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Events of 2023

Groups protest against the visit of Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and other Central Asian leaders to Berlin, Germany, September 29, 2023.

© 2023 snapshot-photography/FBoillot/Shutterstock

Tajikistan’s repression of independent and critical voices continued in 2023, with hundreds of nongovernmental organizations forced to close, scores of bloggers detained for their opinions on the government’s policies, and religious organizations banned or circumscribed. Several political movements and parties seen as a threat to the government remained banned, including the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and Group 24, with some members of both serving lengthy prison terms or subject to forced returns from abroad.

Authorities continued their crackdown on dissenting voices in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) following violent dispersal of peaceful demonstrations in the region in 2021 and 2022. Tajik officials refused to acknowledge the Pamiri people of Gorno-Badakshan, as a distinct ethnic minority.

Domestic violence against women and girls remains prevalent. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have been targeted and abused by law enforcement.

Civil Society

Following the violent suppression of peaceful protests in GBAO and the continued crackdown on human rights defenders, lawyers, Pamiri activists, and journalists covering the issue, Tajik authorities moved to shut down or nationalize facilities belonging to the Aga Khan Foundation, including NGOs that received funding from the foundation.

In the first half of 2023, Tajik authorities announced the closure of 239 nongovernmental organizations (NGO), following more than 500 closures in 2022, either by court decision or by self-liquidation, following alleged government pressure. At least five of these organizations, including the Pamiri Lawyers’ Association and two youth groups, were closed in May in the Gorno-Badakshan region on suspicion of “links with local criminal groups.”

In January, a district court in Dushanbe issued a ruling liquidating the Independent Center for Human Rights Protection (ICHPR), an organization working on issues deemed sensitive by the government, including housing rights and legal support to journalists and victims of torture, following a Ministry of Justice inspection of the organization’s paperwork. The alleged non-compliance issues included late submission of financial reports and the absence of regional offices stipulated in its governing statute.

In September, Tajik law enforcement detained relatives of members of Group 24, who organized a protest against President Rakhmon during his visit to Germany to meet with Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Freedom of Expression

In June, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court banned the Group 24 website “Novyi Tadjikistan 2” (New Tajikistan 2), deeming it an “extremist” organization, and also banned its authors’ pages on Telegram, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Cooperation with the website is punishable by imprisonment of up to eight years.

A week earlier, the Supreme Court banned “Pamir Daily News,” an online media outlet focusing on news from GBAO, also deeming it an “extremist” organization. The outlet was among the few media organizations to have covered the crackdown in GBAO in 2022.

In March, independent journalized Khurshed Fozilov was detained by Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security under suspicion of “cooperation with banned organizations.” In May, a district court sentenced him to seven years in prison.

In February, Tajik authorities initiated a criminal case against independent journalist and blogger Rustami Joni, who resides in Prague, for allegedly criticizing the authorities’ excessive use of force in GBAO.

Deportations and Extraditions

In January, German authorities deported Abdullohi Shamsiddin, a political activist related to the IRPT, despite their awareness that someone with his profile would likely be detained and possibly tortured if returned. In March, Shamsiddin was convicted on charges of “public calls to violent change of the constitutional order of Tajikistan” and sentenced to seven years in prison.

In August, Belarus authorities extradited Nizomiddin Nasriddinov, a member of Group 24, after detaining him in January. Tajik authorities had placed Nasriddinov on an international wanted list in 2017 for his public criticism of Tajikistan’s president and government.

In July and September, two Turkish citizens with permanent residency in Tajikistan, Emsal Koc and Kural Voral, were abducted by Tajik police officers and extradited to Turkey against their will. Both had lived and worked in Tajikistan for nearly 30 years as teachers at Turkish schools affiliated with the movement led by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. Koc was to receive his Tajik passport in 2025 and Vural was awaiting the outcome of his application with the United Nations to be resettled in a third country.

