(Bishkek) – Tajik border guards on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border on May 14, 2017, prevented a prominent human rights lawyer from leaving the country, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today. Tajik authorities should immediately rescind the ban on Fayzinisso Vohidova and immediately and unconditionally release three other human rights lawyers imprisoned or detained on politically motivated charges.
Border guards with the State Committee on State Security at the Auchi-Kalyacha border post stopped Vohidova as she sought to travel to Kyrgyzstan. They detained her for eight hours, stating there was a “defect” in her passport and that she “had no right to leave Tajikistan.” In the weeks preceding her stop, Tajik security services interrogated Vohidova several times. She had made critical remarks about the government’s imprisonment of Buzurgmehr Yorov, a human rights lawyer who was sentenced to 25 years following a prosecution and trial that appeared politically motivated.
“Tajik authorities are blatantly violating Vohidova’s right to freedom of movement,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This appears to be part of a pattern to keep critical voices, including Tajikistan’s independent lawyers, from spreading information about the ongoing and severe political crackdown in the country.”
Vohidova, a Khujand-based lawyer known for her human rights and criminal defense work, has long been the target of government harassment and intimidation for taking on politically sensitive cases. When she was stopped at the border, the guards initially asserted that there was a problem with the stamp on her passport before conceding that Vohidova had been put on a list of people banned from leaving the country. There is no avenue for citizens to appeal a travel ban.
Arbitrary bans on travel, including to leave one’s own country, violate article 12(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees everyone the right to leave any country. Tajikistan became a party to the ICCPR in 1999.
In April, Vohidova made a public appeal to President Emomali Rahmon on Facebook, criticizing the government’s imprisonment of Yorov and of Nuriddin Makhkamov, another independent lawyer. The two were first arrested in September 2015, days after saying they would provide legal representation to members of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).
Yorov and Makhkamov were sentenced in October 2016 to 23 and 21 years, respectively, on politically motivated charges of inciting social unrest and issuing public calls for the overthrow of the government. Prosecutors later successfully added two years to Yorov’s sentence, charging him with insulting a government official, for citing a stanza of the 11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam during his own trial. An approximate translation, available on RFE/RL, reads:
With these ignorant few who foolishly
Consider themselves the intelligent ones of the world
Should be donkeys, because they are so deep in donkeyness
That they call "blasphemous" whomever is not a donkey
Tajikistan’s Prosecutor General’s office brought new charges against Yorov in March 2017 for “insulting the president.” The charges refer to an interview Yorov gave to an independent news website Payom.net, in which he stated that the laws under which he worked as an attorney were signed by Rahmon. Therefore, the president would be the appropriate party to whom any accusations of corruption should be made. Yorov faces up to five additional years if convicted on these charges. He had no legal representation during most of the trial on the new charges.
Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have repeatedly labeled Yorov and Makhkamov’s prison terms arbitrary and said that Tajik authorities should immediately and unconditionally release them. A third lawyer, Shukhrat Kudratov, has been in prison since January 2015 after he acted as the legal representative of an imprisoned opposition figure, Zayd Saidov. Authorities had publicly announced that Kudratov would be released in an amnesty in late 2016, but he remains behind bars.
Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee believe there is a pattern of Tajik security services placing travel bans on perceived government critics and the relatives of dissidents abroad, including by confiscating their passports. On March 8, 2017, border guards in the Kulob airport removed Hafizamo Gadoeva, sister of an exiled opposition figure, Sharofiddin Gadoev, from her Moscow-bound flight. Authorities told her that she and her children had been banned from leaving the country because of her brother’s opposition activity.
On December 29 and 30, 2016, Tajik security services in Kulob, Dushanbe, and the Vakhsh district of the southern Khatlon region detained relatives, including children, of at least two dissidents living outside of Tajikistan, confiscating passports and accusing the dissidents of being “extremists.”
“Tajik authorities have jailed dissidents and lawyers in the past two years and are now turning the country’s own borders into de facto prison walls,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “The total lack of checks on the power of the State Committee for National Security leaves citizens without recourse.”