December 9 marks one year of imprisonment of the human rights defender Manuchehr Kholiqnazarov from Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in Tajikistan, a lawyer who defended ordinary citizens, worked on cases of unlawful eviction, and who believed that everyone is equal before the law.
GBAO lies below the snow-covered mountain peaks of eastern Tajikistan, covering almost half of the country’s rugged territory. GBAO is often referred to as “the roof of the world.” It is home to several ethnic groups, with the Pamiris being the largest. For centuries, GBAO has been a cultural hotspot, where traders and nomads met across language barriers. It has been a preferred destination for mountaineers, adventurers, and cyclists from the West, who travel along the Pamir Highway, the Soviet-built M41 road, which zigzags through the mountains. But this breathtaking scenery hides many human tragedies.
Working on human rights in GBAO is a high-risk job and the trend of strangling dissent and civic work is a downward spiral that has continued for years in Tajikistan. Manuchehr Kholiqnazarov got caught up in this spiral at great personal cost.
The complex events leading to Kholiqnazarov’s arrest began to unfurl in November 2021, when Tajikistani law enforcement officials in GBAO killed a local man, Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, after he resisted arrest. The death sparked mass public protests in Khorog, the regional center of GBAO, as people saw the killing as just the latest tragic development in a long repressive relationship between Dushanbe and GBAO. Several thousand protesters occupied the town square for several days, and at least two demonstrators were killed.
Some days later, the situation stabilized when the Tajikistani government seemingly agreed to launch an independent investigation into Ziyobekov’s death. This compromise led to the establishment of Commission 44, a group of lawyers, human rights defenders, and activists, as well as government officials, who cooperated to undertake an impartial investigation into the death. Kholiqnazarov was part of this commission. Commission 44 criticized the authorities for obstructing a thorough and transparent joint investigation. In early February 2022, the GBAO Prosecutor’s Office stated that the criminal case on the police’s shooting at protesters in November 2021 had been closed due to “lack of elements of a crime” – fueling further tensions among residents in GBAO.
Fast forward to spring 2022. In May, tension increased after a second wave of mass protests occurred in Khorog, when people took to the streets and peacefully demanded the resignation of the regional head Alisher Mirzonabot and insisted again on an impartial investigation into Ziyobekov’s death. By the end of May, 14 members of Commission 44 had been arrested and interrogated at the Khorog Prosecutor’s Office.
Among those arrested was human rights lawyer and director of the the Pamiri Lawyers’ Association, Manuchehr Kholiqnazarov, and several other prominent activists. Kholiqnazarov was accused of serious crimes: receiving money from a banned movement – the National Alliance of Tajikistan – participating in a criminal group, and calling for the overthrow of the constitutional order. Human rights groups believe that all of the charges were politically motivated, and put forward in retaliation for the arrested activists’ human rights work.
The trial against Kholiqnazarov and other activists began in September 2022, and was held behind closed doors. Back then, the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the World Organization Against Torture called upon the Tajikistani authorities to immediately release the prisoners and withdraw the charges against them.
Verdicts were handed down on December 9, 2022 and Kholiqnazarov was sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment. IPHR, together with Helsińska Fundacja Praw Człowieka, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Front Line Defenders, Amnesty International, Freedom Now, and the Observatory for Protection of Human Rights Defenders, recently issued a campaign video calling for Kholiqnazarov’s release, and for increased public and international attention to his plight.
Kholiqnazarov now lives in inhumane prison conditions, suffering from chronic back pain. No one deserves to spend years behind bars on trumped-up charges, and Kholiqnazarov should be immediately and unconditionally released.
For the sake of respecting its international human rights commitments, and ensuring the rule of law, Tajikistani authorities must realize that, as the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor has said, “human rights defenders are not the enemy.” They must cease the crackdown on human rights activists and civil society, who could potentially be their most valuable and trusted partners, and unconditionally release all those imprisoned solely for carrying out their peaceful professional work.