(Toronto) – Tajik authorities should immediately release Abubakr Azizkhodzhaev, a well-known businessman and government critic who has been detained since February 2016, on politically motivated charges and has been ill-treated in custody, Human Rights Watch said today.

Azizkhodzhaev was detained after publicly and privately criticizing the son-in-law of President Emomali Rahmon for alleged corrupt business practices. Tajik authorities should conduct a prompt, effective investigation into Azizkhodzhaev’s ill-treatment and hold accountable all officials found responsible for his mistreatment, Human Rights Watch said.

“Arresting and abusing someone simply for criticizing the president’s son-in-law shouldn’t happen in a country where the government claims to respect human rights and the rule of law,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Azizkhodzhaev should be released and anyone who has ill-treated him should be punished.”

Абубакар Азизходжаев в тюремной медицинской клинике, г. Душанбе, Таджикистан. Апрель 2016.

© 2016 личный архив

Police detained Azizkhodzhaev on February 26, at his home in the capital, Dushanbe, and took him to a security services building for questioning. Initially, they told him he was being detained as a witness, but authorities soon charged him with “inciting national, racial, regional, or religious hatred” under article 189 of Tajikistan’s Criminal Code and on March 4, transferred him to Dushanbe’s pretrial isolation center (SIZO) No. 1, where he has been held since.

Azizkhodzhaev owns Durnamo, a printing business in Dushanbe that manufactured license plates among other items, and previously had received a contract from the Tajik government. In 2009, government officials informed Azizkhodzhaev that Durnamo had lost its government tender to Faroz, a company co-owned at the time by the president’s son-in-law, Shamsullo Sohibov, despite that fact that Faroz had no experience producing license plates.

The loss of the contract devastated Azizkhodzhaev’s business. Later, when Faroz proved unable to manufacture the license plates, government officials approached Azizkhodzhaev to ask whether Durnamo could restart production on an ad hoc, temporary basis. Azizkhodzhaev refused. Soon afterward, Durnamo’s facilities were broken into and all of its high-value typographical and printing equipment disappeared. This equipment ultimately ended up in the possession of Faroz. When Azizkhodzhaev reported these circumstances to the authorities, he was told “nothing could be done” because Sohibov is President Rahmon’s son-in-law.

To press the authorities for the return of his equipment, Azizkhodzhaev wrote an “Open Letter to the President,” detailing what had happened to his business. The letter was later published on a recurring basis in newspapers known for their independence from the government.

Azizkhodzhaev also corresponded with journalists, opposition activists, and others over social media and in private emails, describing what he saw as nepotism and corruption at the heart of the government’s policies.

A lawyer for Azizkhodzhaev told his relatives that his corruption allegations against the government form the basis of the charges of “inciting national, racial, regional or religious hatred” leveled against him. Beyond his public statements on corruption, the authorities have not pointed to any other activities or actions to support charges of incitement to hatred.

Relatives told Human Rights Watch that since his detention, they have had extremely limited access to Azizkhodzhaev. They reported that jail officials have accepted food and clothing on Azizkhodzhaev’s behalf but have not passed on these items to him. Friends and family allowed to visit him in the first week of May said that they had seen burns on his body. Others who saw Azizkhodzhaev during the second week of May said that he walked with a limp. Azizkhodzhaev told relatives that jail officials had beaten him.

In the last year, Tajik authorities have jailed numerous perceived critics, including opposition activists, lawyers, and journalists following their peaceful criticism of the government, Human Rights Watch said.

“That authorities have thrown someone in jail for criticizing the wrong person is bad enough,” Swerdlow said. “But the credible reports that he’s also been beaten call for immediate action.”