In a new report, Amnesty International hopes to draw attention to the Tajik government’s assault on the legal profession in the country. The state has pursued a variety of pathways that converge on the diminishing of a profession dedicated to standing on behalf of the accused.
“To be a lawyer, and particularly a human rights lawyer, comes with unprecedented risks in present-day Tajikistan,” the report notes.
Dushanbe’s crusade against lawyers has two components. First, the direct prosecution of lawyers and second, the changing of laws to limit lawyers’ independence.
This endeavor initially focused on lawyers who have defended troublesome opposition politicians or members of the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party. A number of prominent human rights lawyers — such as Shukhrat Kudratov, Buzurgmekhr Yorov, and Nuriddin Makhkamov — have landed in jail on corruption and extremism charges.
The crackdown then expanded to the lawyers who agreed to represent the charged lawyers in court. Muazzamakhon Kadyrova agreed to serve as defense counsel for Buzurgmekhr Yorov and Nuriddin Makhkamov until fleeing the country earlier this year, having gotten word that the state was preparing charges against her as well.
The second component of the state’s crackdown on lawyers has focused on changing laws to pull the legal profession increasingly under state control. As the Amnesty report recounts, “Under international standards, associations of lawyers must be independent from government and other executive and private interests.” A March 2015 law established a single national bar association and provided for its independence. It was, in essence, exactly what Tajikistan needed. But then in November 2015 amendments were made to the law which, as the report notes, “brought control over the licensing of lawyers firmly back into the hands of the executive branch of government…” The commission which administers professional exams and awards licenses, the Qualifying Commission, was brought under the Ministry of Justice and its president mandated to be a deputy justice minister. In addition, lawyers were required to be recertified.
As Amnesty notes, “These developments have been instrumental in cutting the numbers of licensed lawyers” by more than half:
By May 2017, only around half of the previously licensed lawyers had successfully requalified under the new system. Tajikistan now has around 600 lawyers (advokaty) for a population of over eight million, a ratio of approximately one lawyer per 13,000 inhabitants.
The first order effects are terrible enough — people in jail for doing their jobs — but the second-order consequences are immensely damaging not only to the rule of law in a broad sense but to Tajik society. Being accused of a crime, from embezzlement to extremism, is increasingly arbitrary. Speaking up, in all its various forms, is increasingly risky. The whims of the state reign supreme.
In his closing statement during his October 2016 trial, Yorov said, “I am not an extremist, I am a lawyer.” The distinction matters little to Dushanbe.