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Tajik Ombudsman on First Year in Office

Zarif Alizoda says official human rights watchdog can’t deal with every complaint filed to it – some are not in its mandate, others are groundless.
By Parvina Khamidova

 To mark the first anniversary of the institution of human rights ombudsman in Tajikistan, IWPR editor Parvina Khamidova asked the man appointed to the post, Zarif Alizoda, what his office has achieved to date.

Khamidova:  May marks one year since you were appointed ombudsman. How do you find the role of human rights defender?

Alizoda:  I would say this year has been a kind of test for our organisation…. First of all, we have created the institution, resolved many organisational issues, and finalised all the basic documents we need for our work….

We also have drafted an ambitious plan for 2010 that defines the key areas of our work and which I think will help further strengthen the institution of the ombudsman. For example, it envisages opening community liaison offices in the provinces. We don’t know exactly how many we will have yet, as it all depends on our institutional and logistical capacity. We are looking for donors to support them. Initially, we want to open community liaison offices in the main provincial towns – Khujand, Qurghonteppa and Khorog, in other towns like Vahdat, Tursunzade and Kulob, and in the Rasht district.

The main reason for establishing these offices is to be able to step up our work around the country. What that means is resolving issues of a local nature in situ, and referring the rest to our central office.

We have also drafted other documents, including regulations governing a council of experts for our institution, as the ombudsman law requires. The council will be an advisory body drawing on of representatives of various institutions, including human rights NGOs. It will have specific working groups for various issues, where necessary. This structure is still being set up.

Other areas of work include collating the annual report, which I will present next February. Our community liaison offices will also be involved, to invest the report with greater objectivity and accurate information about the situation regionally.

The ombudsman institute should thus become a body that coordinates all the state agencies that deal with human rights issues.

Our organisation is still new, so we have prepared detailed brochures and leaflets to tell people more about us. This June, we are launching a cycle of regional seminars to inform the public about our activities, aims, the way we work, and opportunities for cooperation. These seminars will be attended by civil society representatives as well as our own staff.

As for own impressions, then the nicest thing about this work is being able to help people defend their rights. But the problem is that not everyone has a justified complaint. It’s hard persuading someone they are not in the right in the eyes of the law.

Khamidova:  Could you give any figures or examples that highlight the main results of your work as ombudsman?

Alizoda:  Although I was appointed on May 27, 2009, our institution started working only in September. Since then, we have received 895 applications from members of the public, 300 of them written and others made verbally….

We work with various categories of complaint. About half of them concern court cases. People complain about trial verdicts and challenge their legitimacy. They also file complaints against the law enforcement agencies and local government, and claim illegal dismissal against employers.

As well as Tajikistan nationals, we take applications from foreigners and stateless persons. We accept applications from anyone. Afghan nationals account for the majority of the applications we get from foreign citizens. They seek our assistance in helping them move to third countries, Canada for example. Here we can only make enquiries to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about whether it is possible for them to go. Much depends on the host country.

We’ve also had several applications from Tajik nations who’ve moved to Russia. For example, we had a complaint from a Russian national who formerly lived in Tajikistan. He was injured at work in the early 1990s and he lost all the documents pertaining to his injury because of well-known events [civil war of 1992-97]. We helped him recover these documents, working together with the Ministry of Justice and Council of Justice of Tajikistan.

Khamidova:  You mentioned the report you are preparing. What issues are going to be highlighted in it? What are the areas where violations are of particular concern?

Alizoda:  At the end of each quarter, we summarise the work we’ve done. It’s hard to pin down a single area. Judging by the complaints we receive, it’s clear people are concerned about the rulings made by the judiciary. I think this may be connected with changes in the law linked to implementing the judicial reform programme.

This year, the new criminal procedure code came into effect, giving the courts new powers, for example, the right to issue arrest warrants. I think this explains the increase in the number of complaints made against judicial bodies. And I think there will be more to come.

Khamidova:  Are most human rights violations in Tajikistan in the court system?

Alizoda:  No, that’s not what I said. A high number of complaints does not mean at all that the courts are to blame. They have acquired greater powers and consequently more responsibilities. The complaints aren’t always justified. In a court case, there is always a losing side which is left unsatisfied. We have had cases where someone is unhappy with a court ruling, and although we check this and find no breach of the law, and we try to explain this to the applicant, they still insist they are in the right.

Khamidova:  Although you have a higher public profile than other state agencies, there have been cases over the past year where you haven’t reacted to certain human rights violations, some of them clear-cut. Take, for example, the coercion used to make people buy shares in the Roghun hydroelectric scheme, which has been repeatedly reported in the media. Why haven’t you not come out with any statements or recommendations about this?

Alizoda:  I wouldn’t say these shares are being imposed on people. Of course I’ve seen the media reports. But no one has come to us with a complaint.  

