(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.”
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.