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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

EU must use power to protect rights activists

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

Tajikistan is hoping in the near future to improve its Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) deal with the EU to GSP+. But the state is jailing – and sometimes torturing – human rights defenders in direct breach of international law and basic human decency.


The United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor says that Tajikistan must release all human rights defenders in its jails, with full pardons, and improve its human rights laws and practices. She is also demanding the EU refuses to upgrade Tajikistan's relationship with it unless this is done.


This is our second interview with Ms Lawlor, and we have presented it in an unusual way, with a news article first, and the full transcript of the interview below that, with some hopefully useful notes.


You can read whichever you prefer (we recommend both). If you wish to publish the article, please contact us.

UN Human Rights expert calls on EU to help jailed activists



A leading UN expert on human rights has called on the EU to use its economic and political power to do more to help people in potential partner states.


Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, said the bloc should insist its partners recognise and protect activists standing for human rights, as a condition of deals with other countries.


Speaking about her most recent state visit, to Tajikistan, she said: 'The situation there for human rights defenders is really appalling. They are routinely criminalised. It's a dire situation.


'The government is misusing its position and its own laws to criminalise and harm human rights defenders.


'The EU has the chance to use its power in these situations, to stand for justice, the law, and the decent treatment of people standing for human rights.'


The EU is currently debating an upgrade to its current Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) trade deal, which removes import duties on products from 'developing' countries, with the central Asian state, to a GSP+ status. The new status gives the EU greater leverage, by offering greater trade advantages in exchange for 'sustainable development and good governance'.


The first deadline for feedback on the proposed deal has already passed, but a second comes this month (August 2023) and Ms Lawlor believes it must demand better treatment of – and an end to attacks on – human rights defenders in Tajikistan.


She said: 'One condition for the agreement to go ahead must be that Tajikistan cannot be in serious failure to implement human rights standards, as it is now.'


Ms. Lawlor visited Tajikistan for 10 days in November and December 2022, following a six-month period in which civil unrest had erupted in the country's eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Area (GBAO), followed by mass arrests and jailing of journalists, lawyers and other human rights activists and defenders.


She said: 'I wanted to visit Tajikistan because I was aware there were some serious problems there, and also because it is kind of a forgotten country.


'We tried to go to GBAO, but we never got there. The roads are mountainous and dangerous in winter. The government ruled it out.'


She added: 'Everything goes through the president (Emomoli Rahman) there. I was able to visit some ministers but the thing was that none of them have any power. People who might have a vague interest for human rights are just there for show.'


A major focus of her visit was to meet jailed human rights defenders, and those who feared their situations could deteriorate if they continued to speak. Even those who agreed to talk to her revealed their fear of the state's response.


She said: 'I spoke with a large number of people but – and this is a mark of how bad the situation is there for human rights defenders – even some of those who were already in jail spoke with me confidentially, because they were so terrified for themselves and their families. It is really a problem. Their government has made human rights defenders too frightened to speak.


'The government has some legitimate concerns, including its fear that it could be infiltrated from Afghanistan. But the protests in GBAO, for example, started as a result of the extra-judicial killing of Gulbidin Ziyobekov by the police. The police and government forced confessions from people, then carried out secret trials. They were completely unfair.


'Those people aren't invaders, or extremists. They aren't terrorists. It's people who talk about border conflict, freedom of religion, women's rights, LGBTQI+ rights. Anyone who speaks about injustices is being targeted.'


Nine of the numerous human rights defenders being persecuted gave permission for Ms. Lawlor to follow up on their cases after the visit.


She said: 'Of those, eight have been jailed for being terrorists. This is a misuse of the country's anti-terrorism legislation, and it's rampant. The country agreed to comply with human rights laws, but just ignores them.


'These nine people had sentences of seven to 29 years. Some had been tortured. All had unfair trials. Some had been disappeared. Very few are allowed restricted visits. Two human rights defenders I was able to meet were Abdulloh Ghurbati and Daler Bobiev.


'Abdulloh Ghurbati had a one-week-old baby when he was sent to prison for seven and a half years. He was crying when he described this to me. He is an award-winning documentary film-maker. Another man I met, Daler Bobiev, had 150,000 subscribers on YouTube. He was getting important messages out about what was happening to people.


'One woman, Ulfathonim Mamadshoeva is a civil servant and a Pamiri minority resident in GBAO. She founded an NGO focussing on children and women's rights. This is not a crime. She has been tortured and is held in very bad conditions. She's 65 years old and was given a sentence of 20 years. Her mental health is really badly affected.


'They are all unjustly held, and conditions in the jails are terrible.'


