(Athens) – Greece should not extradite, deport, or otherwise facilitate the return of a Tajik opposition activist to Tajikistan, where he faces possible torture or ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said today. Mirzorakhim Kuzov, a senior leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), was detained on October 9, 2017, by Greek police at passport control in Athens International Airport as he was in transit after attending a human rights conference in Warsaw, Poland.
The Tajik government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the country’s leading opposition party, and designated it a terrorist organization in September 2015. Kuzov was detained in Athens under an Interpol “red notice” submitted by Tajik authorities on the basis of politically motivated extremism charges brought in retaliation for his peaceful political opposition. The Tajik government has previously abused the Interpol notice system to target several peaceful political activists, including Muhiddin Kabiri, the party leader.
“It is no secret that Tajikistan has a serious problem with torture and is actively hunting down political opposition figures using Interpol ‘red notices,’” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece has a legal obligation not to return anyone to a country where they could face torture or ill-treatment and should abide by those international commitments.”
In recent years, Tajik authorities have dramatically intensified a crackdown on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. The government has jailed hundreds of political activists, including several human rights lawyers, and closed down opposition parties.
In September 2015, following clashes between government forces and militants associated with Tajikistan’s deputy defense minister, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, authorities arrested dozens of IRPT members, accusing them of involvement in the violence, despite a lack of evidence. In June 2016, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court sentenced 13 party leaders to lengthy prison terms, including life in prison for 2, on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. The sentences followed an unfair trial initiated in retaliation for their peaceful political opposition, and reflect the government’s pervasive manipulation of the justice system and egregious violations of the right to freedom of expression.
Human Rights Watch has interviewed numerous sources who report that various IRPT activists in prison, including Mahmadali Hayit and Rahmatullo Rajab, have been tortured.
Kuzov is being held in Korydalos prison in Athens. He has told Human Rights Watch that he fled Tajikistan in September 2015 fearing arrest after Tajik police and security services began persecuting him and other party members. He had been in hiding in a third country for the last two years, before attending the human rights conference organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Warsaw. In August, Kuzov’s family members were also forced to flee Tajikistan, following nearly two years of continuous harassment and repeated interrogations by Tajik security services.
Tajik authorities have charged Kuzov with various crimes of “extremism” under Tajikistan’s criminal code including “public calls for carrying out extremist activity” (art. 307(1)(2)) and “organizing an extremist community” (art. 307(2)(1)). Authorities routinely invoke article 307 charges in politically motivated cases.
Despite reforms outlawing torture, as defined under international standards, in Tajikistan’s criminal code, torture is an enduring problem in Tajikistan. Police and investigators often use it to coerce confessions, and Human Rights Watch has received many credible reports of people associated with political opposition groups being tortured.
As a party to the Convention against Torture and the European Convention of Human Rights, Greece is obliged to ensure that it does not forcibly send anyone to a place where they face a real risk of persecution, torture, or other inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment.
The European Court of Human Rights has issued a number of rulings that sending anyone back to Tajikistan would be a violation of the European Convention because of the serious risk that the person would be tortured or subject to inhuman and degrading treatment. The court also rejected as unreliable assurances from the Tajik government that it would not subject anyone sent back to prohibited treatment, saying that such assurances did not satisfy the host government’s obligation not to return the individuals to places where they faced such risk. The court has yet to issue any subsequent ruling that circumstances in Tajikistan have substantially changed and that extradition or forcible returns to Tajikistan would not violate the convention.
“Kuzov urgently needs protection,” Swerdlow said. “Greek authorities should make sure they don’t send him back to Tajikistan, where it’s clear he is at serious risk of abuse and wouldn’t get a fair trial.”