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(Oslo) – Tajik authorities should immediately and unconditionally release four human rights lawyers and two sons of another prominent lawyer who are imprisoned or detained on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today. Tajik authorities should stop harassing and targeting independent lawyers.

The authorities have arrested, imprisoned, and intimidated numerous attorneys since 2014, in retaliation for representing political opponents or their willingness to take on politically sensitive cases, the groups said. Other prominent rights lawyers have received death threats and have been threatened with trumped-up charges.

“The Tajik government is tightening the screws on lawyers it deems trouble, locking up those who represent the opposition alongside its political foes,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Each day these lawyers spend behind bars is a disgrace and brings shame on Tajikistan’s judicial system.” 

For more than a year, the Tajik government has systematically targeted the country’s peaceful political opposition, arbitrarily detaining, imprisoning, and torturing its members and supporters, as well as securing the extradition of – or failing that, kidnapping – perceived critics living abroad. 

The Tajik authorities’ unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression and association deteriorated further in 2015, including with the forced closure of Tajikistan’s leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), in September, and arrests of dozens of its members. In March 2015, an opposition figure, Umarali Kuvvatov, was shot dead in Istanbul, in circumstances that point to involvement or acquiescence by the Tajik government.

Since 2014, Tajik authorities have arrested or imprisoned at least five human rights lawyers –Shukhrat Kudratov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nuriddin Makhkamov, Dilbar Dodojonova – and Firuz and Daler Tabarov, sons of Iskhok Tabarov, another prominent lawyer. Zokirov was released after two lengthy periods of imprisonment. The others remain behind bars, either after dubious convictions or awaiting trial on specious charges. Others, including a well-known human rights lawyer Fayzinisso Vohidova, have been harassed and threatened with spurious criminal charges. 

Authorities first prosecuted Kudratov and Zokirov, who represented a high-profile opposition figure,Zaid Saidov, on fraud charges. Saidov is a former government minister who signaled an interest in forming a new political party and is now in prison on trumped-up charges. Since the second half of 2015, authorities have threatened to arrest lawyers who seek to represent detained members of the IRPT. 

The Tajik government has also taken steps to extend its control over the legal profession, significantly curtailing its independence. In November, authorities approved a new law requiring all lawyers to renew their legal licenses with the Justice Ministry, instead of the independent bar association or licensing body, and to retake the bar examination every five years. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that the exam included questions on a broad range of subjects unrelated to law, such as history, culture, and politics. They said they have concerns that the test, administered by the government, is being used to exclude those who take on politically sensitive cases.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers state that lawyers “shall not be identified with their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions,” and that they must be able “to perform all their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.” Furthermore, lawyers “shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards or ethics.”

The United States, the European Union, and Tajikistan’s international partners should press the Tajik government to release immediately lawyers imprisoned and detained on politically motivated charges and ensure that all lawyers are able to conduct their work without fear of threats or harassment, including arbitrary arrest or prosecution. International partners also should press Tajikistan to uphold its international obligations to respect freedom of association, assembly, and expression. Countries participating in the upcoming review of Tajikistan’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council on May 6 should raise concerns about the crackdown against lawyers and the country’s peaceful opposition. 

“The lawyers languishing behind bars are some of Tajikistan’s most active and independent voices,” said Marius Fossum, Norwegian Helsinki Committee regional representative in Central Asia. “Dushanbe has presented no credible evidence against any of them and so should release them immediately and guarantee them the security to fully carry out their professional duties.”

For more background and reporting on Tajikistan’s crackdown on the legal profession, please see below.

Imprisonment of Shukhrat Kudratov
In January 2015, a Dushanbe court sentenced prominent human rights lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov to nine years in prison following a politically motivated trial on fabricated charges of fraud. Kudratov’s sentence was reduced on appeal to three years and eight months. Prior to his arrest, Kudratov also was deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic party. He is known for taking on politically sensitive cases, including representing victims of police torture and those accused of extremism.

Kudratov has represented the country’s most popular independent news agency Asia-Plus, which government officials have frequently sued for defamation. In 2011, the Dushanbe-based Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law named Kudratov “Human Rights Defender of the Year.”

Most recently, he was defense counsel for Zaid Saidov, a businessman and opposition figure who was sentenced in December 2013 to 26 years in prison – extended to 29 years following conviction on other charges in July 2015 – in prosecutions that appeared to have been retaliation for his attempt to run in the November 2013 presidential election. Throughout and following Saidov’s trial, Kudratov told Human Rights Watch the authorities harassed and threatened Kudratov, his family members, and the other lawyers on Saidov’s legal team. In June 2014, Kudratov told Human Rights Watch that he feared imminent arrest. 

Tajik authorities arrested Kudratov in July 2014 on fraud charges. The charges, which Kudratov denied, 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. 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 harassment, including threats of imprisonment and death, against him and Saidov’s other lawyers.

Following a November 2014 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.” 

Detention of Fakhriddin Zokirov
In March 2014, Tajikistan’s Anti-Corruption Agency arrested Fakhriddin Zokirov, another of Saidov’s lawyers. He was detained until November 3, then released under an amnesty. Following his release, Zokirov publicly stated that he would no longer represent Saidov.

In a joint statement in July 2014, 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. In August 2015, authorities again arrested Zokirov, this time on extortion charges. He was again released in November, after paying a 14,600 Somoni fine (approximately US$2,000). 