After medical examinations, demanded by Ms Lawlor, Ghurbati and Bobiev were found to have acute respiratory tract infections, acute chronic bronchitis and fungal skin disease.


Ms Lawlor said: 'I requested the release of all jailed human rights defenders, who deserve full pardons, and for the country's government to recognise the law and its responsibilities. But since then, just one human rights defender has been given an amnesty. Nothing else has happened. The only hope to make any changes is to push the GSP+ agreement for all it is worth.


'Tajikistan's president wants to say he's in with the EU. He, the government, and the EU all care about their reputations. These attacks on human rights defenders harm Tajikistan's reputation, and by association the EU's as well, unless it demands change and makes the deal dependent on that change being delivered.


'We must not let this go.'


Full interview transcript


1. When did you visit Tajikistan?


I went to Tajikistan in November 2022, at the end of the month. It was an official community visit, and my second official visit to the country.


It was a 12-day trip, 28 November to 9 December, and the usual sort of thing, visiting defenders, seeing government officials, ministers.


2. Why Tajikistan?


Tajikistan nobody really knows about. It's a forgotten country. I wanted to go to a forgotten country. And I knew there were some serious problems there


Central Asia is a very interesting place, with former USSR republics.


3. How was the visit?


I didn't get to see all the people I wanted to, there were a couple of defenders I didn't get to see, but generally access was good.


I got to see heads of ministries, I saw the minister for justice (Rustam Shoemurod) and others.


The first couple of days went slowly and it looked hard, because we had no meetings arranged, and we had had to meet some defenders secretly because they were terrified. But after a couple of days we became very very busy, saw a lot of officials and government people.


But the thing about it was that none of them have any power. Even ministers have little power, though some have a little more than others. People who might have a vague interest in human rights are just there for show.


4. What is the political situation in Tajikistan?


In Tajikistan, all power is centralised in the President's office (Emomali Rahmon).[i]


Government policy is the president's policy. He thinks Turkmenistan is a great example of how to control people.


5. And what is the situation for Human Rights Defenders?


I issued an allegation letter after the visit in July 2023. It took from January to June to verify everything, get consent from defenders I wanted to include. Some didn’t give that consent, because they were so terrified for themselves, and their families’ safety, or that their jail sentence would be increased if they spoke out publicly. Which is really a problem. These people are human rights defenders and their government has made them too scared to say anything.


The situation for human rights defenders is really appalling in Tajikistan. They are routinely criminalised, it's a dire situation.


The government there doesn't even really know what being human rights defenders means.


Tajikistan agreed to comply with human rights laws, but they just ignore them.


6. Are there specific challenges to people in general?


Tajikistan is a very very poor country. It's a very tricky system to navigate. There is no respect for human rights, and anyone perceived as showing the government in a bad light - Pamiris (GBAO natives), for example, as well as women's rights campaigners – are subjected to secret and unfair trials, so it's very difficult to ensure justice and the rule of law there.


Corruption is everywhere. One young woman human rights defender said she was pulled over by a policeman for being in the wrong lane. He fined her, but then said that instead he would accept a bribe. Even the electricity companies take bribes instead of people paying their bills.


Business is totally corrupt as well. We went to a palace built to host business people. It was beautiful, and contained great artwork, but poverty in Tajikistan is so bad, so striking, especially when you go out of the capital Dushanbe.


7. How does this impact on people?


Problems are compounded by complete corruption. Families are torn apart, and these people could be any one of us. We wouldn't even know why we were given a ten-year jail sentence. It's very frightening if you can just be lifted from your home, sentenced in a secret unfair trial, with no lawyer, then thrown into prison from which there is no means to escape.


Of the nine people who gave me permission to speak about their experiences, eight have been jailed for terrorism. This is a misuse of Tajikistan's anti-terrorism legislation, and it's rampant.


They had sentences of seven to 29 years[ii]. Some were tortured, all had unfair trials. Some have been disappeared. Very few are allowed restricted visits. They are alone.

As a mark of just how important standing in support of human rights defenders in Tajikistan is, I have had people ask me not to say anything at all because of how scared they are of the government, and what might happen to them in the long term if I do. I have of course not quoted these people in any reports. But that is what we are talking about here: a country where people who have committed no crime are in jail, and are scared of anyone bringing attention to this absolute injustice in case something even worse is done to them.


The government is misusing its position and its own laws to criminalise and harm people for protecting human rights.


The government doesn't know what a human rights defender is. It doesn't understand that human rights defenders are people working peacefully to promote and protect human rights, work for rights ensured in the UN Human Rights Declaration, which has been in place for 75 years. Not understanding this after so long is not really acceptable.


