SEATTLE — Tajikistan is a Central Asian country with a population of approximately 8.5 million people. Recent reports on human rights in Tajikistan show a number of disturbing trends in the past couple of years. Here are, among others, the four most serious human rights concerns that warrant the attention of the U.S. and the global community in order to help people in Tajikistan.
Although opposition political parties exist in Tajikistan, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) dominates the political field and President Emomoli Rahmon has been in power since 1992. The constitutional amendments through May 2016 referendum named him as “Leader of the Nation”, elevating him above the law and legitimizing his indefinite rule.
In Tajikistan according to the law, insulting the president is punishable by a five-year prison sentence. An article contained in the May constitutional amendments banned faith-based political parties from participating in politics. This prevented the leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) that was banned in 2015 from re-entering politics.
Scores of opposition leaders have been put behind bars. Some have fled Tajikistan, continuing their opposition from abroad. The regime has also intimidated or threatened to hurt the relatives of political activists and opposition leaders if they did not stop their activities. Mobs allegedly provoked by government authorities attacked the family members of IRPT and Group 24, an opposition movement led by Tajik citizens living abroad. According to the Freedom House’s annual report on human rights in Tajikistan, President Rahmon “relies on a system of patronage, pliant judicial bodies, the monopolization of the production of information, and the State National Security Committee (GKNB) — the country’s ruthless secret police — to maintain control.”
Censorship of the press
While the constitution guarantees freedom of expression in theory, in reality, Tajikistan’s government continues to curtail freedom of information. Government critics and journalists receive threats from the state intelligence service. The police and security agencies have continually harassed and intimidated journalists for reporting the views of the opposition groups. The state has closed down websites and newspapers that used to publish critical information against it, and has also blocked access to certain social media sites.
According to Amnesty International, “A government decree also required internet providers and telecommunications operators to channel their services through a new single communications center under the state-owned company Tajiktelecom.” Most TV channels or newspapers are state-owned and operate on its whims.
Tajikistan’s government has become increasingly intolerant of religious freedom. It classified the IRPT as a “terrorist organization” in 2015. Critics say this is a tool to crack down on the opposition. Besides this, the government has also interfered in the religious life of the people.
According to a January 2016 BBC report, “Police in Tajikistan’s Khatlon region said that they had shaved the beards of nearly 13,000 men.” Shaving beards is a part of government campaign targeting trends that are perceived alien to the mainstream Tajik culture. It is also part of the State’s anti-radicalization campaign as Tajikistan fears the rise of Salafi radical ideology, and long beards are considered a symbol of radicalism.
The fear of the rise of extremism may be legitimate, as “estimates suggest that between 1,500 and 4,000 Central Asians could have joined different Islamist militant groups in Syria, as of June 2015”, but harassing men for wearing beards as a way to counter radicalization is, at the very least, implausible. The police say that more than 160 shops that sold hijab — a traditional Islamic head-covering scarf for women — have been closed down.
Harassment and imprisonment of lawyers
Another worrying trend of human rights in Tajikistan is the persecution, intimidation and, in some cases, detention and prosecution of lawyers who worked on the case of the 14 IRPT leaders. The Tajikistan government and judiciary have conjured up “legal” ways to criminalize the political activism of defense lawyers.
According to Amnesty International, “In October, the Dushanbe City Court sentenced Buzurgmekhr Yorov and Nuriddin Makhkamov, two lawyers representing several co-defendants in the IRPT case, to 23 and 21 years in prison respectively following an unfair trial.” As most sessions were closed to media and the public, the state found both lawyers guilty of “arousing national, racial, local or religious hostility” among other “serious charges.”
Human rights in Tajikistan have also seen other worrying trends such as domestic violence against women, lack of freedom of association, torture and other ill-treatment and extreme poverty, as more than half of the population live in extreme poverty. Democratic and human rights conditions have changed only for the worse in the recent past. The Freedom House classifies Tajikistan’s government as “a consolidated authoritarian regime.”
Finally, although the country has improved economically under Emomoli, the 64-year old president is determined to further strengthen his grip on power and perhaps pave the way to political succession for his 29-year old son Rustam Emomoli.
– Aslam Kakar