(Berlin)–A prominent human rights lawyer in Tajikistan was sentenced on January 13, 2015, to nine years in prison following a politically motivated trial, Human Rights Watch said today. The case against the lawyer, Shukhrat Kudratov, struck a blow to freedom of expression and the independence of the legal profession in Tajikistan.

A court in Dushanbe found Kudratov, who is also deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic party, guilty on criminal charges of fraud and bribery. Kudratov is known for taking on politically sensitive cases, including representing victims of police torture and those accused of “religious extremism.” In 2011, the Dushanbe-based Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law named Kudratov “Human Rights Defender of the Year.” Kudratov should be released, and authorities should ensure the independence of Tajikistan’s legal profession, Human Rights Watch said.

“Tajik authorities are attempting to silence one of the most active and independent voices of Tajikistan’s legal profession,” said Steve Swerdlow, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kudratov’s prosecution, which we believe to be politically motivated, strikes directly at the independence of the legal profession in the country.”

Kudratov has represented the country’s most popular independent news agency “Asia-Plus,” which government officials have frequently sued for defamation. Most recently, Kudratov was defense counsel for Zayd Saidov, a businessman and opposition figure who was sentenced in December 2013 to 26 years in prison in a case that appeared  to have been brought in retaliation for his attempt to run in the November 2013 presidential election. Throughout and following the trial, Kudratov reported to Human Rights Watch that authorities harassed and threatened him, his family members, and the other lawyers on Saidov’s legal team.

Tajik authorities arrested Kudratov in July 2014 on bribery charges. The charges stem from allegations that he attempted to bribe a judge in a civil case and that he defrauded a former client of several thousand dollars in 2012. In June, Kudratov had told Human Rights Watch that he and his family were receiving threats and that he feared imminent arrest.

Days before his arrest, he sent a public appeal to nongovernmental groups, the news media, and diplomatic missions in Tajikistan highlighting procedural violations in Saidov’s prosecution and trial. Kudratov also detailed the ongoing attacks on him and other members of Saidov’s legal team, including threats of imprisonment or even death and other harassment.

In another case, an individual who had earlier accused Saidov of rape brought civil claims against Kudratov for “moral damage.” In April 2014, a Dushanbe court found Kudratov liable and ordered him to pay a fine of approximately US$50,000.

From the moment of his arrest Kudratov has denied the allegations against him. He has called the charges retribution for his long record of taking on politically sensitive cases, in particular his representation of Saidov, and for his role as a leading member of the opposition party.

Following a November visit to Tajikistan, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) stated that it had credible information that the charges against Kudratov were “linked to his representation of a client, contrary to international standards on the independence of lawyers.”

In March 2014, Tajikistan’s Anti-Corruption Agency arrested another of Saidov’s lawyers, Fakhriddin Zokirov, on fraud charges. Zokirov was in detention until November 3, when he was released under an amnesty. Following his release Zokirov publicly stated that he would no longer act as a lawyer for Saidov.

In a joint statement in July, 18 Tajik nongovernmental groups labeled Kudratov’s and Zokirov’s arrests politically motivated. The ICJ called on the Tajik government to take meaningful steps to ensure the independence of the legal profession and the security of individual lawyers.

Tajik authorities should release Kudratov, as his prosecution was politically motivated, Human Rights Watch said. Kudratov should not face any risk of double jeopardy and there should be no efforts to retry the tainted case against him.

“By locking up a prominent human rights lawyer, Dushanbe is sending Tajikistan’s legal community an unambiguous warning to stay away from politically sensitive cases,” Swerdlow said. “Now more than ever, Tajikistan needs a strong and independent legal profession that can operate free of interference or fear of retribution.”