Human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor says, are some of the bravest people in the world. Lawlor, since May 2020 the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, recently concluded a two-week visit to Tajikistan, a country where human rights defenders — from lawyers to journalists to activists — are under extreme pressure.
During her visit alone, according to RFE/RL’s counting, at least six human rights defenders were handed devastating sentences after closed-door trials, including a 21-year prison sentence for activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, a 15-year sentence for human rights lawyer Manuchehr Kholiknazarov, and a 30-year sentence for another lawyer, Faromuz Irgashev. In October, 26-year-old journalist Abdullo Ghurbati was sentenced to 7.5 years and a well-known blogger from Tajikistan, Daler Imomali, was sentenced to 10 years.
The trouble in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) — where the most recent flare-up started in November 2021 and continued into the spring of 2022, followed by a harsh crackdown — is at the heart of recent pressure on human rights defenders. Although Lawlor was allowed to visit Imomali and Ghurbati in prison, she was denied access to Mamadshoeva and Kholiknazarov, and her request to visit GBAO was denied.
The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz spoke to Lawlor after her visit to Tajikistan about the role of human rights defenders in society, why the Tajik government continues to exert extraordinary pressure on them, and what the international community ought to be doing about the situation.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Before we get into Tajikistan, it would be helpful for you to explain what a human rights defender is. Who falls into this category? And why is it important that we care about their treatment?
In 1998, the United Nations adopted by consensus a Declaration on Human Rights Defenders after 13 years of negotiation. The exact definition is in Article 1. It says “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.”
My working definition is that a human rights defender is somebody who works nonviolently for the rights of other people.
I became active specifically on human rights defenders 21 or 22 years ago, before that I was director of Amnesty International, with a much broader work range. I came to the realization that human rights defenders are the people on the ground that help bring about social change, and that without human rights defenders working to create civil and just societies the world would be in a much worse place.
These people are, in my view, some of the bravest people in the world. They want to contribute to building civil and just societies and they do it on behalf of other people. It’s not for self-gain or anything like that.
In your remarks after your visit to Tajikistan, you mentioned a “climate of fear” in regard to the country’s human rights defenders. Can you tell me a little bit more about how that climate manifests?
The way this climate of fear manifests is related to how power is centralized in Tajikistan. It resides in the office of the president himself and the state security services. It’s kind of an odd situation because on the one hand, some human rights defenders have links with government departments, they provide input on draft legislation and thing like that. But on the other hand, the state security service is also coming to their places of work for inspections, bringing them in for informal questioning, and telling them to stop their work. I heard of one human rights defender who, after being intimidated in this way, was actually abducted in the street by the state security service.
If you look at human rights defenders who are working on sensitive issues — and when I say “sensitive” I mean sensitive from the government’s point of view — any human rights defender who is working on some area which is perceived by the government to be against government policy or critical of the government is branded almost immediately as an extremist or a terrorist or a foreign agent. This really got much worse after the events in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). The Tajik government is paranoid about extremists coming into the country from Afghanistan and other places. And it sees as its only defense to be a complete crackdown, a complete stifling of information.
What has grown is this sense of fear, particularly among those defenders who are working on difficult issues. Like human rights lawyers, for example, who in the exercise of their professional duties, when they take up cases of people who are deemed to be extremists, they themselves are branded as extremists. So they have reason to be very fearful.
There’s been a huge crackdown on human rights defenders who are journalists, too. There are less than 10 independent media outlets in the country now. The state disputes that. They say they’ve got loads of independent media, but they’re talking about the private media. These outlets are not state media, they are privately owned, but they are aligned to the state.
When you’re working in a situation where you are being frequently interrogated and intimidated, there’s no freedom of expression and there’s a climate of corruption as well. There’s no independent media, and anything that is against what the government might call its “values” is seen as extremism. Of course, they’re very fearful, especially when they see all these arrests and the very long sentences that are meted out.
I went to see these two human rights defenders in detention. Ghurbati was documenting housing evictions and the other, Imomali, is quite a famous blogger and he’d spoken out about various injustices.
It broke my heart to see them. Imomali is 35, he has three children under seven; the other young man, Ghurbati, is only 26 and was put into detention when his baby was 10 days old. He hasn’t seen the baby since then.
In the case of Imomali, his mother is particularly distraught because she had seven children and five of them have already died from disease. So she only has Imomali, who is in detention — they’re looking for a 10 and a half year sentence for him — and one other child. It’s just so cruel.
You were able to visit Daler and Imomali. There were others you weren’t able to visit. Can you tell me a little about the restrictions that you experienced on your trip?
I asked if I could go to GBAO, and I didn’t get permission to go. So that was one restriction.
I also asked to see Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, a journalist who has just been sentenced to 21 years, and Manuchehr Kholiknazarov, a human rights lawyer sentenced to 15 years. I asked about seeing them everywhere I went. The general in charge of pre-trial detention was very accommodating when it came to Ghurbati and Imomali, but when it got to the other two I was given the run-around.
When I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the ministers were out of the country, so I saw the heads of different departments. But they don’t have any decision-making powers. So I wrote a note saying that I expected to see decision-makers. To be be honest, the only decision-makers are the president and the state security service.
