Nasimjon Sharipov

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(Bishkek) – Two detained Tajik activists face deportation to Tajikistan, where they are at risk of possible torture or ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today.

Turkish police detained Suhrob Zafar and Nasimjon Sharipov, senior members of the Tajik opposition political movement Group 24, in Istanbul on March 19, 2018, at the request of Tajik authorities. The Turkish authorities should immediately release them.

“The widespread torture and politically motivated imprisonment in Tajikistan are well documented,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Given the grounds on which Tajik authorities are seeking their extradition, Turkey should be protecting these people from return to torture, not facilitating it.”

Zafar and Sharipov have both lived in Turkey for the past four years. The Tajik Interior Ministry spokesman Umarjon Emomali told Radio Ozodi, the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe, on April 10 that Tajikistan is in talks with Turkey on the men’s extradition. Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have received credible accounts that several imprisoned political activists in Tajikistan, including Mahmadali Hayit and Rahmatullo Rajab, have been tortured in prison.

The Tajik government has carried out a severe human rights crackdown over the past three years, with hundreds of political activists imprisoned, including several human rights lawyers, and opposition parties banned. Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have documented a wide-ranging campaign by Tajik authorities to detain, imprison, and silence peaceful opposition activists and perceived critics at home and abroad. Since 2015, Dushanbe has sought the detention and forcible return to Tajikistan of peaceful political activists in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere.

The Tajik government banned Group 24 and designated it a terrorist organization in October 2014, following calls by the group’s then-leader Umarali Kuvvatov for peaceful demonstrations in Dushanbe. Group 24 drew much of its support from Tajik migrants who live in Russia, Turkey, and other countries outside of Tajikistan. In March 2015, Kuvvatov was shot dead in Istanbul with suspected involvement of the Tajik government.

A Group 24 activist, Maksud Ibragimov, was stabbed, forcibly disappeared in Russia, and returned to Tajikistan in January 2015, and later prosecuted and sentenced to 17 years in prison. In May 2015, another Group 24 activist, Ehson Odinaev, disappeared in St. Petersburg, Russia, following repeated attempts by Tajik authorities to detain and forcibly return him to Tajikistan. His whereabouts are still unknown. In May 2017, Tajikistan extradited another member of the group, Abdurakhim Vosiev, from Russia. Vosiev later was sentenced to 23 years in prison on trumped-up extremism charges.

Tajik authorities have also abused the Interpol notice system to target several peaceful political activists abroad, including Muhiddin Kabiri, the head of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Interpol announced in February it had removed Kabiri from the system of “red notices.” The human rights group Fair Trials, which helped Kabiri contact Interpol, said the relatively swift resolution of his case was a result of the international police body’s reforms to prevent abuse of its system. Tajik authorities have also issued a “red notice” for at least one of the two detained activists, Zafar.

“It’s difficult to imagine what more information Turkish authorities need to be persuaded of the dire risk of abuse Zafar and Sharipov face in Tajikistan,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “Now they need to do what’s right, and what the law prescribes – to free and protect them, and not return them to Tajikistan.”

On February 16, Tajik consular officials in Istanbul also took custody of Namunjon Sharipov (no relation to Nasimjon Sharipov), a well-known businessman and member of the banned IRPT, from an Istanbul detention facility where he had been held for 11 days. They drove him to the airport and forced him on a plane to Tajikistan, where he faces terrorism charges for peacefully exercising his freedom of expression. Sharipov ran a successful business in Turkey and lived there with his family before Tajik officials asked the Turkish police to detain him.

Suhrob Zafar, year unknown 

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On February 20, Sharipov resurfaced in Dushanbe and called Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service and made a statement that he had “returned voluntarily” to the country, was “freely going about his affairs,” and denied reports that he had been forcibly returned. But Sharipov’s relatives in Tajikistan reported to his lawyer and activists outside the country that Sharipov was forced to make the statement under duress. On several previous occasions, Tajik activists who have been forcibly returned to the country have been forced to make such statements to the media.

Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and party to the European Convention on Human Rights, and any involvement of, or acquiescence by, state agents in the extrajudicial transfer of Zafar and Sharipov to Tajikistan is a serious violation of the convention.

Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have also learned of the recent detentions of at least two other Tajik political activists in Russia at the request of Tajik authorities. Russian police in Moscow detained an Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan activist, Hisom Zubaydullozoda, on February 2. They also detained a Group 24 member, Zulfikakhor Holov, on April 11. Both face possible extradition to Tajikistan on charges of extremism.

In cases involving unlawful removal of people from Russia, the European Court of Human Rights has warned that “any extra-judicial transfer or extraordinary rendition, by its deliberate circumvention of due process, is an absolute negation of the rule of law and the values protected by the Convention. It therefore amounts to a violation of the most basic rights guaranteed by the Convention.”