A court in Tajikistan has ordered the closure of a prominent rights group, citing a variety of alleged technical violations of its operating license, including moving offices without duly notifying authorities, engaging in unauthorized training sessions involving high school students and operating an improperly registered website.
The October 24 court ruling came after the Tajik Justice Ministry filed a motion to shut down the Association of Young Lawyers, known as Amparo, a rights organization based in the northern city of Khujand. Amparo representatives vowed to appeal the ruling at the Khujand City Court. Amparo head Dilrabo Samadova told the Asia-Plus news agency that the case proves Tajikistan’s courts are not independent.
“Unfortunately, today we once again became witnesses of judicial dependence. But we are not going to give up, and will not stop human rights activities," she said.
Amparo has worked since 2005 to defend victims of torture and to document instances of hazing military recruits in Tajikistan’s northern Sughd Province. This summer, an Amparo representative, speaking at a European Union-funded seminar in Dushanbe, accused the government of failing to address torture cases. Not long after that seminar, Amparo was charged with a number of technical violations. The charges also closely followed a briefing that Amparo activists gave the UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, during his visit to Tajikistan in May.
The decision to force Amparo to cease its activities comes amid a spate of torture controversies in Tajikistan, and two weeks before Tajik government officials go before the United Nation’s Committee against Torture for a periodic review of Dushanbe’s practices. As a member of the NGO Coalition Against Torture and Impunity, Amparo representatives contributed to a report that will be considered alongside the government’s assertions during the UN committee hearings on November 7-8 in Geneva. The NGO report asserts that there is still “widespread use of torture” in Tajikistan and “many of the recommendation[s] the UN Committee Against Torture made in 2006 still have not been implemented.” The report also describes authorities’ systematic denial of access to detention facilities for observers from civil society groups and the Red Cross.
Observers saw an element of retribution in the court decision. “My hunch is that they pissed off somebody in Khujand, possibly related to their military recruits activism,” said a Western diplomatic source. “To be fair they appear to do a pretty good job in this area, and have taken the lead on it.”
The international organization Human Rights Watch was scathing in its criticism of the ruling, describing it in an October 25 statement as “politically motivated and devoid of substance.”
“Amparo plays a crucially important role in raising legal literacy and taking on topics that have historically gone unaddressed in Tajikistan,” the watchdog’s Europe and Central Asia director Hugh Williamson was quoted as saying in the statement. “No one believes for a minute that the Justice Ministry went after Amparo because of charges as minor as these.”
Representatives of the Justice Ministry could not be reached for comment on October 25, the eve of a public holiday in Tajikistan.
Deaths in detention are not uncommon in Tajikistan. Over the past year, several high-profile cases of suspected torture deaths have gained international attention. In mid-September, for example, the body of 27-year-old Hamza Ikromzoda was returned to his family bearing signs of torture, including burns in the shape of a hot iron. The president’s office promised to take control of the investigation. On October 23 the prosecutor’s office told Ikromzoda’s family he had committed suicide by hanging himself, Radio Free Europe reported.
Ikromzoda’s former cellmate, Saidali Kazakov, told local media outlets earlier this month that abuse in prisons is widespread. He said the only way to keep from being tortured was to pay guards hundreds of dollars in bribes.
Last November, Bahromiddin Shodiyev died of injuries police say he sustained by throwing himself out of a police station window. Briefly conscious before dying, he told family in his hospital room that he’d been beaten and had his mouth taped shut.