Human rights and press freedom advocates are on high alert in Tajikistan following a spate of police beatings, puzzling arrests and deaths in custody – including one in which police say a detainee killed himself by beating his head against a wall. Activists are praising the private local press for keeping attention on the abuses, but they fear the arrest of a BBC journalist may herald another crackdown on the media.
At least four recent cases underscore concerns of systematic police brutality. Early this month, Ismoil Bachajonov, 16, died in Dushanbe police custody. It is unclear why and when the boy was detained, and even when he died, but the Prosecutor General’s Office announced on June 8 that it was launching an investigation into his “beating with a lethal outcome.”
For anyone detained by the police, “torture and other forms of cruel treatment remain a serious threat,” Tahmina Juraeva, a lawyer at the Tajik Human Rights Bureau, a non-governmental organization, told EurasiaNet.org. “People under arrest or in detention are exposed to cruel treatment, whereas the tormentors and their supervisors remain unpunished. The victims usually prefer to keep silent about the violence fearing revenge from law enforcement bodies, including trumped-up charges.”
On June 13, authorities arrested a BBC journalist from Tajikistan for allegedly belonging to a banned Islamic radical group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (which operates legally in the United Kingdom and has never been linked to violence). Family members of Urinboy Usmonov, 59, say he appears to have been beaten in police custody.
Nuriddin Karshibaev, chairman of the National Association of Independent Media (NANSMIT), called Usmonov’s arrest “groundless” and demanded he be given access to his lawyer – “not the lawyer appointed by the authorities, but the one selected by the client.”
“We are seeing numerous violations of the law,” Karshibaev said. “To counter that, the media and human rights organizations must mobilize their efforts and constantly make each of these cases public, reminding the authorities at all levels of Tajikistan’s international commitments.”
On June 6, the high-profile trial resumed of two former Dushanbe police officers charged in connection with the March death of 37-year-old Safarali Sangov. Sangov died in intensive care after he had been beaten in a police station, his relatives allege. The officers say he committed suicide by banging his head against the wall. Police arrested Sangov on drug-related charges, but have not provided specifics, says Amnesty International, urging authorities to conduct an impartial investigation.
The sons of two well-known journalists who have written articles criticizing local police in the southern city of Kulyab claim that on June 7 police detained and beat them without cause after a soccer match. Medical examinations confirmed Ibrohim Ahmad's son Siyavush and Asliddin Dostiev's son Bobojon both sustained injuries while in detention. Dostiev claims police beat the young men to punish the journalists.
In its most recent human rights report on Tajikistan, the US State Department described repeated instances of detainee abuse and expressed concern that officials deny human rights activists and international investigators, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), access to prisons to assess conditions.
“Some security officials reportedly continued to use beatings or other forms of coercion to extract confessions during interrogations,” the report said. “The constitution prohibits the use of torture, but there is no specific definition of torture in the law, or a provision of criminal liability for committing an act of torture.”
Yet for President Emomali Rakhmon, the weakly worded ban on torture is apparently enough. During his early-June visit to Europe, Rakhmon met Heidi Hautala, the chairwoman of the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights. After she questioned him on Tajikistan's rights record, Hautala told EurasiaNet.org that Rakhmon, who was not particularly interested in her concerns, “hides” behind the constitution and persecutes “the opposition, dissidents and human rights defenders as criminals under fabricated charges, often under the pretext of counterterrorism.”
Ordinary people thus see the police as the enemy, opined former Avesta editor Zafar Abdullayev, in a May 27 commentary on the news agency’s website. Criticizing the state-run media for failing to investigate and write balanced stories about the police and cases of torture, he wrote: “A police officer -- a person representing law and justice -- today is perceived as someone posing a threat to the personal security of citizens.”