Crossroads Asia

No Surprises in Tajikistan: Rights Lawyers Given Long Prison Sentences

Dushanbe has ensured that future targets of the state may not have anyone to defend them.

No Surprises in Tajikistan: Rights Lawyers Given Long Prison Sentences
Credit: Nicholas Raymond

In an entirely expected sentencing, Buzurgmehr Yorov and Nuriddin Mahkamov — two prominent Tajik lawyers — were sentenced on October 6 to 23 and 21 years in prison, respectively, by a court in Dushanbe.

Although both had notable legal careers before their present trouble, they are best known now for defending some of the leaders of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) who were arrested last year in a checkmate move by President Emomali Rahmon to decimate his political opposition. Painting the party as extremists, the Tajik state shut down the region’s only Islamist party and with them, set its own attempts at political plurality aside. Dushanbe’s moves were swift. First, an insidious smear campaign targeted the party’s integrity and position. It involved leaked sex tapes purportedly featuring IRPT members, the arrest of an IRPT member on the election commission, and state-sponsored Imams preaching against the party.

Then, the IRPT was robbed of the two seats it held in the country’s 63-member parliament, from which it espoused the slightest form of dissent, in the deeply flawed March 2015 elections. The IRPT’s head, Muhiddin Kabiri read the writing on the wall and fled the country ahead of the election. Then the ongoing smear campaign against party members intensified. In several regions party members were pressured to quit. The state’s next move, as I wrote at the time, hewed to the letter but not the spirit of the law: shutting down the party because it no longer had a presence in every region.

Then the events of early September: the mutiny of deputy defense minister General Abduhalim Nazarzoda. In the end Dushanbe connected Nazarzoda to the IRPT, thus connecting the IRPT to extremism. By the end of September 2015, the IRPT was banned as an extremist group and its leaders arrested.

Then their lawyers were arrested. I called 2015, rather pithily, Tajikistan’s “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.” 2016 has been similarly bad, seeing the concluding phases of Dushanbe’s campaign. The IRPT leaders were sentenced to long prison terms in June and now their lawyers will follow.

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Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch’s Central Asia researcher got to the heart of why the lawyer’s arrest, conviction and sentencing is so troubling. “Yorov’s and Makhkamov’s sentences strike directly at the independence of the legal profession in the country,” he said.

What lawyer would defend a person accused of extremism if in the simple act of providing legal counsel they may make themselves — and their families and friends — additional targets for the state?

Some may be tempted to declare that accused extremists do not deserve such defense. This reactionary response ignores the fact that the state rarely presents evidence other than its word that the accused are obviously terrorists. One need only look up the purge of the “kulaks” under Stalin to begin to understand that none of this is new. As the Tajik state re-embraces Stalinist style, the people are sure to suffer and Dushanbe has ensured that there will be no one to defend them.