(Berlin) – Tajik authorities should immediately release or present credible and internationally recognizable charges against the human rights lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov, six international human rights groups said today.
The authorities arrested Yorov on September 28, 2015, in Dushanbe on what appeared to be trumped-up charges in retaliation for representing 13 of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the groups said. The government banned the party in August and declared it a terrorist organization on September 29. Yorov is at least the fourth Tajik lawyer authorities have arrested, imprisoned on politically motivated charges, or subjected to serious harassment in less than two years.
“The arrest of a leading human rights lawyer for taking on a politically sensitive case shows just how terrible Tajikistan’s ongoing human rights crackdown has become,” said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “The Tajik government should immediately release or credibly charge Buzurgmehr Yorov, provide him access to a lawyer and his family, and ensure the independence of the legal profession.”
The human rights groups urging Tajikistan to act are Amnesty International, the Paris Bar, Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, Human Rights Watch, the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
The authorities charged Yorov with fraud and document forgery under articles 140 and 340 of Tajikistan’s criminal code. An Internal Affairs Ministry spokesperson said the alleged fraud occurred in July 2010, when Yorov had purportedly received US$4,000 from a resident of the city of Istaravshan.
At the time of his arrest, Yorov had just begun to represent the 13 Renaissance Party members, whom authorities arrested on various charges on September 16. In an interview with a journalist published the day he was arrested, Yorov said that one client, Umarali Hisaynov, a deputy party leader, told him that officers from the Police Unit for Combating Organized Crime had beaten him following his arrest.
The 13 were senior leaders of the party, the second-largest in the country with an estimated 40,000 supporters. It had been the only Islamic political party legally registered in Central Asia before it was banned and declared a terrorist organization. The Supreme Court declaration on September 29 that the party was a terrorist organization made the dissemination of any materials produced by the party a criminal offense.
On October 6 a credible independent media outlet in Tajikistan told Human Rights Watch that up to 78 party members are either in detention or under formal arrest on various grounds related to their party membership.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers states that lawyers “shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions” and that they must be able “to perform all their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.” Furthermore, lawyers “shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards or ethics.”
“By locking up a prominent human rights lawyer, Dushanbe is sending Tajikistan’s legal community an unambiguous warning to stay away from politically sensitive cases,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now more than ever, Tajikistan needs a strong and independent legal profession that can operate free of interference or fear of retribution.”
Yorov’s arrest comes amid a worsening government crackdown on dissent, and follows the arrest, imprisonment, and intimidation of several other lawyers who were known for taking on politically sensitive cases. On January 13, a Dushanbe court sentenced a well-known human rights lawyer, Shukhrat Kudratov, to nine years in prison following a politically motivated trial for fraud and bribery. His sentence was later reduced on appeal to three years.
A few months before being jailed Kudratov served as counsel for Zayd Saidov, an opposition figure sentenced in December 2013 to 29 years in prison in a prosecution that appeared to be retaliation for his intention to run in the November 2013 presidential election. In August 2015, prosecutors brought additional charges against Saidov, resulting in the addition of three more years to his sentence.
In March 2014, Tajikistan’s Anti-Corruption Agency arrested another prominent lawyer, Fakhriddin Zokirov, on fraud charges. Zokirov was in detention until November 3, when he was released under an amnesty. The International Commission of Jurists and 18 Tajik nongovernmental groups labeled Kudratov’s and Zokirov’s arrests politically motivated.
In July 2015, a Khujand-based lawyer, Fayzinisso Vohidova, who is known for her human rights and criminal defense work, told Human Rights Watch that she had received text messages saying that she and her family could be killed or seriously injured unless she agreed to stop representing politically sensitive clients.
The United States, the European Union, and Tajikistan’s other international partners should press the Tajik government to ensure that all lawyers are able to carry out their work without fear of threats or harassment, including freedom from arbitrary arrest or prosecution, the groups said. The international partners should also press Tajikistan to uphold its international obligations to respect freedom of association, assembly, and expression.
“This worrying pattern of arrests of lawyers represents an assault on the independence of the legal profession in Tajikistan and should end immediately,” said Bjorn Engesland, secretary general of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “Locking away the lawyer because of the client is not only a serious miscarriage of justice; it harms the public at large, depriving them of the right to independent legal counsel.”