Human Rights Developments
Human rights in Tajikistan saw a steep downward spiral in 1998, fueled mostly by the failures of a government-United Tajik Opposition (UTO) peace process that consistently threatened to collapse. Both the government and the UTO were unable or unwilling to exercise control over lawless elements within their ranks, leaving the civilian population vulnerable to the unprosecuted criminal activities of their respective forces. Fighting continued between the two parties, resulting in some of the worst abuses since the height of the civil war in 1992-93: civilian deaths, hostage-taking, the looting and torching of houses, rape, and summary executions. Security conditions for those involved in humanitarian assistance efforts worsened dramatically.
Critical delays in the implementation of the June 1997 peace accord sustained mutual distrust between the government and UTO, and contributed to widespread disillusionment among the population. As of early November, fewer than half of those recommended under the amnesty law had been amnestied, while close to one thousand cases remained pending. The majority of UTO fighters retained their weapons instead of delivering them to the authorities, the thirty percent quota of UTO members to be named to central government positions had not been met by early November, and integration of UTO members into local government had not yet begun. Bans and limitations on the activities of political parties and movements belonging to the UTO and on the mass media remained in place as of mid-October, and parliamentary elections slated for 1998 were postponed to 1999.
Several political crises arising from the slow pace of the peace process threatened to bring it to a halt altogether. In January, the UTO withdrew for a week from the Commission on National
Reconciliation (CNR), the body that oversees the process. In May, the Majlisi Oli (parliament) adopted a draft law prohibiting the establishment of political parties based on religion. Following widespread national and international protest, the contentious articles were modified to limit the activities of political parties to those places not considered religious institutions. By the end of October, nonetheless, the revised law had not yet been adopted. A third crisis erupted in July following the murder of four United Nations Mission of Observers to Tajikistan (UNMOT) employees in the Karategin Valley. International organizations withdrew from the Karategin Valley altogether, and UNMOT suspended its assistance to the demobilization process, a critical component of the peace process. Following the assassination of UTO member Otakhon Latifi in September, the UTO once again briefly withdrew from the CNR.
Armed conflict between the government and the UTO, ongoing internal power struggles, and infighting and clashes within both camps were symptomatic of the fragile control the government and the UTO had over their respective military forces and the various armed factions dissatisfaction with the peace process. When government-UTO fighting broke out just east of Dushanbe in mid-January, tensions mounted steadily until mid-March, when events erupted into full-scale combat and a prolonged military stand-off in the Kofarnikhon area. At least several civilians were killed and scores were forcibly displaced. The two sides clashed again from April 30 to May 2. Human Rights Watch gathered testimony in the Karategin area pointing to disproportionate and indiscriminate force by government forces during the hostilities, and to rape, torture, and the looting and torching of civilian homes. Civilian deaths numbered at least twenty-five. In mid-July and at the end of August, fighting once again broke out among UTO groups in and close to Tajikabad. Elements of the Tajik Border Forces were allegedly responsible for gross violations including rape, theft, and looting in Pianj and Shaartuz.
Political instability and a weak central command characterized most parts of the country, but tensions were at their greatest in Dushanbe, where both government and opposition figures were assassinated and attacked, politically-motivated bombings continued, and high levels of murder and other crimes fostered an atmosphere of insecurity. Among opposition murders were those of prominent CNR member Otakhon Latifi; Usmon Khojayev, the deputy commander of a special U.N. protection unit and former UTO field commander; and relatives of prominent UTO members Yusuf Hakim and Kiyemeddin Goziyev. On the government side, the deputy head of the Customs Committee was killed by a car bomb, while the head of the same committee escaped a separate fatal attack on his own car.
In August, the head of the local government in Shakhrinau, along with the mayor and several other government officials in Tursunzade, were assassinated. The Karategin Valley, mostly
UTO-controlled, was subjected to the unchecked criminal activities of the UTO and other armed groups, and the Kulab region, the presidents regional base, witnessed abuses including hostage-taking, rape, murder, and extortion, committed by an organized criminal group allegedly headed by a Kulabi member of parliament.
In mid-June two UNMOT officials were detained, beaten, and threatened with execution by armed men near Hoit, in opposition-controlled territory close to Garm. One month later, four UNMOT employees were ambushed and murdered nearby by alleged UTO members. The sole road leading from Dushanbe to northeastern Garm remained off-limits for international organizations during most of 1998.
Marginalization of the northern region of Leninabad, almost completely excluded from the peace process, also continued. The CNR had denied The National Revival Movement (NRM), a northern-based party with significant national support, permission to participate directly in the peace negotiations, while the Party of Economic and Political Revival of Tajikistan, also northern-based, encountered significant registration difficulties, and by the end of November was not registered. Six defendants accused of attempting to assassinate President Emomali Rakhmonov in the Leninabad capital of Khujand in 1997, including Abdulkhafiz Abdullayev, the brother of the NRM leader, were sentenced to death in a closed trial. Human Rights Watch obtained testimony showing that witnesses were forced under duressincluding through beatingsto incriminate Abdullayev. Detained since May 1997, and stricken with terminal cancer, Abdullayev as of early November continued to be denied access to adequate medicaltreatment.
The government maintained nearly complete control over the electronic media, and authorities continued to harass independent television stations. In May the Majlisi Oli adopted a law on the defense of the honor and dignity of the president, which allowed only President Rakhmonov to use the title president; the law also set out excessive fines and prison sentences for those convicted of insulting or slandering the president. Following international protest, however, President Rakhmonov vetoed the law.
Journalists were denied access to conflict zones, received death threats, and were taken hostage by independent and UTO armed groups. In July, NTV (a Russian television station) correspondent Yelena Masyuk was declared persona non grata for having broadcast reports discrediting the countrys leadership and its policies. The presidents political party held regular meetings and was afforded extensive media coverage, while others were denied permission on technical grounds to hold meetings, experienced registration problems, and received next to no coverage by national and local media.
Prison conditions also deteriorated in 1998 when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), citing reasons including misuse of food rations distributed since June 1996, halted its emergency nutritional program launched in 1996. Soon afterwards, the death rate among the countrys roughly 7,000 prisoners increased.
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