Last time the European Union and Tajikistan held high-level talks on human rights in summer 2016, Tajik authorities were in the midst of the worst crackdown in the country’s recent history. Six days before talks took place, the country’s supreme court had sentenced the leaders of Tajikistan’s leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan to cruelly long prison sentences. The trials were politically motivated, and the defendants tortured. There was no evidence of the activists’ involvement in non-peaceful activities.
This Thursday, the human rights dialogue will once again take place in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe. But this year, things are even worse.
More than 150 political activists, including at least three human rights lawyers – Shuhrat Kudratov, Buzurgmehr Yorov, and Nuriddin Makhkamov – remain unjustly jailed. Kudratov, who’s already served three years, was to have been released last year but authorities kept him behind bars. And just last week information surfaced that Yorov – who along with Makhkamov is serving 25 years – has been brutally beaten by prison guards recently and thrown into solitary.
In the past year, Tajik authorities have also subjected the relatives of dissidents in exile to violent retaliation, including arbitrary detention, threats of rape, confiscation of passports and property, and vigilante justice at the hands of sometimes violent mobs. Dushanbe used these tactics of collective punishment just last month to retaliate against activists abroad who took part in a human rights conference set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
There are growing fears that new laws will be adopted to further restrict the activities of local human rights groups, which have already been feeling the heat of the crackdown.
But international outrage, including from the EU, is barely audible.
The EU’s statement following the 2016 talks rightly voiced serious alarm over Tajikistan’s repressive downward spiral, and the European Parliament, the US Commission on Religious Freedom, and the UN expert on Freedom of Expression also flagged their concern.
But it’s had precious little effect, and the EU should use this week’s dialogue to make clear there can be no business as usual. Brussels should set clear and public benchmarks for progress, and warn that Dushanbe’s failure to reform will have serious negative implications for the EU-Tajikistan relationship. Anything short of that would be meaningless.