Political Prisoners, Torture, and Ill-Treatment

To date, 205 GBAO residents have been sentenced to various terms of imprisonment following closed trials in relation to peaceful protests in the region in 2021 and 2022. Eleven people received life imprisonment sentences, 85 received terms of 10-29 years, and 53 received terms of 1.5-9 years. At least 20 human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists critical of the government’s actions in GBAO in 2022 were imprisoned and serving lengthy sentences at time of writing. Many have complained to their relatives about torture and ill-treatment.

In July, the Vakhdat city court added an extra 10 years to the existing 21-year sentence of Buzurgmehr Yorov, a lawyer who, prior to his imprisonment in 2015, had represented members of the banned IRPT. The trial was conducted behind closed doors without legal representation for Yorov.

Leaders and members of the IRPT previously sentenced to long or life sentences remain behind bars despite continued international calls for their release.

Freedom of Religion

In January, members of the Ismaili community, a Shia branch of Islam prevalent in GBAO, were banned from holding joint prayers in private homes, and Ismaili centers were banned from conducting religious educational activities for children between the ages of 7 and 18, in circumvention of the law on parental responsibility, which allows such instruction with written parental consent.

In August, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses against a previous ban on the organization that categorized it as extremist, despite a 2022 UN Human Rights Committee opinion that such a ban violated international human rights law. The text of the Supreme Court decision has not been made available to the organization.

Violence against Women and Girls

Domestic violence remains largely unaddressed, with authorities failing to implement effectively a 2013 law on the prevention of violence in the family. The Tajik Committee on Women and Family Affairs reported that in the first half of 2023, its resource center received 1,075 complaints alleging domestic violence. Social stigma, economic dependence, impunity for perpetrators, and an insufficient number of shelters hinder survivors’ access to help, especially women with disabilities and women in rural areas.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

In May police officers arbitrarily detained at least 8 LGBT activists, confiscated their mobile phones, and verbally and physically abused them. Authorities copied data from their phones and invited other LGBT people in their contact lists to “meetings.” One of the detainees, a person living with HIV, was threatened with initiation of a criminal investigation under article 125 of the Criminal Code for “Infecting (others) with HIV,” which carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment. An NGO that provides legal support to LGBT people was approached by the police and told it should not keep defending the activists.

Conflict at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Border

Following the border conflict in September 2022 between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan forces in which at least 37 civilians were killed, including 5 children, bilateral relations remained tense. Negotiations did continue in 2023 on demarcation and other border-related issues. Both countries committed apparent war crimes in the conflict, leading to the deaths of civilians and widespread destruction of civilian property, as documented in a Human Rights Watch report published in May. In May, both governments committed to end the use of military drones, which had contributed to civilian deaths, to patrol the border.

Key International Actors

In December 2022, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, noted in her end-of-mission statement the climate of fear within Tajikistan’s civil society and called for the release of all imprisoned human rights defenders.

In April, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Nazila Ghanea, stated at the end of her visit to Tajikistan that the scope for free exercise of religion in the country fell short of Tajikistan’s international human rights commitments and urged Tajikistan to reshape its laws.

In July, several UN experts called on the government to release human rights defenders and journalists convicted on extremism charges connected to the 2022 GBAO events, expressing concern over the apparent use of anti-terrorism legislation to silence critical voices.

In September, President Rakhmon, jointly with the four other Central Asian leaders, met with United States President Joe Biden and separately with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. After the US meeting the six presidents issued a statement including a commitment to uphold human rights. In June, the Central Asian presidents met with European Council President Charles Michel for the second year in a row. In a joint communique after the meeting, the leaders stressed the importance of cooperation to strengthen the rule of law, democracy, good governance, gender equality, and universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, as outlined in the framework of the European Union Strategy on Central Asia of 2019.

In October, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, expressed in his end-of-mission statement particular concern regarding the rights of the Pamiri community in GBAO, including access to education in their mother tongue, freedom of religion, and political representation.

Tajikistan opened negotiations with the EU on an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that emphasizes democratic development and fundamental rights. Tajikistan also applied for the EU’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences trade benefits (GSP+) that requires implementation of 27 core international conventions related to labor rights, human rights, environmental and climate protection, and good governance.

Tajikistan has not endorsed the global Safe Schools Declaration.