Following Russia’s lead, Tajikistan’s main law-enforcement agency will soon drop its Soviet-era moniker, militsia, and refashion itself as the politsia. Beyond the name change, though, real reform is lacking, human rights advocates in Dushanbe say.
Judging by official statistics, featuring low street-crime rates, Tajik citizens on the surface have reason to feel satisfied with the work of the militsia/politsia. But the statistics only tell a small part of the story. Corruption – and the resulting public resentment – is commonly acknowledged as widespread. “If I have a problem, the police are the last place I would go,” said a Dushanbe resident who called himself Dilshod.
Echoing a widely held feeling, Dilshod added: “The police protect the rich and defend organized crime. … Most Tajiks do not trust them.” Tajikistan ranked 154 out of 178 countries surveyed in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International, a watchdog group.
The public image problem for the police extends far beyond petty corruption. Many Tajiks believe that law-enforcement officials regularly resort to illegal methods to extract confessions from suspects.
On March 1, for example, Safarali Sangov was arrested by plain-clothes police officers and accused of drug trafficking. Later that day, Sangov ended up in intensive care with a broken spine, hip and nose. Four days later he died. The Interior Ministry said he sustained the injuries jumping from a second-story of police station in a suicide attempt. Human rights activists, however, suspect that Sangov was the victim of torture.
A lack of transparency and insufficient laws addressing the use of torture make combatting police abuses almost impossible, said Nargis Zokirova, director of the Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law, a local non-governmental organization. Incidents are difficult to quantify, but torture remains “widespread,” according to Zokirova.
As long as “independent observers have no access to closed institutions [...] and victims do not testify for fear of reprisals, the level of torture will remain a mystery,” Zokirova said. She added that her organization is seeking an independent investigation into the Sangov case.
Since 2008, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sponsored a police reform project in Tajikistan that attempts, among other things, to address the torture issue. Overall, it is only a small percentage of police officers who sully the reputation of the entire law-enforcement system, asserted Oliver Janser, the OSCE’s police and counter terrorism advisor. Countering criticism that the program has achieved little while spending 100,000 euros per year on programmatic activities, Janser insisted that “we did pretty well in a very short amount of time.” He described the re-naming of the militsia a “good start” toward the creation of a more professional law-enforcement agency.
A recent report on OSCE police reform efforts throughout Central Asia, sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, characterized the changes to date as “ad hoc.” The April 11 report, titled Reassessing the Role of OSCE Police Assistance Programing in Central Asia, noted that “although there has been increasing OSCE interest in policing in Tajikistan, and a rapidly developing range of activities in this area, in reality, as OSCE officials themselves admit, no real police reform program is being implemented." [Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices].
The name change from militsia to politsia is merely cosmetic, argued David Lewis, the report’s author. “There is no evidence yet of any deeper changes in the police force. And changing the name is only a very small part of what needs to be done,” he said.
Lewis, a lecturer at the University of Bradford, said the OSCE should adopt realistic goals and set benchmarks for progress. “At present, we only have some attempts to achieve a limited modernization of police structures, without much evidence of more fundamental reform,” he said. Noting a lack of “political will” in Tajikistan for reforms, Lewis recommended that the OSCE adopt “a more modest appreciation of what can be achieved.”
Janser, angered by Lewis’ report, insisted that “there is political will” for police reform in Tajikistan.
“If they [Tajik officials] discuss it [reform], if they engage it, then that is a huge step forward,” he said. Janser endorsed the policy of engagement: “Do you ignore authorities who shun human rights? Or do you train them to work within the rule of law?” The OSCE “pushes for cases of human rights abuses to be investigated.”
Reformers hope self-criticism will catalyze the reform process. Speaking privately, even some police officers are shocked by the extent of corruption. “Some of my colleagues get paid $100 per month, but they own $5,000 cars. You do the math. Nearly all police officers in this country are corrupt to some extent,” said an officer at the Drug Control Agency, though “few do more than accept small bribes.”
On April 26 in a candid recognition of the problem, Fattoh Saidov, the director of the State Anti-Corruption Agency, acknowledged that the police force is the most corrupt agency in the country. "Some police officers have no conscience at all,” he said in comments carried by the Asia-Plus news agency.
“Reform does not happen overnight,” Janser argued. “Police reform is exposing them again and again and again and at one point it will change.”