(Washington, D.C.) – In response to a petition filed by Freedom Now and lawyers with the international law firm Hogan Lovells LLP, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion finding the detention of opposition leader Mahmadali Hayit by the Government of Tajikistan to be in violation of international law. The Working Group—an independent panel of five human rights experts from around the world—called for the release of Hayit.

“We welcome the Working Group’s opinion,” said Freedom Now Legal Director Kate Barth. “It has been 975 days since the Tajikistani government arrested and detained Mahmadli Hayit as part of a broader campaign to vilify peaceful political opposition parties. The highly disproportionate sentence he received violates his fundamental human rights including the right to freedom of expression. Freedom Now calls on the Tajikistani government to respect the Working Group’s opinion and immediately and unconditionally release Hayit.”

Mahmadali Hayit is the deputy chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), a peaceful opposition party. Tajikistan’s efforts to discredit and dismantle the party 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.

In September 2015, the government accused IRPT members of initiating a failed coup and arrested more than a dozen of its top leaders. Hayit was arrested on September 16, 2015, despite the absence of any evidence that he or any other IRPT members were involved in the failed coup. Relatives of the detained activists informed human rights groups that the detainees were subject to torture and kept incommunicado.

On September 29, 2015, the Supreme Court banned the IRPT and ordered it to cease operations. In its ruling, the Supreme Court determined that the IRPT should be labeled as a terrorist organization, despite the lack of evidence linking it to any terrorist activities.
On February 9, 2016, the Supreme Court began hearing cases against Hayit and his colleagues. Because the charges involved national security concerns all hearings were closed to the public and took place in the Tajikistani State Committee for National Security pre-trial detention facility in Dushanbe rather than in a courtroom. Hayit’s initial lawyer was arrested before the proceedings could begin. Subsequent lawyers fled the country after receiving government threats.

The charges against Hayit and his associates included terrorism, armed rebellion, murder, public appeals to “violent change of the constitutional order,” incitement to racial and religious hatred, and organization of a criminal group. On June 2, 2016, the Supreme Court of Tajikistan sentenced Hayit to life in prison.

In its opinion, the Working Group found that the Government of Tajikistan had committed numerous violations of international law in arresting and detaining Hayit. It determined that Tajikistan violated his rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and participation in public affairs. In addition to affirming the right of Hayit to be released, the Working Group stated that he should be compensated and referred the allegations of torture to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Freedom Now and Hogan Lovells serve as Hayit’s international pro bono counsel. Since adopting the case, Freedom Now has urged the UN Secretary General to raise Hayit’s imprisonment with President Emomali Rahmon and delivered a statement calling for Hayit’s release before the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.