As a UN member, Tajikistan is part of that. The declaration really brought the UN into existence, effectively. It has ratified covenants from the document to give legal force to the articles, so Tajikistan's government is now in direct breach of that commitment.


The government claims that all those people are extremists and terrorists, but there were protests in GBAO and these people were protesting against extra judicial killings.


The government has legitimate fear of being infiltrated from Afghanistan, but its population is very young, and the government provides no real human rights education at all. Instead, it characterises human rights defenders as enemies of Tajikistan.


It does consult on issues that aren't sensitive, but anything they consider sensitive, they won't have anything to do with and won't even discuss.


8. What happened in GBAO?

We tried to go to GBAO.[iii] We wanted to go because it's where conflict has been taking place, but we never got there. It's very mountainous country, in the snow. It's very spectacular, but the roads were very dangerous. The government ruled it out.


One place we went in the car, I looked down and there was just a huge drop. I asked the driver 'please slow down' and he said 'no I can't, because the rocks slide down so I have to rush through.


There was ethnic conflict in GBAO, and the government is completely preoccupied with security and extremism, because the region borders Afghanistan.


That is understandable, but its outcomes are neither reasonable or acceptable.


In November 2021, Gulbidin Ziyobekov was extra-judicially killed by the police. As a result, protests started, then a lot of leaders were arrested. The police and government forced confessions, then carried out secret trials. They were completely unfair, and very common.


These leaders included lawyers, but the judiciary is very corrupt, so there are very few lawyers in Tajikistan now, and many of those who do exist are part of the wider flawed system, and so not independent.


There are too few independent lawyers willing to stand up to the system, which is completely corrupt and totally rigged.


9. What faces people once they are jailed?

Conditions in jails where human rights defenders are being held are terrible.


There were two human rights defenders I spoke to in prison. One young man Daler Imomali has a hereditary disease, and is scared he will get TB in prison.


Another, Abdulloh Ghurbati, had a one-week-old baby when he was sent to prison for seven and a half years. He was crying when he described this to me.


They showed me their skin, they had rashes, bites. They are held in terrible conditions, but there is no medical attention given to them. I was able to do a small thing – I contacted the general who got us permission to enter the jail and speak to the people there, and he sent a medical team in. Its report confirmed Abdulloh and Daler had acute respiratory tract infection, chronic bronchitis and fungal skin infections – but they are still in jail for no good reason, and living in terrible conditions there.


10. Who are they?


The people in jails and being criminalised include campaigners for women's rights, people campaigning against torture, LGBTQI rights campaigners, people campaigning for fair trials. Lawyers are criminalised for taking up cases and defending these people.


These are people working on a very wide range of issues, lots of journalists and bloggers. They are all being attacked and jailed.


Daler, who operated under the name Daler Bobiev, had a Youtube channel with 150,000 subscribers. He was getting important messages about rights and what was happening out to those people, and as a result he is in jail and cannot see his young baby. He is an award-winning documentary maker and he's in jail risking disease because the government claims he is a terrorist.


Anyone who speaks about injustices can be targeted. People who talk about border conflict freedom of religion, women's rights, LGBTQI+ rights.

According to Daler and Abdulloh, two others are also in prison for supporting them. They should all be released.


Then lawyers said organisations have been disbanded.


One woman, Ulfathonim Mamadshoeva, is a journalist, civil servant and a Pamiri minority resident in GBAO. She founded an NGO focussing on children and women's rights. This is not a crime. Lawyers working on these issues and bringing people to justice is not happening. There's a huge gap.


She is in a very bad state. Her mental health is really badly affected. She has been tortured and is held in very bad conditions. She's 65 years old and was given a sentence of 20 years.


I had been having online meetings with human rights defenders for some time before my visit.


Some had escaped to Russia, but the Russian government sent them back. Tajikistan is very friendly with China and Russia.


11. Why does this matter?

It's really important because these are innocent people, and because they are the people who build civil and just societies. Look at Europe: NGOs and organisations took up social issues that governments failed and fail at.


12. What do you want to change?


An ideal outcome for my visit would have been to persuade the government to release these innocent people. That hasn't come to pass.


The government has legitimate fear of being infiltrated from Afghanistan, but its population is very young, and the government provides no real human rights education at all. Instead, it characterises human rights defenders as enemies of Tajikistan.


And in this matter, you have to start with schools. I asked them to do this, but they said 'no. If we did that it will be like the West, where all these people who had human rights education in school joined ISIS.' Of course they didn't.


You can't just ditch all human rights standards to avoid some threat that never happened.


It didn't surprise me.


