(Warsaw) – Governments and intergovernmental organizations should denounce the worsening human rights crisis in Tajikistan, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said in a video released today during the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The United States and the European Union and its member countries, as well as the United Nations and the OSCE, should press for targeted sanctions absent immediate reform.

Tajikistan is in the midst of its most dire human rights crisis in 20 years, the organizations said. Over the past two years, authorities have arrested, imprisoned, and tortured opposition party members and banned as terrorist the country’s leading opposition party. The authorities have also arrested scores of lawyers, journalists, and anyone posting statements critical of the government on social media. While hundreds of activists have fled the country, the government has targeted perceived critics abroad, seeking their arrest and extradition to Tajikistan. Some critics abducted abroad have reappeared in Tajik custody.

“Tajikistan is in the midst of its worst crackdown since the country’s civil war two decades ago, with the authorities jailing hundreds of people for their peaceful political work,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Tajikistan’s human rights crisis is expanding by the day, but the response from Washington, Brussels, and other international partners has fallen seriously short.”

In the video, four victims of the crackdown describe how Tajik authorities have persecuted them for their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression. 

Sobir Valiev, Shabnam Khudoydodova, Umarali Kuvvatov, and Ehson Odinaev, activists who were pursued by the government of Tajikistan. 

Shabnam Khudoydodova, a political activist from Tajikistan living in Russia, criticized the authoritarian rule of President Emomali Rahmon. Tajik authorities accused her of “extremism.” They listed an international warrant for her arrest on the Interpol database – an abuse of the international police organization that the government has repeated for several other activists. In June 2015, fearing arrest, she fled Russia for Poland.

“When I arrived in the Republic of Poland, Poland did not accept me,” Khudoydodova said. “They wanted to extradite me [to Tajikistan]. In order to stop the extradition process, I requested political asylum in Belarus. When they sent me to the temporary holding facility, Tajik law enforcement representatives came in. They interrogated me, asked me what I wanted. They asked why I was involved in politics. They called me a terrorist, an extremist.” Khudoydodova was detained for nearly nine months in Belarus on an extradition request on trumped-up charges before her release.

Vaisiddin Odinaev tells the story of his brother, Ehson Odinaev, 25, an opposition blogger active with the peaceful opposition movement “Group 24,” who disappeared in St. Petersburg in May 2015. Ehson Odinaev’s disappearance came less than two months after Umarali Kuvvatov, Group 24’s leader, was shot and killed in Istanbul in circumstances that pointed to the involvement of the Tajik security services.

“A week before he disappeared he sent me a screen shot showing that he was on the Interpol list,” said Vaisiddin Odinaev. “After that on May 19, at 6:53 p.m., he left his building, went onto Kurskaya Street and disappeared without a trace. And nobody could tell us anything.”

The family’s attempts to raise his case with Russian and Tajik law enforcement have been met with inaction. During one meeting in Moscow with Russian and Tajik authorities, “they hinted that there’s a separate group, a special group that’s not the GKNB [intelligence services], not the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It’s a kind of special group that was formed…not to liquidate exactly, but to solve the problem of the opposition.” Odinaev and his mother suspect the involvement of the Tajik security services and appeal in the video to anyone who can provide them with information about Ehson Odinaev’s whereabouts and well-being.

Sobir Valiev, also a Group 24 member, fled Turkey following Kuvvatov’s killing, fearing arrest or worse. Tajik authorities tracked him down in Moldova, forwarding a request for his detention and extradition on false charges of extremism. “I decided to fly to Moldova,” Valiev said. “When the term of my stay in Moldova was expiring, I wanted to leave…and was arrested in the airport on August 11, 2015. After that I learned that Tajik authorities were accusing me under article 307, sections 1 and 2 – they were accusing me of extremism.” Valiev was released and his extradition prevented only after human rights organizations intervened.

Inside Tajikistan, the government stepped up a long-running campaign to dismantle the country’s most important opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Beginning in June 2015, Tajik security services pressured the party’s representatives in various regions of the country to record videos denouncing the party and announcing they were leaving it. Among those Tajik security services detained was Ilhomjon Yakubov, the party’s representative from the northern Sughd region.

“Under threats and torture, they [the security forces] wanted me to resign from the party and for me to condemn our party in front of their cameras, condemn the party leader and they wanted me to say all of this in front of a television camera,” Yakubov said. “The Committee for National Security Staff from our Sughd region forced me to literally eat all of the material I published. For more than six hours, they tried to force me to swallow all that paper.”

Yakubov was able to flee Tajikistan, but hundreds of other party members were detained beginning in September 2015, when authorities accused party leaders of organizing a failed coup and declared the group a terrorist organization.

The US and EU should set a timeline for the Tajik government to undertake concrete human rights improvements, and make clear the specific policy consequences that will follow if it does not, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said. These should include targeted, restrictive measures such as visa bans and asset freezes against government officials and entities responsible for grave human rights violations, including torture, and arbitrary arrests.

The OSCE and UN Human Rights Council members should also show their concern about Tajikistan’s human rights crisis.

“Tajikistan’s international partners should publicly and unanimously condemn Tajikistan’s ongoing human rights crackdown,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “As Tajikistan’s human rights situation spirals out of control, the time has come for Washington, Brussels, and other OSCE members to examine the possibility of enacting targeted sanctions unless immediate human rights improvements are made.”