Tajikistan: Lawyers in the Government's Crosshairs
Rights groups have pressed Tajikistan to unconditionally release lawyers who were jailed after taking on cases of behalf of political opposition figures.
Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said in a statement on May 4 that the intimidation of rights lawyers has become commonplace in Tajikistan and even extended to the lawyers’ relatives.
“The Tajik government is tightening the screws on lawyers it deems trouble, locking up those who represent the opposition alongside its political foes,” HRW Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow said in the statement. “Each day these lawyers spend behind bars is a disgrace and brings shame on Tajikistan’s judicial system.”
In some cases lawyers have been targets of death threats.
The escalation of pressure against the legal profession intensified following the liquidation of the country’s only remaining viable opposition force, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Almost all the party’s leading figures were arrested in the wake of a purported attempted coup d’etat in early September. Lawyers agreeing to represent the IRPT leaders were immediately targeted for arrest in flimsily fabricated cases.
“Since 2014, Tajik authorities have arrested or imprisoned at least five human rights lawyers — Shukhrat Kudratov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nuriddin Makhkamov, Dilbar Dodojonova — and Firuz and Daler Tabarov, sons of Iskhok Tabarov, another prominent lawyer,” HRW and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee noted in their statement.
Zokirov has since been released, but all the rest are still imprisoned. He and Kudratov represented government critic Zaid Saidov, who has been serving a 26-year jail sentence since late 2013.
The Tajik government’s assault on the legal profession has not been isolated to individuals, however, and has taken on a systematic quality in the past year.
Parliament in November approved legislation obliging lawyers to renew their license with the Justice Ministry on a five-yearly basis. Experts warn this procedure will result in purging the profession of independent lawyers, which is indeed precisely what the authorities are hoping to achieve.
The law will automatically deny a legal license to anybody with a criminal conviction, so in the best-case scenario, the figures mentioned in the HRW/Norwegian Helsinki Committee appeal will in any case be unable to continue practicing, even if they are released.
The HRW/Norwegian Helsinki Committee statement cites the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers as stating that lawyers “shall not be identified with their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions.” This standard has been flagrantly flouted by Tajikistan.
The rights groups have also called on Tajikistan’s international partners, the United States and the European Union, to press the government to release the lawyers.
Western diplomats in Central Asia have routinely insisted, however, that they prefer to pursue “quiet diplomacy” with the region’s authoritarian governments, insisting that this usually proves more effective. The approach has yielded little fruit in Tajikistan, which has over the space over a year dismantled all remnants of the opposition, muzzled the press through routine intimidation and obliterated the independence of the legal profession.
The United States has in return rewarded Tajikistan with countless goodies, ranging from millions of dollars in military assistance and even financing for a new printing press churning out publications that smear the opposition.