This week government representatives of 57 member nations, civil society leaders, and experts from Europe, Central Asia, and North America will descend upon Warsaw, Poland to participate in Europe’s largest annual human rights and democracy conference. The agenda for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Human Dimension Implementation meeting will cover a range of human rights issues, including how safeguarding democratic elections, combating racism, and preventing aggressive nationalism.
One item that should be on the agenda is the ferocious political and religious crackdown which continues apace in Tajikistan. Since 2015, authorities in the landlocked Central Asian nation have methodically worked to discredit and dismantle any peaceful political opposition, using both the state-controlled media and the courts to label opposition groups as terrorists. Between 100 and 200 political opposition members have been arrested and imprisoned for lengthy sentences, in some cases decades.
The government’s primary target is the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Tajikistan’s campaign against the IRPT began shortly before the March 2015 parliamentary elections when several news articles appeared in state-run newspapers that falsely accused the IRPT of terrorism. Imams at state-controlled mosques also delivered sermons denouncing the IRPT and its alleged link to terrorism. After the IRPT lost both its seats in parliament, the government ordered the party shuttered and banned its operations. In September 2015, the government accused IRPT members of initiating a failed coup and arrested more than a dozen of its top leaders. One of those arrested was Mahmadali Hayit, the deputy chairman of IRPT, who was later sentenced to life in prison after a closed trial.
Not satisfied with merely jailing its political opponents, the Tajik government has turned to persecuting lawyers. Shukrat Kudratov, one of Tajikistan’s most prominent human rights lawyers, has represented numerous victims of human rights abuses. One such individual was Zayd Saidov, a businessman turned politician sentenced to a total of 29 years on an array of fabricated charges. Mr. Kudratov was arrested in July 2014 after he sent a letter to NGOs, the media, and various diplomatic missions highlighting grave procedural violations in Mr. Saidov’s prosecution. Mr. Kudratov is currently serving three years and eight months in prison.
The government’s campaign has not ceased at its borders. It has also targeted perceived critics abroad, abusing the INTERPOL system to seek their detention and extradition to Tajikistan. In some instances, critics have been forcibly disappeared abroad and reappeared in Tajik custody.
Last year nearly two dozen Tajik exiles and members of the IRPT attended the Human Dimension Implementation meeting with the intention of having their voices heard. They stood at the back of the room wearing t-shirts with the faces of imprisoned political opposition leaders and issued statements calling for their release. The Tajik government delegation staged a walkout and issued a statement condemning the OSCE’s decision to allow the protestors to participate in the meeting. The next day reprisals were launched against family members of the protestors living in Tajikistan. More than 50 family members were detained and some physically assaulted.
IRPT activists and members of Tajik civil society will again participate in the Human Dimension Implementation meetings this year. They will again hold events and issue statements condemning the imprisonment of their colleagues. Whether the Tajik government will again walkout and retaliate against its citizens remains to be seen. If OSCE member states do not wish for history to repeat itself they must condemn these actions publicly and forcefully by calling for the release of all political prisoners and respect for Tajikistan’s commitments under international law.