One day, I saw the deputy state prosecutor general and a bunch of his colleagues. I asked them if I could go and see Mamadshoeva and Kholiknazarov, and they said they didn’t have permission, that they didn’t have the authority. They said it wasn’t in their remit and I would have to ask the Supreme Court.
I was going the Supreme Court, as it happened, just after that. So again I asked. The Supreme Court also said no, they couldn’t do it either because it had to be the judge of whatever court Mamadshoeva and Kholiknazarov were currently in. I pointed out to them that they were the Supreme Court and I was asking them, and it was in the terms of references of the mandate visit that I should have access to these kinds of people. They said: Well, we’re independent and we can’t be interfering with judges and courts. Of course, in reality, the judiciary in Tajikistan is not very independent at all. So I didn’t get to see Mamadshoeva and Kholiknazarov.
I think the most difficult thing was the opaqueness of the system. It’s impenetrable. Everyone passes the buck to somebody else, says it is not their responsibility, it’s somebody else’s responsibility and it goes round in circles like that. You don’t actually know who has specific responsibility over anything. That’s why I was so grateful to the general for allowing us in to see Imomali and Ghurbati. It was a private meeting, too. He did ask, when we got there, if somebody from the prison could sit in and I said “no” and he accepted that and we had an open meeting. So that was good, but that was really exceptional in terms of the prison visits.
In terms of human rights defenders, I got to see everybody I wanted to but in some cases, it was more difficult than others because they are quite fearful. They’re even fearful of interpreters, or anything like that.
When it comes to the extraordinary pressure that human rights defenders are under in Tajikistan, I always have to ask why? What is so threatening about these people to the Tajik government?
I think it’s a mixture of a few things. First of all, the Tajik authorities don’t understand the term “human rights defender.” They don’t know who a human rights defender is, what they do, and their legitimate right to do it. So that’s one thing.
The geopolitical situation has made them more fearful of extremism because just over the river is Afghanistan and they are absolutely terrified of the Islamic State coming in. I did have a discussion with the Minister of Justice and I said that 70 percent of the population of Tajikistan is under 30, if you keep not giving them information, and if there isn’t good human rights education allowed in schools, these people are going to be ignorant and then some of them could become extremists. And he said, “Oh no, no, no, the West, look, you give all the information and they still go off to Syria.” They just have this huge fear. We could see this in the GBAO situation; many of those charged were charged with being extremists.
And then there are the domestic political dynamics, the whole succession stuff between the father and the son. A lot of people said to me that when that happens things will be better, but that might not happen for years. Then there’s what’s happening on the border with Kyrgyzstan, and the fallout from the war in Ukraine, too.
All of these things are coming together, but at the core of it, in my view, as it is with governments all over the place: power. They want to maintain power so they control information, they control the message, and they control the ability of civil society and human rights defenders to do their work just in case they are a threat. Human rights defenders are, after all, agents of social change.
What does the international community need to do to support these human rights defenders that it’s not doing? What can Tajikistan’s partners do to improve the situation? Are there levers that can be used to better the situation?
I think there are. I spoke to the various international organizations in Dushanbe. I had a meeting with all of the U.N. country team and I was trying to encourage them to bring a human rights lens to whatever program they’re involved in. The secretary general of the U.N has issued a call for action on human rights, calling on everyone to act through a human rights lens. I think often with development agencies, not just the U.N. but generally, they’re afraid their program will be abolished, or disrupted or that they won’t be allowed to do their work. They see their work as very important, which it is, but they’re afraid to rock the boat.
And then the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which also has guidelines on human rights defenders, they signed a memorandum of understanding with the Tajik government and they still don’t push the boat out at all. It seems to me that both the OSCE and the U.N. country team — there’s a lot of people there between the two organizations — the Tajik government very much dictates what they can do, and they are allowing themselves to be dictated to by the government instead of saying, “Look, this is a two way thing, we’re doing this, you have to do that.”
When it comes to the embassies, I spoke to the EU delegation, I spoke to the various EU embassies on the ground, and I really believe that they are not doing enough outreach to human rights defenders. They’re not acting in accordance with the EU guidelines on human rights defenders which spells out the steps that EU member states are supposed to take to help protect and support human rights defenders — very simple things like visiting them in their work, bringing them to the embassy, going to their trials, that sort of thing. And again, they are very low key. It’s the same with the U.S. embassy.
These defenders feel that they’ve no support, they feel that they’ve just been left alone and they have to rely on each other for support.
Another dynamic here, related to international partners, is the influence of China, the way China is pouring money into Tajikistan. Up in Khujand, where we visited, the good tunnels have all been built by the Chinese. This also affects the EU and others. The EU has apparently started negotiations again about some sort of agreement with Tajikistan. And the World Bank is also apparently giving grants with no conditionality; they’re not even loans, they’re grants. It seems to be as if the international community is trying to prevent China from becoming too powerful in Tajikistan and going to whatever lengths it needs to to maintain those ties.
Thank you very much for your time, I really appreciate you speaking to me about Tajikistan.
You know it’s really important. One thing I’ve learned from governments all over the world since I took up this mandate is they hate publicity. They hate it because it brings about reputational damage and they go to great lengths to try and stop me issuing press releases and stuff like that. So I’m very grateful to you, and it’s wonderful that you asked.