(Berlin) – The 26-year sentence for Zaid Saidov, a prominent member of Tajikistan’s beleaguered political opposition, strikes a blow to freedom of expression and democracy in Tajikistan, Human Rights Watch said today. Saidov should be released pending an independent review of the case.
A court in Dushanbe found Saidov, a businessman and former government official who had formed a new opposition party, guilty on five criminal charges on December 25, 2013 and issued the sentence after a politically motivated trial.
“Saidov’s conviction starkly illustrates that the Tajik government will neither accept criticism nor the role of opposition parties in a democratic society,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Saidov’s prosecution was clearly designed to remove a vocal opponent from the political arena.”
Saidov, a member of Dushanbe’s city council, announced the creation of the New Tajikistan party on April 6, seven months before Tajikistan’s presidential elections. Saidov and his supporters said the party would focus on economic reforms. In presenting New Tajikistan’s platform, Saidov criticized the government for “inefficient reforms, pressure on small- and medium-sized businesses, exorbitant prices, and widespread corruption.”
Saidov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that shortly after the announcement Saidov received anonymous text messages with death threats and warnings to “stay away from politics.” A few days later officers from the Department of Internal Affairs and the State Committee for National Security pressured Saidov to come for “talks.” The session lasted several hours, during which he was repeatedly threatened with “dire consequences” if he did not abandon plans for the new party.
On May 19, as Saidov returned from a trip abroad, police from Tajikistan’s Anti-Corruption Agency arrested him at the Dushanbe airport as he left the plane, though they had no formal arrest warrant and he had immunity from prosecution as a city council member. Without informing him of his rights or the reason for his arrest, police took Saidov to the Anti-Corruption Agency, where he was held incommunicado for 41 hours without access to legal counsel or contact with family members.
The next day, in a hastily arranged vote, the Dushanbe city council voted to strip Saidov of his immunity from prosecution. Sources close to the city council told Human Rights Watch that Dushanbe city council members, including the mayor’s office, received instructions directly from the office of President Emomali Rahmon to ensure that Saidov’s immunity was stripped and to hold the vote immediately in Saidov’s absence, without giving him an opportunity to present his case, as required by law.
That evening, after his immunity was revoked, Saidov had his first introduction to his lawyer, during the police examination of a witness, but he had no opportunity to meet with the lawyer privately.
On May 21, a court approved pretrial custody for Saidov. He was charged with “bigamy or polygamy” (article 170), “illegal deprivation of an individual’s freedom” (article 131), rape (article 138), fraud (article 247), and bribery (article 319) under Tajikistan’s Criminal Code. Authorities accused Saidov of raping an underage girl and fathering her child. Court-ordered DNA tests did not prove any link between Saidov and the child. Prosecutors also accused Saidov of simultaneously living with four wives. Saidov has said he has one legal wife but provides material support to two former wives.
Activists and New Tajikistan members have told Human Rights Watch they believe that Saidov was targeted for his opposition activity. Saidov has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing and said the charges are retaliation for his decision to form a political party. Authorities sealed the New Tajikistan offices and dispersed rallies of Saidov’s supporters outside the detention center where he was being held. On one occasion, on August 27, authorities dispersed a rally of approximately 50 people. Eight participants, including four of Saidov’s sons and one son-in-law, were sentenced to five days in jail and administrative fines.
With the exception of a single confidential meeting with his lawyer in June, Saidov was denied access to counsel from his arrest until the start of trial in September. Key questioning of witnesses and alleged victims and cross examinations occurred during that period.
Saidov’s lawyers appealed to police, courts, and even President Rahmon to grant them access to their client, but their appeals were denied or ignored. Saidov was allowed only one meeting with family members, with his sons in June, and the authorities warned his family they could face criminal charges or other consequences if they spoke out publicly on Saidov’s behalf.
In the days following Saidov’s arrest, four of Tajikistan’s state television channels aired news stories alleging that Saidov was involved in corruption and accusing him of polygamy. Unidentified people distributed brochures about his alleged criminal conduct on the streets of Dushanbe.
“From start to finish, the criminal investigation against Zaid Saidov has been marred by serious due process violations and an unmistakable attempt by authorities to deprive him of the right to defend himself,” Swerdlow said.
Saidov’s trial was closed to the public. His lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the trial included numerous procedural violations and that the judge did not allow Saidov to mount a complete defense. They said the judge denied over 50 trial motions on evidentiary issues raised by the defense.
The Supreme Court of Tajikistan convicted Saidov on all five charges. Authorities detained and later fined five Saidov supporters for refusing to leave the area outside the detention center where the sentence was announced on December 25.
“Saidov was held in incommunicado detention, denied access to counsel, and not allowed a proper opportunity to prepare a defense,” Swerdlow said. “Statements from senior government officials in the media about Saidov’s guilt amplify the concerns about the lack of independence of the Tajik judiciary. Saidov should be released pending an independent review of the charges against him.”
President Rahmon was re-elected to a fourth term in November in an election that lacked meaningful political competition in the period before the election. Authorities widened a crackdown on freedom of expression, imprisoned opposition leaders, and stepped up efforts to extradite political opponents from abroad.
The Tajik government should end its harassment of the political opposition, Human Rights Watch said.