A UN body concluded in May that the detention of Mahmadali Hayit by Tajikistan is arbitrary. Hayit, a deputy chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), was given a life sentence in 2016 after being charged along with a dozen other IRPT leaders with various crimes, including attempting to overthrow the state.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded — based on an individual’s appeal on Hayit’s behalf and the government’s late and unsatisfactory reply — that Hayit’s detention violated several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
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While unsurprising to regional observers, the opinion issued offers a glimpse into the nitty-gritty details of precisely how Tajikistan deprives individuals of their rights.
In the case of Hayit, we have to return to 2015 — a year I termed not-quite-in-jest “Tajikistan’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year.”
Hayit, at the time deputy chairman of the IRPT, was arrested on September 16, 2015.
His arrest came about two week after the failed coup by Deputy Defense Minister General Abduhalim Nazarzoda. The Tajik government quickly linked the violence to the IRPT and the group’s leadership was rounded up. Hayit was arrested without being told the charges and held incommunicado for three days before being brought before a judge on September 19. Referring to previous Human Rights Committee comments, the Working Group noted that “48 hours is ordinarily sufficient to transport the individual and to prepare for the judicial hearing,” and that any further delay should be justified. But instead of justifying the delay, the Tajik government “merely asserted that the period constituted 48 hours.”
The violations continue throughout the Working Group’s discussion: Hayit wasn’t informed of the charges against him, the government failed to present evidence of his alleged crimes, he was tried in a military court even though he was not in the military, and so on.
The opinion makes clear the Working Group’s outright disbelief of Tajikistan’s version of reality and, to my reading, reeks of frustration. Not only is 48 hours not 48 hours in Tajikistan, but Dushanbe’s response to the complaint source’s allegations was late, a fact that is referenced time and again alongside jabs at the state’s flimsy response.
For example, in response to the complainant’s allegation that Hayit’s detention was arbitrary under “category II” — the deprivation of liberty resulting from the exercise of freedoms outlined in the Covenant, specifically in Hayit’s case articles 19 (expression), 21 (assembly), 22 (association), and 25 (political participation) — the government of Tajikistan “merely rejected those submissions,” stating that instead of being prosecuted for his politics, Hayit was prosecuted because of a plot to overthrow the government. “However, the Working Group notes that in its late reply the Government failed to specify what Mr. Hayit had done in pursuit of such an aim as there was no description of any actions undertaken by him that could be construed as such a plot.”
“It is quite clear to the Working Group that the basis for the arrest and subsequent detention of Mr. Hayit was in fact his exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” the opinion states.
Glossing Over The Justifications
Human rights advocates, in turn, argue that Tajikistan has been clever to couch its crackdowns in national security terms, effectively neutering international responses to repeated violations.
The source for the complaint to the Working Group asserted that the Tajik government was “using the veil of national security as a pretext to silence criticism and disband an opposition party.”
“Tajikistan has been very savvy about masking its political repression in the cloak of national security,” Kate Barth, legal director for Freedom Now, a U.S.-based NGO which works to free individual prisoners of conscience, told The Diplomat via email.
“Hayit and the other IRPT members were all convicted on trumped-up terrorism and extremism charges—which is a favorite tool of the Tajik government for eliminating government critics,” Barth said. “Given Tajikistan’s geographical neighborhood, the threat of Islamic extremist is a very real one which may lend these specious charges the aura of credibility.”
With a 1,300 kilometer border with Afghanistan and the scars of its own 1990s civil war, Tajikistan deftly plays the terrorism card in cracking down on opposition. Piggybacking on Western discomfort with Islamist movements, the IRPT was a prime target. While Dushanbe declared the party — which had peacefully held two seats in the country’s parliament from 2000 up through May 2015 — an extremist organization in late September 2015, no other countries have followed suit.
“In general,” Barth said, “states tend to give each other a wider margin of error when handling matters that they claim fall within the purview of national security.” An inability, or unwillingness, to question such narratives has led to the extradition of IRPT members back to Tajikistan. The party’s leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, was on INTERPOL’s international wanted list for two years. Only in March 2018 was the red notice issued for him rescinded.
The diplomatic community, Barth said, has an “understanding that Tajikistan is abusing these national security charges,” but there remains “some reticence to interfere with another states internal ‘security’ matters.” Furthermore, Barth noted, given Tajikistan’s poor economy, “the international community may believe that it is more important to focus on development before human rights.”
Barth said that several countries have brought Hayit’s and other cases up in diplomatic exchanges and the Working Group’s opinion has circulated among Dushanbe’s diplomatic community. If discussions fail to motivated Tajikistan’s government, Barth notes that there are a few more tools which states can use to exert pressure on Tajikistan. Partner nations, she said, “could tie closer bilateral relationships upon the release of Hayit and other political prisoners.” Governments could also consider targeted sanctions, for example under the United States’s Global Magnitsky Act. “Although several names of Tajik perpetrators have already been given to the US Department of State for the purpose of being Specially Designated Nationals List,” Barth said, “none have yet actually been listed.”
The Working Group’s opinion reads like a template for Tajikistan’s repeated violations of its citizens rights. We could replace Hayit’s name with countless others — political figures, businessmen, journalists — and the conclusions would remain the same. It’s interesting that Tajikistan did eventually respond to the Working Group, and according to Barth “plans to respond to the Working Group’s request for updates every 6 months” — but the quality of that response indicates Dushanbe’s attitude and expectation that little will change.