fighting. The World Bank once again approved more than U.S.$100 million for, among other things, privatization and land reform without taking into account corruption and serious abuses of human rights. An international donors' conference scheduled for mid to late November was to solicit U.S. $64 million to aid in the implementation of the peace accord.
UNMOT, and in particular the Special Representative of the secretary-general, was widely regarded as key to the successful completion of the inter-Tajik talks. Human rights issues, while not directly part of UNMOT's mandate, figure prominently among the factors that impede the peace process. UNMOT's overall impact on the country's human rights and security situation, however, was otherwise negligible in 1997. The decision to maintain only a headquarters based in Dushanbe and a liaison office in Khojand for most of the year limited UNMOT's ability to obtain and provide firsthand and precise information on country conditions. In addition, although under its mandate UNMOT is to facilitate humanitarian assistance efforts by the international community, its military personnel on more than one occasion gave contradictory and scanty security advice to aid groups. UNMOT's mandate was extended until November 15, 1997.
Representatives from the U.N. Centre for Human Rights conducted a needs-assessment mission to Tajikistan in June, visiting Dushanbe, Kurgan-Tiube, Khojand, and Garm, and meeting with government and international agencies, including Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. The team concluded that a lasting peace in Tajikistan was threatened by serious human rights abuses at all levels and recommended deploying by the end of September one to two human rights experts to work with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General. As of early November, however, the experts had not arrived in the country.
UNHCR carried on with successful repatriation efforts despite daunting security and logistical impediments.
The OSCE played an important role in monitoring human rights abuses in the south through its field offices in Kurgan-Tiube, Shaartuz, and Dusti. Although plans were under way to open additional field offices in Garm and Khojand early in the year, as of this writing the OSCE had failed to gain the necessary governmental clearance to do so. OSCE was named in the peace agreements as a principal guarantor of the development of human rights and legal and democratic institutions; however, as of November, this role in practice remained unclear.
OSCE organized conferences on the socio-economic aspects of the peace process and the rule of law, as well as police and prison officer training programs, had either been postponed or were pending at the time of this writing.
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