Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) members at an IRPT party congress in Khujand, Tajikistan in April 2013. 

© 2013 HRW

(Paris) – Tajik authorities detained at least 13 activists of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) on September 16, 2015, Human Rights Watch, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia said today. Authorities should immediately release or, if there is credible evidence that they have committed a legitimate offence, promptly charge them and ensure due process for all the detainees, including timely access to independent counsel and contact with family members.

On September 17, the Prosecutor General’s Office released a statement announcing the arrests, among them the deputy party chairman, Mahmadali Hayit, and the first deputy, Saidumar Khusaini, allegedly to “prevent new terrorist acts and … crimes of an extremist nature.” It also accused the party of involvement in a violent attack on a police station and weapons depot that began on September 4.

“These arrests represent a full-scale assault on dissent in Tajikistan,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tajik authorities have the obligation to charge these men promptly with specific crimes or release them and to maintain the presumption of innocence. They cannot hold opposition activists on spurious claims of preventing future crimes.”

The prosecutor’s statement said that Tajikistan’s deputy defense minister, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, whom officials implicated in the attacks on the police station and weapons depot, was acting on orders from the party, including the exiled party leader, Muhiddin Kabiri. Nazarzoda was killed in a special operation on September 16. Nine police officers and 17 militants died in the attacks.

Party officials, including Kabiri and Hayit, have repeatedly publicly rejected accusations that the party was involved with or supported the alleged mutiny by the deputy defense minister.

Kabiri, who fled the country in June fearing prosecution, told several news outlets that police have detained up to 50 members of the party, including the party’s entire senior leadership. Under international law, the detainees should be brought promptly before a judge to rule on their continued detention.

The others whose arrests were announced are: Umarali Hisaynov, Rakhmattuloy Jobir, Abdukahor Davlat, Sattor Karimov, Zubaydulloh Roziq, Fayzmuhammad Muhammadalii, Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda, Kiyomiddin Avazov, Zarafo Rahmoni, Mahmadsharif Nabiev, Abdusamad Ghairatov, and Vohidkhon Qosiddinov.

The arrests came days after authorities forced the closure of the IRPT on spurious grounds amid a long-running campaign to stamp out opposition political activity in the country and among activists abroad.

In its September 17 statement, the general prosecutor accused Kabiri of direct involvement in violent clashes near Dushanbe on September 4 between government forces and men loyal to Nazarzoda. The statement alleges that Kabiri ordered Nazarzoda to instigate armed attacks on government structures and that, acting on orders from Kabiri, Nazarzoda had organized more than “20 illegal groups” in recent years. Kabiri has denied all accusations against himself and the party, adding that Nazarzoda has never been a party member and has had nothing to do with the party.

“Tajik authorities appear to be using recent violence in the country as a pretext to rid themselves of dissenters. But mere accusations of IRPT involvement in violence just days after its forced closure are no substitute for a credible investigation,” said Bjørn Engesland, secretary general of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “Absent real evidence, these arrests seem to fit well into Dushanbe’s long-running smear campaign against the country’s most prominent opposition party.”

Human Rights Watch, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia are also concerned that the detainees could face a risk of torture or ill-treatment in detention. The United States, the European Union, and all of Tajikistan’s international partners should press the Tajik government to uphold its international obligations to respect freedom of association, assembly, expression, and religion.

“Tajikistan’s rights record has deteriorated precipitously in recent months,” said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “The time has come for Tajikistan’s international partners, including Washington and Brussels, to tell Tajik authorities that jailing dissidents and barring legitimate political opposition groups from functioning could carry serious consequences for their bilateral ties.”