Detention of Firuz and Daler Tabarov
On February 11, 2016, a Vakhdat court sentenced Firuz Tabarov to 13.5 years in prison for various crimes, including “extremism” (article 307) and “facilitating mercenary fighters” (article 401). He is the son of a prominent attorney Iskhok Tabarov, the only member of Saidov’s legal team not facing criminal charges. Firuz Tabarov was arrested on July 3, 2015, and, his father said, was tortured in pretrial detention and forced to make a false confession. The father told reporters that authorities had provided no evidence of his son’s involvement in extremist or mercenary activity and that the case was retaliation for the father’s role in defending Saidov. Based on the lack of evidence produced at trial, the charges appear to have no credible substance and to be trumped-up in response to his father’s work, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said.

On March 14, 2016, journalists reported that police arrested Firuz’s brother, Daler Tabarov, on charges of failing to report a crime (article 347). He is in pretrial detention in Dushanbe (SIZO no. 1 prison), awaiting trial. He faces up to two years in prison or a fine of 500 to 1000 times Tajikistan’s average minimum wage. 

Imprisonment and harassment of lawyers representing the IRPT
On September 16, 2015, the Tajik government opened a campaign of mass arrests against leaders and members of the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The arrests also included relatives of party activists. According to various estimates, up to 200 party members have been arrested. The International Lawyers Association (Turkey), Yeryuzu Lawyers Association (Turkey), and the Russian Lawyers Association all conducted research in Tajikistan following the closure and recorded multiple credible reports of torture in pretrial detention. Authorities have repeatedly interfered with the arrested party members’ right to access to legal counsel, and several lawyers seeking to defend them have been arbitrarily detained, including the three lawyers from theSipar law firm listed below.

Detention of Buzurgmehr Yorov
On September 29, 2015, officers from the Police Unit for Combating Organized Crime (UBOP MVD) detained Buzurgmehr Yorov, a human rights lawyer and member of the opposition Social Democratic Party. On January 28, 2016, a Dushanbe court extended his pretrial detention. On May 3, his trial commenced (see below).

The circumstances surrounding his arrest strongly indicate that the authorities have targeted him for representing opposition party members. At the time of his arrest, Yorov was representing several high-ranking IRPT members who had been arrested two weeks before the mass arrests began on September 16, 2015. Yorov had also declared his intention to establish a committee for the defense of the arrested IRPT members. The day of his arrest, Yorov gave an interview alleging that police had tortured one of his clients, Umarali Hisaynov (also known as Saidumar Husayni), the IRPT’s first deputy chairman, in pretrial detention, and local media reported that authorities had attempted to pressure him to drop the case.

Yorov, head of the law firm Sipar, had a reputation as one of Tajikistan’s most fearless human rights lawyers, serving as defense counsel for lawyer Fakhriddin Zokirov. 

Authorities initially charged Yorov under articles 247 (swindling) and 340 (fraud) of the criminal code. An Internal Ministry spokesperson said that the alleged fraud occurred in 2010, when Yorov allegedly received US$4,000 from a resident of the city of Istaravshan. In December 2015, authorities added charges of “arousing national, racial, local or religious hostility” (article 189) and extremism (articles 307 and 307.1). Yorov is being held in Dushanbe (SIZO no. 1) detention center while he faces trial.

When the trial against Yorov and another lawyer, Nuriddin Makhkamov, opened on May 3, it was closed to the public, despite requests by the press and representatives of diplomatic missions to attend. However, the media outlet Asia Plus spoke with persons who had access to the courtroom and reported that during his opening statement, Yorov said the court materials did not include testimonies that he and supporting witnesses had made to prosecutors during the course of the investigation. Yorov also objected to not being allowed to have access to a lawyer of his choosing and refused to accept his state-appointed lawyer, who he also said had not been given sufficient time to prepare for trial. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for May 10.

Arrest of Nuriddin Makhkamov
On October 22, 2015, the Police Unit for Combating Organized Crime arrested Nuriddin Makhkamov, a lawyer who worked for Yorov’s law firm Sipar, on what appear to be trumped-up charges. Makhkamov, who, like Yorov, was representing arrested IRPT members, faces swindling charges. On November 20, after Makhkamov went on a hunger strike to protest his arbitrary detention, authorities placed him in solitary confinement for three days. Authorities have systematically interfered with his right to counsel. He remains in detention.

Detention and house arrest of Dilbar Dodojonova
On October 26, 2015, authorities arrested Dilbar Dodojonova, also of the Sipar firm, and a colleague of Yorov and Mahkamov. After being initially detained, she was transferred to house arrest while she awaits trial on defamation charges that appear to be related to her attempts to aid in Yorov’s representation.

Death threats and threatened criminal charges against Fayzinisso Vohidova
In July, Fayzinisso Vohidova, a Khujand-based lawyer who is known for her human rights and criminal defense work, told Human Rights Watch that she had received text messages threatening that she and her family could be killed or seriously injured unless she agreed to stop representing politically sensitive clients.

Vohidova said that since July, she has been harassed by the authorities, including surveillance, threats, and intimidation, which intensified after the September arrests of IRPT members. Despite Vohidova’s many attempts to report the threats and harassment to the office of the general prosecutor, the threats have continued and the authorities have taken no action. 

In early 2016, Vohidova received credible information that law enforcement officials had initiated a criminal investigation against her, examining her numerous essays and articles about legal issues and politics for evidence of extremism.

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