President Emomali Rahmon has led Tajikistan since shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. As Central Asia’s longest-serving president currently in power, he has long faced allegations that his rule has been facilitated — at least in part — by silencing dissent through the perpetration of human rights violations.
However, throughout Rahmon’s rule, it has been difficult to attract sufficient international attention to these violations and hold the government of Tajikistan fully accountable for its actions. While a multitude of credible reports have been written by governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations implicating the government of Tajikistan in human rights violations, they all too often fail to gain the necessary traction to foment change within its borders.
This occurs for several reasons. First, Tajikistan is located in Central Asia, one of the least known areas of the world, politically and otherwise. It is hard to garner adequate attention for change when people are unfamiliar with a country’s geographical location, history, culture, and people.
Further, Tajikistan exists in the shadow of geopolitical giants — China and the Russian Federation — leading international interest to focus on Tajikistan through the lens of its relations with these two countries. Indeed, as a former Soviet state, it has traditionally been considered within the so-called Russian sphere of influence. This has had a deleterious effect on its human rights compliance, as Russia routinely overlooks such violations in place of other priorities. Finally, Tajikistan lacks a vibrant export industry, is not located in a highly valuable geostrategic location, and is small (in both population and territory).
For these reasons and others, the international community often fails to fully scrutinize allegations of human rights violations in Tajikistan and, for those that do, demand change (with concomitant consequences for failing to do so). This is concerning and must change, as the government appears to be escalating its violations in recent years with marked effects on the future of Tajik citizens.
This escalation includes the silencing of opposition viewpoints and voices. The U.S. Department of State noted that “in 2018[,] the government reported 239 prisoners who were members of banned political parties or movements.” This includes the imprisonment of members of the country’s most important opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which has been effectively eliminated from public discourse and politics since 2015 (through imprisonment and other illegal acts). This, as well as other activities to silent opposition parties and persons, appears to have achieved the government’s goal, a claim succinctly made by the government itself in 2015 when it noted via the vehicle of prepared sermons that “[i]n Tajikistan, there should be only one party.”
Human rights defenders in-country have been silenced as well. The U.S. government supported this assertion in a 2016 statement, noting that there had been an “increase in the number of politically-motivated detentions and incarcerations of human rights defenders…in the name of national security and stability.”
Beyond opposition figures and human rights defenders, the Tajikistan government has sought to silence independent viewpoints as well. This was highlighted recently through the government’s efforts to deny accreditation to Radio Ozodi (the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). While the U.S. government and others eventually intervened, the government of Tajikistan had ostensibly sought to take away one of the few remaining independent voices in the country. Further examples identified by governments, international organizations, and the media exist and have been detailed in recent years with increasing frequency.
This silencing appears to extend to the ability for individuals to have an independent, international voice regarding legal matters. I write this opinion editorial as the legal representative for Mr. Gaffor Mirzoev, one of the principal figures of the 1990s in Tajikistan. Mirzoev was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 on charges he resolutely rejects as false claims brought against him.
Hired by his family, I recently sought to meet with Mirzoev at the pre-trial detention facility in Dushanbe to discuss with him a range of international legal matters. Instead of being granted access, the Tajik authorities rejected my entry, taking the position that I had to be a Tajik lawyer to represent him, even on issues relating to international law. This contravenes his right to select a lawyer of his own choosing, a core human right to which we are all entitled.
Depriving a country of opposition parties, viewpoints, and legal voices demands greater attention from the international community. In my situation, Mirzoev has not been availed of the opportunity to assist in his representation at a range of international legal venues. This is no small matter, as his family has identified a range of concerns, principally emanating from his status being held as an individual in the “special prison regime” of Tajikistan.
In 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee articulated its concern with this regime when it identified “the harsh conditions of detention imposed on prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment through a special prison regime.” Accordingly, the Committee recommended that Tajikistan “bring the special regime for prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment into compliance” with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other relevant UN rules and standards. In 2018, the Committee against Torture found similarly. Violations of his right to a fair trial are also prevalent – an area where the U.S. government has generally noted its concern. Mirzoev deserves to assist the “voice” that has a legal background to provide him the assistance to which he is entitled.
While every state is entitled to promote its sovereign right to decide upon internal matters, Tajikistan has specifically committed to following the human rights norms found within the treaties they have ratified. This commitment permits external oversight. When any country fails to live up to its commitments, the international community needs to act by holding states accountable with the range of tools it has available to promote compliance.
We cannot settle. While sovereignty is a powerful notion that ought to be respected, there must be a threshold limit to this deference. When exceeded, the international community needs to act. Silencing opposition figures, independent voices, and voices for those in prison are examples demanding that a spotlight needs to be shined upon the Tajikistan government’s human rights record. If this examination reveals violations, a demand for action — and consequences for inaction — must follow.
Scott Martin is a managing partner at Global Rights Compliance LLP.