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(Bishkek) – Tajikistan’s security services have taken new actions against relatives of at least three political activists abroad who engage in peaceful criticism of the government, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today. 

Tajik security services have arbitrarily detained, interrogated, and seized the property of family members, and in one case badly beat and ill-treated a relative who is currently imprisoned on politically motivated charges. The United States, the European Union, and other key international actors should make unequivocal calls for the Tajik government to stop retaliating against relatives of perceived government critics, the groups said.

“Tajikistan’s intimidation of individuals for a family member’s peaceful political activity is as shameful as it is inexcusable,” said Marius Fossum, Norwegian Helsinki Committee regional representative in Central Asia. “Tajik authorities should immediately stop the arbitrary seizure of property and all other acts of retaliation.”

Tajik political activists protesting at meeting between Tajikistan's president Emomali Rahmon and Czech president Milos Zeman, December 1, Prague.  Courtesy of Group 24.

Tajikistan’s government is pursuing its most intense human rights crackdown in 20 years, with the banning of the country’s main opposition party, the systematic jailing of political opponents, and harassment of journalists and nongovernmental organizations. Authorities have targeted the country’s independent legal profession, imprisoning at least six lawyers. Retaliation and collective punishment against the relatives of perceived government critics in and outside the country has been a constant feature of the crackdown.

Recent actions against family members include:

Shukhrati Rahmatullo

Shukhrati Rahmatullo is a well-known journalist with the opposition TV station, based outside of the country. He regularly reports on political developments inside Tajikistan, including critical reports on government repression.

Credible sources told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that in early December prison staff retaliated against his father, Rahmatulloi Rajab, a senior leader of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), who was sentenced to 28 years in prison in June following an unfair trial. Prison authorities placed him in solitary confinement and badly beat him, telling him that the beating was because of his son’s reporting and that “if your son stays quiet, we will stop.”

Tajik security services also summoned Rahmatulloi Rajab’s wife in Dushanbe for several days of interrogation in December, warning that her son should immediately stop his journalistic work. She has not been allowed to bring her husband food packages or visit with him for several weeks. Shukhrat told Human Rights Watch he has received numerous death threats in recent weeks. One person wrote in the comments page on YouTube, where Rahmatullo’s news program is shown, that “we will find your newsroom office and kill you. You will not last long!”

Vaisiddin Odinaev 

On December 1, Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, arrived in Prague for an official visit with Czech president Milos Zeman. As Rahmon’s delegation arrived to the Prague castle, several peaceful Tajik protesters, including Vaisiddin Odinaev, a political activist, chanted that Rahmon is a dictator and held up signs that read “Rahmonov! Don’t Run from the People!”

The protesters said that several Tajik security personnel dressed in civilian clothing approached them and attempted to stop their protest, shouting “We will kill you right here!”

At about 11 a.m. on December 6, Tajik security service officers took Odinaev’s 75-year-old grandfather, Kudrat Oev in Hissar, to the Shahrinav district police station and interrogated him for five hours about his grandson’s opposition activities. When the grandfather asked why police would detain a 75-year-old man who has not seen his grandson in many years, the police replied “say thank you to Vaisiddin for your detention!” Vaisiddin is the brother of Ehson Odinaev, a Tajik independent blogger and opposition activist who went missing in St. Petersburg, Russia, on May 20, 2015, after Tajik authorities subjected him to surveillance and declared him wanted on charges of unspecified “cybercrimes,” registering his case with Interpol. 

Ilhomjon Yakubov

Authorities have repeatedly persecuted the relatives of Ilhomjon Yakubov, a prominent IRPT member, since his participation in an intergovernmental conference about human rights and fundamental freedoms in Warsaw, Poland in September. Yakubov appeared in a video titled “Tajikistan: Hunting Critics at Home and Abroad,” which was shown at the annual Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) Warsaw conference.

In the two months since, several of Yakubov’s relatives were forced to flee Tajikistan. Security services in Sughd, Tajikistan’s northern region, have confiscated his relatives’ homes as punishment, and his older brother is missing, sources close to the Yakubov family told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

On September 20, after Yakubov and several dozen other IRPT and opposition movement Group 24 members peacefully protested at the Warsaw conference, Tajik security services summoned for questioning and detained up to 30 relatives of the protesters in cities across Tajikistan. Yakubov’s mother, brother, and sister were detained and threatened overnight. 

Between September 22 and 27, incidents of harassment continued, with mobs of up to 200 people appearing outside his relatives’ homes in Khujand. The mobs chanted that Yakubov was an “enemy of the people”, “traitor”, and “terrorist”, threw rocks at his sister’s and mother’s homes, and twice attempted to force their way into the families’ homes. On September 26, security service officers warned family members that their property would be confiscated unless Yakubov immediately returned to Tajikistan.

Yakubov’s mother and sister soon fled the country. Yakubov’s older brother, Farrukh Yakubov, was not able to leave because his passport had expired. Relatives report last seeing him sometime between October 10 and 12. The family fears he may have been detained and forcibly disappeared.

Shortly after Yakubov’s mother and sister fled Tajikistan, a group of more than seven men broke into the apartment where Yakubov had lived before he left the country a year before. Witnesses said that the men identified themselves as security service officials, said they had come to confiscate the property, stole numerous valuables, and seized and sealed off the property. The security service also seized and sealed off the homes of Yakubov’s mother and sister. 

Yakubov has received death threats by phone and via social networking sites, including from one person who said that “they” would find and kill Yakubov in Europe.

The US, EU, and other key international actors should press the Tajik government to end these abuses and uphold its international obligations to respect freedom of association, assembly, expression, and religion. They should be willing to impose targeted punitive measures, such as asset freezes and visa bans, on Tajik government officials responsible for arbitrary imprisoning peaceful activists, torture, and other grave human rights violations.

“A pattern of violent retaliation against family members of dissidents seems to be one of the government’s preferred tactics,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Washington, Brussels, and Tajikistan’s other international partners should publicly and privately press Tajikistan to end the abuse.”

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