As for statements, of course I’m able to make them. But I haven’t done so in this instance as I don’t believe it was necessary. Rumour alone isn’t a basis for making statements.

President Rahmon has stated officially on several occasions that the Roghun shares should be purchased on a voluntary basis. I agree with that. Roghun is a momentous project for Tajikistan; it’s very important for the country’s future.

As for publicity, I can say that I have frequently made media statements over the last year.

Khamidova:  I would also like to ask about another high-profile case – that of the 31 residents of Isfara who are in prison. [Ed. –convicted of organised crime, illegal arms possession, money-laundering, fraud and tax evasion, the 31 defendants were given sentences of up to 25 years in June 2009. What was odd about the trial was that prosecutors who brought the case were not seeking such long sentences.] A former prosecutor general [Bobojon Bobokhonov] has challenged the fairness of that verdict. Subsequently, three newspapers [Asia-Plus, Faraj and Ozodagon] were taken to court for publishing a statement by the convicted people’s lawyer. What can you say about this case, especially given that [the lawyer] Juraev’s remarks were also addressed to you?

Alizoda:  The Isfara residents did appeal to us at one point, but since their case was still in court, we referred their appeals to that court. We informed the defendants how they could defend themselves and present their case properly in court.

The lawyer’s statement contained allegations of very serious crimes including corruption. By law, we cannot deal with criminal cases, so we referred the application [regarding the statement] to the prosecutor’s office to deal with.

Khamidova:  Do you think the legal action taken against the three newspapers can be seen as pressure on freedom of speech?

Alizoda:  We have a representative in attendance in this court case. As long as the case is in court, we cannot comment on it. But we can’t describe it as pressure.

Khamidova:  The situation in Tajikistan’s prisons is another problem…. Do you have unlimited access to penitentiary facilities? What do you know about the conditions there? What actions are you taking to make detention conditions comply with the requirements of international conventions to which Tajikistan is party?

Alizoda:  By law, I have the right to visit any penitentiary facility and inspect the conditions there. I am planning to carry out a personal visit very soon.

I am aware that there are problems there. Many of these institutions were built a long time ago, in the 1930s. The buildings are unfit for purpose. The time has come to tackle these issues. Our state has asked donors to assist with new buildings for the prisons. The ombudsman’s office it going to push this issue as much as it can.

As for torture, it doesn’t just take place in the prisons.

Khamidova:  Could you say some more about torture? How serious a problem do you think in our country?

Alizoda:  It’s a problem. We have received a number of applications from individuals claiming that they were tortured during detention and interrogation. We intend to work on this, including with those organisations that have a part in this problem.

Khamidova:  When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Tajikistan recently, he noted that the country had yet to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and called for this to be done. What’s your view on this?

Zarif Alizoda:  We are currently looking at possible ratification and we’re planning to hold several roundtables at which we will discuss it with all the stakeholders – government, non-government groups and international organisations. All their views must be considered carefully.

The problem is that ratifying this document has financial implications, for example paying compensation to victims of torture. So we need to look at it carefully before making any recommendations.

Khamidova:  Another document that remains unratified by our country is the Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. There are very serious violations of women’s rights in our country. Would you be in a position to lobby for ratification of this document?

Alizoda:  We are working closely with women’s organisations. We have discussed this and we raise issues of gender equality, preventing violence against women, and other things. But it’s too early to put a date to ratification.

There are many international human rights documents that Tajikistan may need to get to grips with, for example the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, dealing with abolition of capital punishment, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We are working on all of this.

Khamidova:  Like other former Soviet states, Tajikistan is gradually amending its criminal legislation to make it more humane. Do you think our country is ready to do away with the death penalty altogether?

Zarif Alizoda:  It’s a complicated issue, especially for post-Soviet countries. It is difficult to give a clear-cut answer. We need to do a lot of research and analysis. I cannot give an off-the-cuff answer as it’s a very serious issue.

Khamidova:  Labour migrants are another problem in this country. In a recent speech to parliament, President Rahmon said a special institution needs to be created to handle this. What would your advice be for such an organisation? How should a country defend the rights of its citizens when they live and work far away?

Alizoda:  This is initiative by our president is very timely. Migrants play an important role for our country and the economy. We need a separate government structure because there are many institutions involved and it is difficult to coordinate them. Our organisation is also going to be part of this process. We will assist in protecting migrant’s rights abroad insofar as we are empowered to. We have established good relations with ombudsmen in several Russian regions where our citizens work and also with the Russian Federation ombudsman….

We can also do a lot within Tajikistan. Above all, we need to create orderly, civilised procedures by which people get recruited for work and are given real contracts and agreements. A lot of the problems come when they don’t have those documents. Another thing is professional training for our workers:  we need to open more training centre and provide migrants with a knowledge of the law, which they currently lack and so are unable to assert their rights. We also need to improve the teaching of Russian.

Parvina Khamidova is IWPR human rights story editor in Tajikistan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects:  Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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