Buzurgmehr Yorov’s crime is his profession. The well-known human rights lawyer took on the case of the 17 Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) leaders facing extremism charges last fall and shortly thereafter was arrested on fraud charges. According to Human Rights Watch, Yorov is one of five lawyers who have been arrested since 2014 in Tajikistan; others have been threatened by the government because of their work.
Just as Tajikistan has systematically moved to crush political opposition and silence media, the government has pursued charges against lawyers defending those accused of crimes by the state.
Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, categorized this campaign as “a feature of encroaching authoritarianism” across the region.
Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have called on the government of Tajikistan to immediately release four detained human rights lawyers and the two sons of another lawyer. The two groups say the men have all been detained on politically motivated charges and targeted because of their client lists or their family relations. The human rights organizations are hopeful that these cases and others will be raised by countries participating in the May 6 review of Tajikistan’s human rights record by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“There has to be a pushback more from Washington and Europe,” Swerdlow told The Diplomat, citing increased pressure on Azerbaijan leading to the release of some political prisoners as an example of what needs to happen with regard to Tajikistan.
Two of the lawyers cited in the Human Rights Watch report, Shukhrat Kudratov and Fakhriddin Zokirov, defended Zaid Saidov, a businessman and would-be presidential candidate who has been serving a 26-year term since 2013 (plus three additional years tacked on last August). Zokirov was arrested in March 2014 and released in November 2014 after publicly saying he would no longer represent Saidov. He was arrested again in August 2015 and released in November after paying a $2,000 fine.
Kudratov, who had also previously defended Asia-Plus, an independent Tajik news outlet that has faced defamation charges from the government on several occasions, was sentenced to nine years (later reduced to three years and eight months) in January 2015 on fraud charges.
Buzurgmehr Yorov and two of his colleagues–Nuriddin Makhkamov and Dilbar Dodojonova–have been targeted for representing IRPT members. Yorov’s arrest last year coincided with his taking up of the IRPT case.
This campaign has “cut the legs out from under the legal profession,” Swerdlow says, and it “is very much ongoing.” Relatives of IRPT members and lawyers have faced increased pressure from the authorities. In December, when the party’s exiled leader Muhiddin Kabiri spoke via Skype at an event in Washington DC, ten members of his family in Tajikistan were detained–including his 95-year old father.
In the recently-released annual U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report, which recommends “countries of particular concern” to the U.S. State Department, there is an appendix dedicated to simply listing prisoners in Tajikistan, ostensibly those detained on charges related to religion. There are 112 names on the list, the majority of them IRPT party members arrested in last fall’s sweep–as many as 200 party members are believed to have been detained.
As I wrote in March (when the sons of Ishoq Tabarov, another prominent lawyer, were arrested), Dushanbe’s campaign against lawyers who take politically sensitive cases makes it increasingly difficult for those accused of serious crimes to obtain adequate legal representation:
Tajikistan may eventually run out of lawyers willing to risk representing political opposition members in court. And thanks to legislation passed in November, requiring lawyers to renew their licenses every 5 years with the Justice Ministry, it won’t require a criminal conviction to drive them out of the profession.
Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee point out that the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers states that they “shall not be identified with their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions,” and that they must be able “to perform all their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.”
Human rights lawyers are among the only non-government employees present for closed-door trials like that of the IRPT leaders. Tuesday, RFE/RL’s Tajik service reported that the representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, and journalists were not allowed to enter the hall for the beginning of Yorov’s trial. The U.S. Embassy did not respond to a request for comment to confirm what happened, but the blockage is not surprising or atypical. The IRPT trial–which began in February–has been closed as well.
“Many of these cases,” Swerdlow told The Diplomat, “are subject to gag orders” that prohibit lawyers from speaking to media. This further prevents the outside world from scrutinizing the charges levied or the evidence presented.
As Dushanbe works to hush political opposition, control the practice of Islam, and strip away support networks by preventing lawyers from defending those arrested and harassing the families of inconvenient individuals, the country slides further into economic turmoil. Swerdlow sees the designation of Tajikistan as a “country of particular concern” by the U.S. State Department as significant, even though sanctions were waived. The designation–after three years in which USCIRF recommended it–was nonetheless an acknowledgement that Washington sees what is happening in the country. And as they say: see something, say something.