(Berlin) – The government of Moldova should ensure that Tajik opposition activist Sobir Valiev is not extradited or otherwise returned to Tajikistan, where he faces possible torture or ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said today. Sobir Valiev, deputy head of the Congress of Constructive Forces of Tajikistan, a peaceful opposition group, was detained on August 11, 2015, at the request of the Tajik government by Moldovan migration police in the Chisinau airport before boarding a flight to Istanbul. Tajik authorities are pursuing Valiev’s extradition on extremism charges that appear politically motivated and in retaliation for his peaceful political opposition activity.
“It is no secret that Tajikistan has a serious problem with torture and that it is actively hunting down political opposition figures,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia division director at Human Rights Watch. “Moldova has an obligation not to return anyone to a country where he or she could face torture or ill-treatment and should abide by those international commitments.”
Valiev, 27, was also the deputy head of “Group 24,” a Tajik political opposition group headed by Umarali Kuvvatov, who was shot and killed on March 5 in Istanbul. Three Tajiks are on trial in Turkey for his murder. The circumstances of the murder, and previous efforts to detain and abduct Kuvvatov in various countries, support the assertion by “Group 24” that the killers were acting on orders from Tajik authorities.
Tajikistan’s Supreme Court declared “Group 24” an extremist organization in October 2014 following calls by its members to hold a political rally in Dushanbe. Since then authorities have sought to arrest people associated with the group, also seeking the extradition of several “Group 24” members in Russia and Belarus, and sentencing opposition activists in Tajikistan to lengthy prison terms.
Despite reforms to make the criminal code’s definition of torture comply with international standards, torture remains an enduring problem in Tajikistan. Police and investigators often use it to coerce confessions, and Human Rights Watch has received many credible reports of its use on people associated with political opposition groups.
As a party to the Convention against Torture and the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), Moldova is obliged to ensure that no one in its custody is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk being subjected to persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations.
The European Court of Human Rights has issued a number of rulings that sending individuals back to Tajikistan would be a violation of the convention because of the serious risk that the person would be subjected to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment. The court also rejected assurances from the Tajik government that the individuals would not be subject to prohibited treatment as unreliable, saying that such assurances could not be used to satisfy the host government’s obligation not to return the individuals to places where they faced such risk. The court has yet to rule that circumstances have changed and that extradition or forcible returns to Tajikistan would not violate the convention.
Moldova has also made commitments regarding the protection of human rights and the rule of law in the context of its European Union Eastern Partnership process.
Valiev’s relatives told Human Rights Watch that Tajik police and security services began pursuing him and harassing his family members in Dushanbe in 2014 after he began publicly criticizing the Tajik government and calling for democratic reforms via YouTube and other Internet platforms such as Zello radio, a direct-messaging service popular among many Tajiks.
In March 2014, after the killing of Kuvvatov, Valiev became the deputy head of “Group 24.” On March 14, representatives of Tajikistan’s Internal Affairs Ministry tried to summon Valiev for an interrogation, although he was already living outside the country. Within the next few days unidentified people sprayed the word “traitor” on the walls of Valiev’s family home. Fearing further persecution, Valiev’s family members were forced to flee the country shortly thereafter for Turkey.
Valiev’s relatives told Human Rights Watch that in late 2014 and early 2015, Tajikistan’s security services interrogated them on several occasions in Dushanbe, threatening “serious consequences” if Valiev did not return to Tajikistan. At the time, Valiev was living in Kyrgyzstan and frequently traveling to Turkey for business.
Tajik authorities have charged Valiev with “public calls for carrying out extremist activity” (art. 307(1)(2)) and “organizing an extremist community” (art. 307(2)(1)) of Tajikistan’s criminal code, charges they have used in a number of cases that appear politically motivated.
Following an August 14 court hearing in Moldova, Valiev is in a temporary detention facility in Chisinau.
“Valiev urgently needs protection,” Williamson said. “Moldovan 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.”
In the last year, Tajik authorities have dramatically widened a crackdown on the political opposition. In another recent case, on July 24, a Dushanbe court sentenced a peaceful youth activist, Maksud Ibragimov, to 17 years in prison on similar charges for extremism following a deeply flawed trial.
Ibragimov is the leader of the opposition group Tajikistan’s Youth for Revival. He is a Russian citizen, and had lived in Moscow for over 10 years. He was detained in October 2014 on a Tajik extradition request, but then released. In November 2014, unidentified assailants stabbed him six times on a Moscow street.
On January 20, 2015, his relatives reported that police from Moscow’s Preobrazhenskaya district detained him, took him to a police station, and told him to write a witness statement about the stabbing. Witnesses reported that as soon as he left the police station, several unidentified people kidnapped him, drove him to the airport, and forced him onto a plane to Dushanbe, where he was arrested when he landed. Ibragimov told his lawyer later that he had been tortured into telling the Tajik press that he had returned to Tajikistan voluntarily.
In another case, on July 15, Belarusian authorities detained a peaceful Tajik activist, Shabnam Khudoydodova, in the city of Brest, as she was crossing the Russian-Belarusian border. Khudoydodova, a member of “Group 24” who lives in St. Petersburg, had also publicly called for democratic reforms in Tajikistan. After learning on July 12 that Tajik authorities might be preparing to kidnap or forcibly return her to Tajikistan, Khudoydodova fled Russia to Belarus, where she had planned to apply for refugee status with the United Nations refugee agency in Minsk. Tajik authorities have also charged her with extremism and are seeking her extradition.
“Tajikistan’s opposition is under serious attack,” Williamson said. “Dushanbe has no business retaliating against people who are speaking out peacefully, and other governments shouldn’t be complicit in their crackdown or violate their clear cut and absolute obligations under international law.”