Human Rights Developments
After several years of slow improvement on the human rights front, renewed fighting between government and opposition forces, violent attacks on returnees and some minorities and political activists, and a series of apparently politically motivated assassinations made 1996 the worst year in Tajikistan since the end of its bloody civil war in 1992. The sporadic fighting that broke out in October 1995 generated a new wave of displaced persons, raising the number of internally displaced persons within Tajikistan to some 20,000 by late September, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Tajikistan Central Refugee Department. The fighting also raised tensions throughout the country that hampered general human rights protection in other spheres of life.
The peace settlement process remained largely deadlocked, resulting in bleak prospects for the full and safe repatriation of the tens of thousands of individuals forced from their homes during the war. The renewed warfare centered around Tavil-Dara, about 150 kilometers east of Dushanbe, along a strategically important road that connects it with the buffer area between government- and opposition-held territories, and in Kurgan-Tiube, Komsomolobad and Gharm regions. Since there was little independently confirmed information emanating from the conflict zone, the true picture of the nature and scope of violations of the laws of war during the hostilities remained unclear. Reports, however, were disturbing. A February 8 ITAR-TASS report, for example, asserted that opposition forces had used government prisoners of war as human shields. Displaced persons feared return even after the hostilities subsided because the Tavil-Dara area had been heavily mined.
It was clear that the violations of the 1994 cease-fire created a serious humanitarian crisis for the civilian population. The U.N.-sponsored peace negotiation process extended the cease-fire agreements between the government and the United Tajik Opposition and elaborated on such issues as prisoner exchanges. However, the exchange set to take place before August 20 did not take place, and hostilities continued in blatant violation of the cease-fire.
Safe repatriation of the remaining approximately 19,000 Tajiks in northern Afghanistan (according to UNHCR figures from October) was impeded not only because of retribution against them upon return but because refugees in opposition camps in Konduz and Takhar were intimidated by camp leaders into staying on. Moreover, the UNHCR undertook measures to coerce the remaining 7,000 refugees in Sakhi camp near Mazar-I-Sharif in northern Afghanistan to leave prematurely by cutting their food and fuel rations to below generally accepted levels. Returnees, and regional minorities such as the Gharmis and Badakhshanis, faced harassment by neighbors and even law-enforcement officials, notably in Khotlon province, and the government was generally unwilling to safeguard their rights or prosecute the abuses.
High-profile assassinations in and around the capital kept the country in the grip of political terror in 1996, severely hampering free speech. The sluggish response or complete inaction of the police further eroded faith in law enforcement; as of this writing, for example, only one of the murders resulted in apprehension of a suspect. Among the most influential shooting victims were Muhiddin Olimpur, a BBC war correspondent (whose body was found on December 13, 1995); Fatkhullo Sharifzoda, the state mufti, and his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and one other (January 21, 1996); Russian Public TV (ORT) journalist Viktor Nikulin (March 28), the twenty-ninth journalist to be killed in Tajikistan since 1992; the elderly rector of Dushanbe Medical School Yusuf Iskhaki (May 6); Mohammed Osimi, former president of Tajikistan=s Academy of Sciences (July 29); and Mahmud Idiev, head of administration of Tajikabad District (August 1). The abduction of the opposition=s representative to the U.N. talks, Zafar Rakhmonov, on February 24, symbolized the political lawlessness that reigned in 1996.
The government continued an ambiguous policy toward political dissidents in 1996. On January 12, President Imomali Rakhmonov granted pardons to three opposition figures his government had once imprisoned: Oinyhol Bobonazarova, Shodmon Yusuf, and Bozor Sobir. At the same time, the government attempted to extradite dissidents from Moscow on politically motivated charges. Mirzo Salimov, a journalist for the dissident Tajik newspaper Charogi Ruz (Dushanbe), was arrested on October 13 for insulting the president; and former presidential contender Davlat Khudonazarov was detained briefly in July. Both were released under public pressure, and the treason charges that had hung over Khudonazarov since 1992 reportedly were dropped.
Authorities in the northern province of Leninabod, in particular, repressed civil rights through police abuse. Police dispersed a disorderly crowd in Ura-Tiube on May 14, resulting in five deaths; they also severely beat Ikhromjon Ashurov, who had spoken at a rally in the regional capital, Khojent, breaking several of his ribs, and arrested him for Abanditry.@
The Right to Monitor
Monitoring by local residents was extremely limited in 1996. U.N. military observers were at times denied access to the conflict zone by government soldiers. Fear of retaliation against individuals who reported violations to UNMOT (U.N. Mission of Observers in Tajikistan) or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) greatly limited the ability of Tajiks to enjoy the protection of even these foreign bodies. Throughout 1996, UNMOT observers were robbed, shot at, and prevented from gathering information on the fighting. UNHCR access to camps in Konduz and Tokhar in northern Afghanistan was limited. The International Committee of the Red Cross was denied access to the troubled Tavil-Dara region from April to September.
The Role of the International Community
The presence of UNMOT, with its forty-four military observers, continued to help deter abuse. The 25,000 CIS (Russian) troops, which largely protect Tajikistan=s borders and military objects, played a more ambiguous role: both target of attacks and non-neutral participant in operations in Kurgan-Tiube, Tursun Zade, and Tavil-Dara. (The Russian government denied allegations of the latter). The UNHCR and OSCE monitored violations on the ground and conducted some important interventions. However, no international body consistently protested or was able to secure prosecution of human rights violators, and all continued to play primarily a reactive rather than preventative role. The IMF and World Bank squandered their considerable influence by approving $22 million and $60 million, respectively, without conditioning the credits on improvements in human rights practices.
The United Nations
The U.N.=s diplomatic and refugee protection work was generally disappointing in 1996. The U.N. extended the mandate of the ninety-four-member UNMOT through December 15, 1996, but was impeded by the government and the opposition from carrying out its full mandate. It also failed to secure meaningful progress at the negotiating table, looking on helplessly as fighting erupted again in violation of freshly signed extensions of the cease-fire agreement. Most alarming was the UNHCR/Afghanistan=s actively abusive role in attempting to coerce the premature repatriation of refugees at its Sakhi camp in northern Afghanistan through reduction of survival rations, a violation of its own policy of voluntary repatriation. UNHCR/Dushanbe took inadequate measures to follow up on the welfare of returnees in Dushanbe.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki is concerned that the UNHCR effectively handed over its protection function inside Tajikistan, except in Dushanbe, to the OSCE before conditions of return reached a level of stability adequate to permit the less experienced organization to undertake successfully the protection of the returnees. The OSCE was unable to maintain all of the UNHCR=s field offices, thereby reducing the international community=s capacity to offer protection to returnees on the ground. The UNHCR also failed to respond to serious charges leveled in a May Human Rights Watch/Helsinki report.
In addition to implementing its new protection mandate, the OSCE mission, operational in Tajikistan since early 1994, continued important monitoring of human rights abuse. However, it was slow in fielding a full staff, reducing its efficacy. At OSCE initiative, the German government financed the establishment of a governmental civil rights institute in 1996. In March, the OSCE also agreed in principle to sponsor a human rights mission in Tajikistan, although as of this writing it had not materialized. Disturbingly, the OSCE agreed that mission staff be appointed by the government, thus intrinsically jeopardizing the ability of the staff to be impartial in a highly divisive conflict.