(Berlin) – The Tajikistan authorities should immediately restore full internet connectivity in the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO), Human Rights Watch said today. Internet access was cut on November 25, 2021, following large protests over the killing of a local man in the capital, Khorog.
Tajikistan should also immediately disclose where Amriddin Alovatshoev is being detained and allow a lawyer of his choosing immediate access to him. Alovatshoev, a migrant leader from the eastern Tajikistan region, known by its Russian acronym GBAO, was forcibly disappeared and returned to Tajikistan from Russia sometime in the last month.
“Closing down communication in the GBAO region not only violates the right to freedom of expression but is making life difficult and even dangerous for the whole population,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Tajik authorities should restore access to the internet without any further delays.”
The central Tajik authorities shut down access to both mobile data and most fixed-line internet access in Khorog, as soon as protests erupted on November 25 over the fatal shooting of a local man as he was being arrested. The man, Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, was wanted in connection with an alleged assault on a public official in early 2020. Access to the internet was cut off later in the rest of the region.
A spontaneous rally of several thousand people protesting Ziyobekov’s killing spilled into violence as government forces used live fire to disperse the crowd, fatally wounding two people. Several law enforcement officers are also reported to have been wounded.
The protesters agreed to disperse on the fourth day of rallies after an independent 44-person commission was established to investigate the deaths of Ziyobekov and the two protesters. It has become known as “Commission 44.” The government said it would not prosecute protesters and would restore internet connectivity, but two months on, it has not. Internet connectivity in Khorog is currently only available to employees on the premises of some government institutions, including the police, and the banks.
The shutdown comes amid wider political uncertainty in the region, home to the Pamiris, an ethnically and religiously distinct minority in Tajikistan.
Alovatshoev, who had been living in Russia, is alleged to have helped organize a picket outside the Tajik embassy in Moscow in November concerning the killings and protests in Khorog. His family said they have not heard from him since January 11, 2022, when he was detained by Russian law enforcement.
His whereabouts and situation were not revealed until Tajikistan’s prosecutor general said on February 2 that Alovatshoev was in pretrial detention in Tajikistan facing unspecified criminal charges. Neither Russia nor Tajikistan has accounted for his three weeks in detention between January 11 and February 2, and where he is being detained and under what conditions is still unclear. Tajikistan has repeatedly sought to extradite people it sees as political opponents back to Tajikistan as a means of halting their activism.
Concealing information about Alovatshoev’s detention makes his deprivation of liberty for three weeks an enforced disappearance a very serious violation of international law prohibited in all circumstances.
It is vital that Alovatshoev enjoys the full protection of the law, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should immediately ensure and verify that Alovatshoev has access to a lawyer of his own choosing, has been brought before an independent court to determine the legality of his detention, and is receiving his full due process rights, including contact with his family and medical treatment. He should be released pending a fair trial on any credible charges and provided with redress for the violation of his rights as a result of his forced removal to Tajikistan.
The internet shutdown has disrupted people’s lives throughout the region, interfering with the functioning of health and educational institutions, and other parts of society. According to media reports, the internet shutdown has already had negative consequences for the economy, trade, and mobility of the region’s residents. Many are forced to travel hundreds of kilometers to send or receive information, make bank transactions, or apply for educational programs.
The shutdown has also interfered with the work of the investigative “Commission 44,” in particular with its ability to be transparent about its work and progress and receive information from interested parties. Commission members also report that, in order to exchange information or to send video messages to counterparts, they have to save all data physically on a USB drive and dispatch it to Dushanbe.
An alliance of national and international organizations published a statement on January 26, calling on the Tajik government to respect the people’s right of access to information by immediately restoring internet connection in the whole of GBAO. The groups noted that this is the latest in a series of internet blockages during times of crisis and unrest in Tajikistan in recent years.
In December in an article on AsiaPlus.TJ the authorities were quoted as justifying the shutdown to prevent outside interference using the internet to escalate tensions. At a news conference on January 31, Ilkhomjon Atoyev, the deputy head of the Tajik State Communication Service, which is responsible for access to internet and mobile data, said that the agency was concerned for the information security of the state, society, and Tajik people. He did not explain what those risks might be.
Under Tajik law, government agencies may impose partial or full limits on access to the internet during situations of crisis, such as military or anti-terrorist actions and natural disasters. The authorities have not provided any justifications or made reference to this law in the current blockage.
Under international law, governments can only impose restrictions on online information if they are provided for in law, are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific threat, and are in the public interest. Officials should never use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to stop the flow of information or hamper people’s ability to express political views.
UN bodies and human rights experts have repeatedly condemned measures to prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online and said that countries should refrain from such measures.
“The internet shutdown that continues to limit access to information for people in GBAO has already had detrimental impacts on the livelihood of the whole region,” Sultanalieva said. “The authorities should immediately lift all restrictions on access to the internet and facilitate the unhindered flow of information.”