In 2015, the Tajik government made a concerted effort to stamp out the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The IRPT was squeezed out of parliament in March 2015; a pressure campaign to diminish the party followed. Then in quick succession in September 2015, the final moves were made: After a deputy defense minister mutinied and fled Dushanbe with a band of followers, the state claimed he was linked to the IRPT and used the turn of events as a pretext to take down the party. On September 16, 2015 authorities arrested 13 of the party’s top leaders.
Buzurgmehr Yorov, a well-known human rights lawyer, took on their case. Like his clients, he soon lost his freedom.
Yorov was arrested on September 28, 2015. After three closed trials — one for fraud, forgery, arousing hostility, and extremism; a second for contempt of court and insulting government officials; and a third for fraud (again) and insulting Tajik President Emomali Rahmon — his prison sentences amounted to 28 years. Human rights advocates said his arrest and sentence were politically motivated. Being a lawyer, his arrest was particularly troubling.
“Lawyers play a vital role in the protection of the rule of law and human rights,” said Nicola Theobald, a volunteer with Lawyers for Lawyers, an independent, Netherlands-based nonpolitical and nonprofit lawyers’ organization. Such work, Theobald said, “is indispensable for ensuring effective access to justice for all.”
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers states that lawyers “shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions,” and that governments must guarantee that they can perform their duties, meet with their clients and “shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.”
Yorov is not alone in finding himself behind bars in Tajikistan after taking on politically sensitive clients. Yorov’s brother, Jamshed, who is also a lawyer, took up the defense of IRPT leader Mahmadali Hayit, who was given a life sentence in June 2016. In August 2016 Jamshed was arrested on suspicion of “dissemination of a state secret” — the state secret was allegedly information about his own client’s closed-door trial. Jamshed was released the following month and soon fled Tajikistan, fearing harassment and re-arrest.
Since 2014, human rights activists have highlighted the cases of half a dozen lawyers arrested or imprisoned by the Tajik authorities — Shukhrat Kudratov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nuriddin Makhkamov, Dilbar Dodojonova, and others — many whose clients were opposition political figures charged with serious crimes by the state.
“The Tajik government has been tightening a noose around Tajikistan’s few remaining independent lawyers and the country’s fledgling legal profession for almost a decade, imprisoning lawyers simply for doing their job to represent individuals authorities perceive as critics,” Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and Central Asia explained.
Lawyers for Lawyers, along with Freedom Now and two law firms, filed a petition in 2018 with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) on Yorov’s behalf. On June 12, 2019 the WGAD made public its opinion that the deprivation of Yorov’s liberty is arbitrary, violating a host of rights laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“The Working Group considers that, taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the appropriate remedy would be to release Mr. Yorov immediately, and to accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law,” the WGAD concluded.
But a year later, Yorov remains behind bars.
“The UN Working Group decision calling for Yorov’s release is an extremely important symbol and a reminder to Tajik authorities that no matter how far they twist the narrative and call Yorov a criminal or an ‘extremist,’ this will not make such accusations true,” Swerdlow commented.
Yorov’s sentence was shortened by six years in November 2019, as part of a mass amnesty to mark the 25th anniversary of Tajikistan’s constitution. Other lawyers, such as Kudratov and Zokirov have been released — Kudratov in 2018 after four years in prison and Zokirov in 2013 after eight months and reportedly a promise to not defend opposition politician Zaid Saidov again.
These small mercies — reducing sentences and early releases — are doled out as arbitrarily as the initial detentions and come with pressure to cease defending certain individuals. No reprieve is guaranteed to be permanent either. Zokirov, for example, was re-arrested in 2015 and fined before being released.
Yorov, and his law partner Makhkamov, remain in prison despite the pandemic Tajikistan has struggled to face. After denying the presence of the virus in the country for more than a month after the rest of the Central Asian region (except Turkmenistan) confirmed cases, Tajikistan has identified 4,834 cases of COVID-19 since April 30 — the second highest case load in the region, per official data that some analysts view with skepticism.
“Makhkamov and Yorov should be immediately and unconditionally released, and at a minimum they should be transferred to house arrest,” Swerdlow argued, noting that there had been worrying recent reports about Yorov’s health in prison.
Jamshed Yorov told The Diplomat that “Buzurgmehr’s condition was also rough. But thanks God he got better.”
“In the prison where Buzurgmehr is being held, there are already cases of [the] virus spread among both employees and prisoners. Death cases from coronavirus have been recorded,” he said. In addition to the threat of reinfection with COVID-19, Buzurgmehr suffers from asthma, which Jamshed says is not being treated.
Buzurgmehr, Jamshed told The Diplomat, was provided medical help but not by the government. “Relatives of prisoners buy medicines and all necessary items themselves.”
Beyond Buzurgmehr Yorov’s case, the prospects are grim for the legal profession in Tajikistan. In 2015, the Tajik government introduced a law that requires all lawyers to renew their licenses with the Justice Ministry — not an independent bar association or licensing body — and to retake the bar examination every five years.
“Tajik lawyers have reported that the exam includes questions on a broad range of subjects unrelated to law, such as history, culture, and politics,” Swerdlow told The Diplomat, suggesting that the exam is being used to weed out lawyers prone to taking sensitive cases.
And it’s having an impact: “It was reported that, as a result [of the new law and exam process], the number of licensed lawyers has fallen by approximately half,” Theobald explained.
Swerdlow, Theobald, and Jamshed Yorov all highlighted in their comments to The Diplomat the reality that Tajik lawyers, are “increasingly wary of taking on politically sensitive cases,” as Theobald put it.
“What happened to my brother, Nuriddin Makhkamov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Shukhrat Kudratov, myself and others was a cruel lesson for the whole Tajik advocacy. Lawyers do not take high-profile socially significant cases, do not share with [the] public information about the process, and do not have any contacts with press and civil society,” Jamshed said.
Jamshed has campaigned for his brother’s release, as have a host of human rights activists and organizations, but he wants the international community to move beyond simply making recommendations to states and “finally develop and follow mechanisms to exert pressure on countries that violate human rights, provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Covenants and Conventions signed by those countries.”