On September 28, 2015, Tajik lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov left his office to meet with officials from the Ministry of Interior. The head of the ministry’s Organized Crime Unit had summoned Buzurgmehr to his office for what his family prayed might be a simple conversation.
Buzurgmehr must have had an idea of what was to come. One of Tajikistan’s most indefatigable human rights lawyers, he had recently taken on representation of 13 opposition politicians accused by the government — without evidence — of plotting a coup. Just a few days earlier, Buzurgemehr announced that one of his clients had been tortured in pretrial detention and called for a coalition of lawyers to join him in representing the detained politicians. Shortly after this announcement, government officials asked Buzurgemehr to drop the case. He refused.
When Buzurgmehr entered the Ministry of Interior offices on September 28, he was immediately arrested and ultimately charged with forgery, fraud, arousing national, racial, local, or religious hostility, and extremism. A statement issued by the ministry described him as an “attorney-fraudster” and a “swindler.” A few weeks later, a television show depicted Buzurgmehr as an “attorney-fraudster” with stock images of money bags.
After spending more than a year in pretrial detention, and after a trial replete with due process violations, Buzurgmehr was sentenced in October 2016 to 23 years in prison. His sentence has since been increased to 28 years after conviction on additional politically-motivated charges (including a contempt of court conviction based on a defiant poem Buzurgmehr dared to read aloud at trial).
On January 24, 2019, Buzurgmehr will have been in prison for 1,215 days. This day is particularly noteworthy as it is also the Day of the Endangered Lawyer, a campaign started nine years ago to increase awareness of violence and retaliation faced by lawyers around the world.
Unfortunately, as we mark this anniversary, Buzurgmehr is not the only endangered lawyer in Tajikistan. His colleagues face significant persecution in the form of punitive and arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, intimidation, and death threats received by numerous attorneys (and their families), typically in retaliation for taking on politically-sensitive representations. Many lawyers who have defended members of the political opposition have either been charged with national security-related offenses or have had to flee the country for fear of reprisal, and those who have been arrested and prosecuted have faced closed, unfair trials resulting in harsh prison sentences.
In addition to imprisoning Buzurgmehr, the government has arrested and detained at least five other human rights lawyers — Shukhrat Kudratov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Jamshed Yorov (Buzurgmehr’s brother), Nuriddin Makhkamov, and Dilbar Dodojonova – as well as Firuz and Daler Tabarov, sons of Iskhok Tabarov, another prominent human rights lawyer. Fakhriddin was released after two periods of imprisonment. Jamshed was released on September 30, 2016 and fled Tajikistan due to continuing harassment and fear of rearrest. Shukhrat was released in August 2018, but has been visited by police on at least six occasions and is unable to practice law. In May 2017, shortly after she had posted on Facebook an appeal to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to halt his persecution of Buzurgmehr, leading rights lawyer Fayzinisso Vohidova was interrogated by authorities who then prevented her from leaving the country. The travel ban was eventually lifted, but sadly Fayzinisso passed away earlier this month. She did not live to see her law license reinstated. Nuriddin Makhkamov, Buzurgmehr’s law partner, was tried alongside Buzurgmehr and sentenced on politically-motivated charges to 21 years imprisonment.
The Tajik government has also taken steps to curtail the independence of the bar. In November 2015, it enacted a new law requiring all lawyers to renew their legal licenses with the Justice Ministry, instead of the independent bar association or licensing body, and to retake the bar examination every five years. In an attempt by the government to identify lawyers who are willing to take on politically sensitive cases, the bar exam includes questions on a broad range of subjects unrelated to law, such as history, culture, and politics. Tajik lawyers are concerned that the test, administered by the government, is being used to exclude those who might take on cases against the government’s interest.
Tajikistan’s actions have been resolutely condemned by the international community. This past October, the Law Society of England and Wales issued a letter requesting that the government release all imprisoned lawyers. The European Union and the United States have both raised Buzurgmehr’s case with the highest levels of the Tajik government. My own law firm, in collaboration with Freedom Now, Lawyers for Lawyers, and DLA Piper, filed a petition with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on Buzurgmehr’s behalf. We expect an opinion in the case to be delivered shortly.
Lawyers like Buzurgmehr occupy a crucial space in society. They represent marginalized individuals who are abandoned or attacked by their own governments. They are the guardians of the rule of law and justice. By subjecting lawyers who dare to take on unpopular representations to harassment or even criminal charges, Tajikistan has not only abrogated its responsibilities under international law — it has decimated the legal profession. The number of licensed lawyers in the country has fallen from more than 1,200 in 2015 to just 600 in 2017. There is only one lawyer per 14,500 people in Tajikistan, the second lowest per capita rate in Central Asia behind Turkmenistan.
On the Day of the Endangered Lawyer, we call on Tajikistan to halt its attacks on lawyers. Tajikistan should re-establish the independence of the bar, reaffirm the importance of justice within its borders, and immediately and unconditionally release Buzurgmehr and all other lawyers imprisoned due to their politically sensitive representations. If Tajikistan does not, all of us in the legal community — and in the international human rights community at large — should raise our voices and influence to ensure that the plight of Tajikistan’s brave attorneys is made part of any diplomatic, military, touristic, economic, or other conversation about the country.
Marc Gottridge is a partner with the Hogan Lovells law firm, which is representing Buzurgmehr as his international pro bono counsel and co-authored the petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.