The government must recognise the legitimate work of human rights defenders, and their right to do their legitimate work. They also need to make public demonstrations that human rights defenders are allowed to do their work, by educating people and informing them. It must also stop targeting lawyers.


There needs to be a complete reform of the judicial and executive system to strengthen democracy and the rule of law. They have to stop corruption, too. This is a human rights issue. All the cash could be going to services for the people, to make people's lives better.


13. How could this be done?


OSCE has an agreement with Tajikistan, which prevents the country from raising cases against human rights defenders. The government agreed to this, even though they have recommendations and regulations on human rights defenders already.


The EU's Protect Defenders guidelines includes grants, advocacy and training on these matters. But human rights defenders are never invited to the Embassy, the ambassador never met with them, no-one is doing it. There is a complete lack of support.


This is the same for the US and UK. Both countries have guidelines on human rights and protecting and supporting human rights defenders. But they are not acted on or backed by their ambassadors. The UN, too, so I wrote about projects and programmes, grants, which should be stopped if they won't take a stand on human rights.


The application for GSP+ between the EU and Tajikistan started in March 2023 to have discussions and propose amendment to the country's practices, to see if that will happen. Previously, the EU held meetings with the Government of Tajikistan while I was there.


My call is that all human rights defenders in jail must be granted amnesties or full pardons. None of them should ever have been in jail in the first place. That's the only demand I have. That all human rights defenders must be released, and to bring in a law to protect human rights defenders.


I sent the Tajik government a draft law, and they said they will consider it. But until I see it, well… it's hasn't happened, has it?


14. Are there any other options or possibilities?


There's a new agreement with the EU which is the only real chance we have to get these people released, and get this situation improved so other people don't have to go through what they have. I'm pinning my hopes on that.


It's the GSP+ EU agreement, a preferential trade agreement.[iv]


The EU's negotiators were there when I was, to start discussions on this, and the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA). They are now at the pre-assessment stage, and one condition for the agreement to go ahead must be that Tajikistan cannot be in serious failure to implement human rights standards, as it is now.


The first deadline for feedback has passed, but the next is not until late August.


I think our only hope at the moment is to really play this agreement for all it's worth. As far as I can see for political reasons the president wants to say he's in with the EU.


It's the only thing I can think of that might have a bit of leverage. I feel we must not let this just go away, be forgotten or hidden. I can't do a visit and nothing happens.


The EU has to spell out steps the government must take to protect human rights defenders, if it wants to have this deal. Otherwise, it cannot have it.


The Tajik president, its government and the EU all care about their reputations, and these attacks on human rights defenders harm Tajikistan's reputation, and by association the EU's unless it demands change and makes the deal dependent on that change being delivered, so we have to keep working to make that happen.


We cannot stay silent about this.


15. When will you issue your report on the country?


I issued a statement on my first impressions of the country, and will be submitting and presenting my final report in March next year (2024).


______________________________________________________________________

[i] Emomali Rahmon, 70, has been Tajikistan's president since 1994. He has won five elections, widely believed to have been 'undemocratic' in 1994, 1999, 2006, 2013 and 2020.

He has altered the constitution so the President can run in an unlimited number of elections, and can serve for life. He holds the lifetime title of Peshoy Millat – 'Leader of the Nation'.

[ii] They are: Mr. Khushruz Djumaev, Mr. Faromuz Irgashov, Mr. Manuchekhr Kholiknazarov, Ms. Ulfathonim Mamadshoeva, Mr. Abdulmajid Rizoev, Mr. Abdusattor Kotibov, Mr. Zavqibek Sohibov, Mr. Avazmad Ghurbatov, Mr. Daler Bobiev. For more details on each one, click here. [iii] Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Area. The region takes up 45 per cent of Tajikistan's area (in the country's east) but as it is in the Pamir mountains, has just two per cent of its population. It has experienced serious outbreaks of civil unrest in 2012, 20114, 2018, 2021 and 2022. The causes are varied, but most observers agree that each episode has begun specifically (though with many other inputs) because of government efforts to take full control of the region, as well as to control the opium trade. In 2022's unrest, several local community leaders were killed. In May 2022, 40 civilians were killed when protesting the torture of Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, a youth representative. Protestors, journalists and human rights activists were jailed in the subsequent days. The government also seized properties and kidnapped Pamiri people abroad. Some human rights activists have said that the actions are tantamount to the start of ethnic cleansing. [iv] The EU is currently debating an upgrade to its current Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) trade deal with Tajikistan. GSPs remove import duties on products from 'developing' countries, and the negotiations would see that changed to a GSP+ deal. The new status gives the EU greater leverage, by offering greater trade advantages in exchange for 'sustainable development and good governance'.

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