(Dushanbe) – Tajik authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate the brutal beating of an opposition leader. Mahmadali Hayit, deputy head of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the country’s largest opposition party, was attacked in the evening of April 19, 2013, outside his home.
The investigation should be thorough and comprehensive, and Tajik authorities should ensure that members of the IRPT and other opposition parties are able to exercise their freedom of expression, association, and assembly without interference in the lead-up to the November 2013 presidential elections.
“This was a savage attack on a prominent opposition figure in an election year, which raises many concerns about the motivation,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Tajik authorities should take immediate action to investigate who is behind the attack on Hayit and hold them to account.”
On April 19, Hayit, 56, was returning to his home in the capital, Dushanbe, following preparations at the IRPT office for a large public event next week to mark the party’s founding. At approximately 7:40 p.m., as he made his way to the entrance to his home, two men of athletic builds approached him, dressed in sweats pants and sports clothes.
“I felt them hit my head from behind,” Hayit told Human Rights Watch in the hospital in Dushanbe. “Then they started hitting me repeatedly on the face and head. When I fell to the ground they kicked me in the head and all over my upper body.”
Relatives discovered Hayit, who had lost a lot of blood, and called an ambulance, which took him to the National Medical Center Karabolo. When Human Rights Watch visited Hayit in the hospital on April 20, four police officers were guarding the floor where he was receiving treatment. Police had questioned witnesses but had not formally opened a criminal investigation.
Hayit told Human Rights Watch he believes the attack was designed to scare the IRPT into toning down its political activities ahead of the elections. Hayit has long been the subject of government surveillance. He told Human Rights Watch that at least once a month authorities come to his home to check his passport and other identification documents, and police and unknown individuals in plain clothes come regularly to inquire about his whereabouts. Such a visit took place at approximately 10 a.m. on the day of his attack.
“Tajikistan’s international partners and outside investors will be watching closely in the run-up to the November elections,” Swerdlow said. “Tajik authorities should send a clear signal that citizens will be able to exercise their freedoms of expression, assembly, and association free of retribution and the threat of violence.”
The IRPT, the only opposition party in parliament, holds two seats in the 63-seat Majlisi Oli.
Next week, the IRPT had planned to stage a public event at its Dushanbe office, commemorating the party’s founding. “Various authorities have been visiting the site of our upcoming event all week,” Hayit told Human Rights Watch. “They have been looking for ways to shut us down.” Hayit said that various forms of government pressure have been intensifying on IRPT members and its leaders in the past year.
In January, IRPT head Muhiddin Kabiri lost a libel suit in a Dushanbe court after criticizing the mayor for cutting down too many trees and was ordered to make an apology. In July 2012, a party leader in the autonomous south-eastern region of Gorno-Badakhshan was murdered during a military operation. Another local leader from Gorno-Badakhshan is currently being tried behind closed doors in Dushanbe for organizing mass disorders during the military operation.
In recent years, citing fears of radical Islam, Tajik authorities have introduced wide-ranging restrictions on the practice of Islam outside of strict state controls, including a ban on minors attending religious institutions, and have also targeted IRPT meetings.
“The United States and the European Union should urge the Tajik government to investigate this violent attack on a well-known public figure,” Swerdlow said. “Washington and Brussels should send a strong and clear message pressing Tajik authorities to ensure an election season in which citizens’ core political and civil rights are protected.”