French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Tajikistan Peesident Emomalii Rahmon.

Photos © AP Photo

The last time Tajikistan President Emomalii Rahmon visited France, he shook hands with his then-counterpart Jacques Chirac in Paris. That was 2002. President Rahmon is by far the longest-serving leader in Central Asia and presides over a brutal human rights climate in Tajikistan. This Friday, Emmanuel Macron is set to welcome him back to France.

Beginning in 1992, Rahmon’s decades-long rule over Tajikistan has been marred by a cruel repression, deepening in recent years. Since 2015, when the government banned Tajikistan’s last tolerated opposition party, hundreds of political activists and journalists have been given extremely long prison sentences, following trials that failed to meet minimum standards and were tarnished by allegations of torture.

The imprisonment of Buzurgmher Yorov for 28 years, a lawyer prosecuted in retaliation for his efforts to defend opposition critics, is emblematic of President’s Rahmon strategy to silence dissenting voices. At least 150 opponents are behind bars; many others had no choice but to leave the country.

Those who chose exile have not found safety. Tajik security services are notorious for abusing extradition requests via INTERPOL, the international police organization, to try to get governments to hand over political opponents abroad. In some cases, governments, in violation of their own human rights obligations, forcibly returned critics; in others, critics were simply abducted only to reappear in Tajikistan custody.

Torture in detention is widespread. In the past year alone at least 60 prison inmates died due to two brutal prison riots and supposed food poisoning. In all three incidents, the true circumstances remain unclear and Tajik authorities have refused any inquiry.

Rahmon will certainly ask for France’s political and economic support. But Macron should be true to his principles and publicly call out President Rahmon for his brutal policies. He should press him to release the lawyer Yorov and others whose cases have been raised by United Nations human rights bodies, to stop the harassment of exiled critics and to investigate the massive wave of deaths in detention.

Tajikistan is a country where power is concentrated in the hands of one man. Macron should not miss this opportunity to put President Rahmon on notice that closer ties with France and the EU depend on ending the repression he has orchestrated.