The mood was subdued during a panel devoted to Tajikistan at this year’s annual human rights conference held in Warsaw, sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
There was none of the raucous defiance seen at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2016. The panel this year was packed with Tajik activists, representatives of civil society groups and journalists, most of whom now live abroad in order to avoid arbitrary prosecution back home. But the sedate pace of the Tajik-related proceedings this year in Warsaw was a far cry from 2016.
At last year’s event, Tajik officials were ambushed by dozens of activists, who staged an impromptu protest in the hall. Some held up signs, while others held pictures of jailed politicians. The reaction from Tajik authorities was sharp, as they accused the hosts, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), of providing a platform for terrorists. The government in Dushanbe has dubbed the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, a terrorist group — a designation scoffed at by Western officials.
This time around, knowing that they could well face similar treatment, Tajik officials did not bother to turn up in Warsaw. The boycott provoked dismay among those in the international community worried about the consequences of Tajikistan ditching all outside engagement on human rights issues.
Inside Tajikistan, authorities are taking revenge against the relatives of the government critics who attended the Warsaw event.
“Due to my participation in this conference my father, Safar Kabirov, was detained for two days in Dushanbe, on September 6 and 7. He was subjected to torture, humiliation, harsh interrogation and inhuman treatment while his hands were chained. They threatened him with imprisonment if I participated in this conference,” Muhammadjon Kabirov, the head of the IRPT’s media department, said in a speech during the plenary session in Warsaw.
Meanwhile, family members of a Poland-based Tajik activist, Islomiddin Saidov, have been forced out of their home. They reported that they had been told that their punishment was a direct response to their son’s participation in the OSCE event, Saidov said. Saidov organized a picket in front of the Warsaw venue on the eve of the conference to raise awareness about the fate of political prisoners in Tajikistan.
This was not the first time Saidov’s family had been the target of Tajikistan’s security services. On July 8, one day before an event in Dortmund, Germany, marking the 20th anniversary of the end of Tajikistan’s civil war, Saidov’s father was driven out of his village and detained in a security services facility in Dushanbe. He was then publicly shamed in front of his local community as a warning that his son should cease his opposition activities abroad.
Other activists also have reported instances of pressure or abuse against their families who stayed in Tajikistan, but preferred not to make their experiences public for fear of additional retaliation.
For Tajik activists who fled the country following the rigged parliamentary election in March 2015 and the subsequent banning of the IRPT, repression is nothing new. They live with the knowledge that their families are routinely interrogated, shamed and persecuted by the authorities. In addition, relatives are routinely prohibited from traveling abroad. Some opposition activists who did not leave the country in time have received lengthy prison sentences following what watchdog groups considered to be politically motivated trials.
A meeting held on the sidelines of the Warsaw gathering was devoted to how the activist community abroad could support political prisoners back home. The discussions were presided over by IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri, flanked by Moscow-based lawyer Dagir Khasavov, Pamiri politician Alim Sherzamonov and journalist Temur Klychev.
International groups are taking steps to highlight the situation in Tajikistan. For example, Freedom Now, a US-based group that advocates for the release of political prisoners around the world, has filed a petition with the Human Rights Council of the United Nations over the case of Mahmadali Hayit, the deputy leader of the IRPT. Hayit was detained in September 2015 and then later convicted on coup charges. Case materials connected with Hayit’s trial remain unavailable to this day.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch is advocating for the United States to adopt a Global Magnitsky Act that would punish rights violators from around the world — including leading officials in Tajikistan.
Amid the proceedings in Warsaw, the issues of activists’ families in Tajikistan, who were described as “political hostages,” came up over and again.
“Two of my daughters-in-law and grandchildren are not allowed to go abroad. Moreover, they have no access to the internet or phone to contact their husbands. They have been constantly interrogated and repressed by the authorities,” said Kabiri, the IRPT leader. “They can only communicate with us when the security officials force them to inform us about the pressures and threats they are subject to, in order to coerce us to stop criticizing the government.”
Yet as pressure on relatives mounts at home, Tajik opposition figures are finding that there is not an abundance of sympathy in Europe for their misfortune. They report that Poland, where many Tajiks have sought haven, is rejecting a growing number of asylum requests. From January to September this year, roughly 120 Tajik citizens were rejected for asylum. Only 16 were granted some form of international protection. Of those, four received refugee status and 12 received subsidiary protection, a form of asylum accorded to those deemed to be at risk, but not legally recognized as refugees.
Among those denied any form of protective status is Saidov, the head of IRPT’s Poland wing whose family is being harassed back home. Kabiri blamed the situation on a lack of awareness in Poland about human rights abuses in Tajikistan.
“Unfortunately, in Poland people do not know the situation in Tajikistan very well … There are dictatorships [in Central Asia], but they do not shoot people yet. That is why we should work with authorities to explain that the situation in the region is much more complex,” Kabiri said.
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a freelance journalist covering the post-Soviet space.