(Oslo) – The Tajik government should reverse its decision to order the closure of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and allow the party to operate freely, Human Rights Watch, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia said today. Tajik authorities should also halt their ongoing campaign of harassment against the party and its members and allow independent political parties to operate freely in Tajikistan.
On August 28, 2015, the Justice Ministry officially revoked the IRPT’s status as a national political party, effectively making its activities illegal. The party, the second-largest in the country with an estimated 40,000 supporters, had been the only Islamic political party legally registered in Central Asia. The ruling comes amid a worsening government crackdown on dissent, and after a long and harsh government-orchestrated campaign against the party.
“Given the steady, unmistakable decline of freedom of expression in Tajikistan over the past few years, we are not surprised by this deplorable decision to shut down the country’s most prominent opposition party,” said Bjørn Engesland, secretary general of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “This decision not only violates Tajikistan’s core human rights obligations; it has the potential to push legitimate political opposition underground, creating a serious risk of instability in the country.”
On July 8, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a statement cancelling the IRPT’s status as a political party, claiming that it no longer met the requirements of article 3 of the Law on Political Parties. The article specifies that a political party needs at least a total of 1,000 supporters from “most cities and districts of the Republic of Tajikistan” to obtain registration.
The Prosecutor General’s Office claimed that the IRPT no longer qualified as a political party because it had shut down offices in numerous cities and regions. The party contends that any office closings or departure of members has been a result of government pressure and harassment.
On July 10, however, the Justice Ministry stated that the IRPT could only be closed down by the party itself or by a court ruling. But on August 28 the Justice Ministry officially revoked the party’s status, giving it 10 days to suspend its activities. The ministry also cited article 3, saying that the party had terminated activities in 58 cities and districts. The IRPT disputes the government’s claim, maintaining it meets the requirements for party status.
In the March 2015 parliamentary elections, the IRPT was completely shut out of parliament – the first time in Tajikistan’s modern history – in an election that monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said was marred by ballot-stuffing and government intimidation.
In the period before the elections, state-owned media attacked the party with smear campaigns, linking it and its members to extremism and moral degeneracy. Election officials disqualified several IRPT candidates from running in the elections on spurious grounds, and blocked the distribution of the party’s campaign materials. Sermons during Friday prayers in state-controlled mosques warned against the party while the state-controlled media reported that letters, purportedly from concerned citizens, urged the government to ban the party.
In June the party leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, went into exile, fearing prosecution on bogus charges. That month, 20 videos appeared online of party members saying they were “voluntarily” abandoning the party. The party’s deputy leader, Mahmadali Hayit, told Human Rights Watch that members were acting under pressure from regional officials.
“The ongoing crackdown against the IRPT and its members has been relentless,” said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “It is clear the IRPT meets the basic requirements for maintaining its status as a political party. President Rahmon should ensure that the IRPT and its members are able to operate normally, instead of facing a constant campaign of state-orchestrated harassment and obstruction.”
In addition to harassment of party members in recent years, some have been subjected to violence. In April 2013, Hayit was savagely beaten by two unidentified assailants outside his home. On January 20, 2014, IRPT member Umed Tojiev died following injuries he sustained on November 2, 2013, after allegedly jumping from the third floor window of a police station in the northern city of Isfara, after being tortured to incriminate himself.
Tajikistan was ravaged by a devastating civil war from 1992 to 1997. Pro-government forces negotiated a peace agreement over three years with representatives of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which was completed in 1997. Article 1 of the agreement reserved 30 percent of senior government posts for UTO representatives. The IRPT, which constituted a substantial share of the UTO, is a continuation of the UTO, and the most viable opposition party in Tajikistan.
The forced closure of the IRPT comes amid a more general crackdown on civil and political rights by the Tajik government. Authorities have imprisoned opposition activists and journalists, extradited and kidnapped government critics from abroad, and harassed nongovernmental organizations with onerous checks on their activities. The Tajik government has regularly blocked numerous Internet sites and carried out a multi-year campaign of severe restrictions on religious practice. Torture in pretrial custody and prisons remains a serious problem.
Tajikistan should uphold its domestic and international obligations to guarantee the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, the organizations said. Tajikistan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees these rights. In 2013, the Human Rights Committee, which monitors countries’ compliance with the treaty, warned Tajikistan that it needed to “foster a culture of political plurality and, to this end, desist from harassing opposition political parties and groups that are considered as holding contrary political views to the ruling party.”
“This decision represents a huge setback for human rights in Tajikistan,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The IRPT’s very existence emerged out of a hard-earned 1997 peace agreement that put an end to the country’s bloody civil war. Shutting down the party is perilous for human rights, democratic participation, and stability in the country.”