Washington, D.C. – The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has issued an opinion finding the detention of Tajik human rights lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov to be a violation of international law. The UN concluded that the charges against Yorov were baseless and that the motivation of the Government of Tajikistan in imprisoning him was to punish him for his representation of members of the political opposition. The UN called on the Government of Tajikistan to release Yorov.
The UN made its determination based on a legal petition filed on behalf of Yorov by the NGOs Freedom Now and Lawyers for Lawyers and law firms Hogan Lovells US LLP and DLA Piper UK LLP.
“Buzurgmehr Yorov is an indefatigable advocate for human rights defenders, opposition politicians, and other politically persecuted individuals in Tajikistan,” said Freedom Now Executive Director Maran Turner. “His continued detention is a deeply troubling example of Tajikistan’s disrespect for rule of law and its harsh contempt for anyone who challenges its authority. We call on the Tajik government to comply with the United Nations and immediately and unconditionally release Yorov.”
Yorov is one of Tajikistan’s most eminent human rights lawyers, a reputation developed by taking on a number of high-profile legal cases, representing individuals prosecuted by the government of Tajikistan on politically-motivated charges. Before imprisoning him, authorities attempted to dissolve his law firm to prevent him from providing a legal defense to people the government sought to lock away.
In early September 2015, Yorov began representing 13 members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the popular political party that had been falsely accused by the government of orchestrating a failed coup. Shortly before his arrest, Yorov gave an interview in which he announced that his client had been tortured in pre-trial detention and called for a coalition of lawyers to join him in representing the detained IRPT members. Police arrested Yorov on the same day that the Tajik Supreme Court designated the IRPT a terrorist organization.
Following various prosecutions that ignored international due process standards, Yorov is serving a combined sentence of 28 years in prison. He was initially held for eight months before his trial began during which time he was beaten and held in solitary confinement on several occasions. On October 6, 2015, a court sentenced Yorov to 23 years in prison on charges of fraud, forgery, “arousing national, racial, local, or religious hostility”, and extremism. Before his sentencing, Yorov read aloud an 11th century poem by a Persian poet. As a result, authorities charged him with contempt of court and insulting a government official. For these charges he was given a second trial and sentenced to an additional two years. Five months later, Yorov was placed on trial for a third time on charges of fraud and publicly insulting the president. He was sentenced to 12 years of confinement in a maximum security prison, but because of the interrelated nature of the charges across all three trials, his sentence was capped at 28 years.
“The harassment and detention of Yorov is indicative of a broader trend in Tajikistan,” said Lawyers for Lawyers Executive Director Judith Lichtenberg. “Over the past five years we have seen a full-scale assault on the legal community, which has resulted in the imprisonment or self-imposed exile of several of the country’s leading lawyers. In order to fulfill its international obligations and respect the rule of law, Tajikistan must free all imprisoned lawyers and eliminate restrictions on the legal profession.”
Since 2014, authorities have arrested and detained at least six human rights lawyers –Shukhrat Kudratov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Buzurgmehr Yorov, Jamshed Yorov, Nuriddin Makhkamov, and Dilbar Dodojonova – as well as Firuz and Daler Tabarov, sons of Iskhok Tabarov, another prominent lawyer. Zokirov was released after two periods of imprisonment. Jamshed Yorov, Buzurgmehr’s brother, was released on September 30, 2016 and fled the county. Kudratov was released early in August 2018, but faced continued harassment. Nuriddin Makhkamov, Yorov’s law partner, was tried alongside Yorov on extremism charges and sentenced to 21 years imprisonment. In May 2017, shortly after she had posted on Facebook an appeal to President Rahmon to halt his persecution of her imprisoned colleague Yorov, leading human rights lawyer Fayzinisso Vohidova was interrogated and blocked from leaving the country. Vohidova was ultimately allowed to leave Tajikistan, but sadly passed away in January 2019 before her law license was reinstated.
The government has also taken steps to curtail the independence of the bar. In November 2015, a new law passed that required all lawyers to renew their law license with the Justice Ministry – instead of the independent bar association – and to retake the bar examination every five years. The bar exam includes questions on a broad range of subjects unrelated to law, such as history, culture, and politics. In the wake of these amendments, the number of licensed lawyers in the country has fallen from more than 1,200 in 2015 to just 600 in 2017. As a result of these restrictions, there is approximately only one lawyer per 14,500 people in Tajikistan, the second lowest per capita rate in Central Asia behind