Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Tough Times for Tajik Lawyers
Independent lawyers appear to be the latest victims of a government crackdown in Tajikistan.
Experts are concerned over the ongoing detention of two legal representatives of the recently outlawed Islamic Rebirth Party (IRP) as well as new legislation that may serve to further target lawyers.
The Supreme Court outlawed the IRP, a strong but moderate political force in Tajikistan for nearly two decades, in September 2015. Dozens of its most active members were arrested.
Buzurgmehr Yorov and Nuriddin Mahkamov, lawyers who represented detained IRP deputy head Saidumar Husaini, were also arrested and remain in custody.
Legal expert Shokirjon Hakimov told IWPR that it was a dangerous time to be a lawyer in Tajikistan.
“Legal activity is an important mechanism to guarantee human rights and protect freedoms in a democratic, free and legal country, but not under current Tajik conditions,” he said. “That’s because in Tajikistan politics takes precedence over the law.
A new law signed by Tajik President Imomali Rahmon last November has also been interpreted as aimed at further limiting legal independence..
According to the new legislation, lawyers are required to obtain a license from the Justice Ministry every five years in order to perform their duties. Previously, they only had to be a member of one of eight legal associations.
But more importantly, lawyers with previous convictions are not allowed to practise.
This can be a real problem in Tajikistan, where activists warn that trumped-up criminal charges are a common tactic used by the authorities to silence dissent.
Human rights defender Fayzinisso Vohidova told IWPR that allegations of fraud, for instance, had long been a favoured method of harassment against lawyers in particular.
“This pressure on lawyers is [a way of putting] pressure on human rights, on the court justice system and on civil society. The recent events leave human rights defenders with no desire to work,” Vohidova concluded.
“Obstacles are created for lawyers trying to carry out their professional duties [whether they have convictions or not] especially if they are engaged in defending civic society activists or personalities whose views differ from the official state position,” added Hakimov.
LONG LIST OF ACCUSATIONS
Tajikistan has a history of detaining lawyers representing opposition forces.
One example was that of Shuhrat Kudratov, arrested in 2014 as he prepared to represent Zayd Saidov, a businessman and former Tajik minister who announced plans to create the New Tajikistan party and run for the 2013 presidential elections. (See Tajik Opposition Figure Gets 26 Years)
Saidov was convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Kudratov was convicted of bribery and received a hefty fine and a prison term of three years and eight months.
In August 2015 another lawyer representing Saidov was also arrested. Fakhriddin Zokirov was detained on charges of extortion and only released in October after paying a fine of some 2,000 dollars.
He had previously been detained in March 2014 accused of fraud. He was granted amnesty in November of the same year. (See Tajik Authorities Target Opponents' Lawyers)
The recent cases of Yorov and Nuriddin Mahkamov appear to be connected to the government crackdown on the IRP, whose members the government accuses of terror offences and spreading radicalisation. (See Tajikistan’s Embattled Islamic Party).
The regime has also linked the IRP with a military rebellion led by former deputy defence minister General Abduhalim Nazarzoda last September.
In a statement, the prosecution service said Nazarzoda, who died with a number of his supporters on September 16 in fighting east of the capital Dushanbe, was acting in collusion with the IRP.
Yorov was arrested on September 29, just a day after expressing concerns about the alleged use of torture against his client Husaini.
He said that the deputy IRP leader had been offered a ministerial post in return for leaving his party and publicly denouncing its activity.
The lawyer claimed that after Husaini refused to comply, he was taken into custody by the State Security Service and badly beaten.
Yorov was subsequently charged with a range of offences, including allegedly forging vehicle documents and publicly calling for violence and religious hatred.
Tajik State TV also reported that Yorov was originally from Surkhandaryo, a region in neighbouring Uzbekistan, although Yorov has previously insisted that he was in fact born in the Tajik capital Dushanbe.
The two states periodically accuse each other of spying.
Yorov also made clear that he believed his arrest was directly connected to his professional activity. He said that during a 12-hour interrogation officials demanded he sever his ties with the IRPT, which he refused.
Mahkamov, another of Husseini’s lawyers, was detained in October 2015 on charges of fraud. Just before he was arrested, Mahkamov said his application for a warrant to represent his colleague Yorov had been refused.
A human rights defender told IWPR on condition of anonymity that the authorities lacked any evidence for detaining IRP members and were attempting to stop lawyers making this public.
This article was produced under two IWPR projects: Empowering Media and Civil Society Activists to Support Democratic Reforms in Tajikistan, funded by the European Union, and Strengthening Capacities, Bridging Divides in Central Asia, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
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