The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to freedom of expression has concluded a tour in Tajikistan and found the situation there to be particularly dire.
Speaking at a press conference in Dushanbe on March 9, David Kaye spoke, among other things, about his concern for the jailed members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
Tajikistan is currently experiencing one of its most intense waves of state repression since the fall of the Soviet Union, a trend that reach its apex in September with the designation of the IRPT, the country’s only serious opposition force, as a terrorist group.
Kaye’s remarks echoed those of rights activists who worry that Tajikistan’s proximity to Afghanistan has provided it with the cover to freely persecute critics of the government.
“I recognize that there is a serious security problem in this part of the world, in particular in Tajikistan and in this neighborhood. But I’m afraid that the security situation has been used as a pretext, as an excuse, to crack down on freedom of expression, whether in the media or in civil society,” he said.
Kaye said that proper media coverage of events inside the country has suffered as a result.
“It is clear to me that legal protections in the constitution are being eroded and that independent journalists are facing serious forms of harassment that is leading to self-censorship and a lack of information throughout the country,” he said.
The trial against dozens of IRPT members is a particularly illustrative case. Hearings in the most important trial since Tajikistan’s civil war are currently under way, but next to nothing is known about what precisely is happening since the trial is being held behind closed doors. The defendants stand accused of involvement in an alleged attempted coup said to have been mounted in September by a disaffected deputy defense minister.
“I’m especially concerned that the detention of member of the party and the prosecution has not been exposed to public debate, that the evidence has not been exposed to public scrutiny and the trial has not been opened to the public or the media,” Kaye said.
Kaye said that he too had been denied any access to IRPT members.
“In my statement I called for the release of all member of the IRPT who have been detained. I sought and asked the government for access to the detainees and did not receive a response,” he said. “I think this is unfortunate given the closed nature of the proceedings.”
Limitations on free access to information in Tajikistan are now increasingly being extended to online platforms.
“Anybody who tries to get access to the Internet in Tajikistan understands that certain websites are blocked, certain social media is blocked, and that denies people to basic information and ways of communicating with each other and the outside world,” Kaye said.
The need for free spaces for open discussion is particularly acute with a upcoming referendum to be held on May 22 to overhaul the constitution in such a way that will allow President Emomali Rahmon to stand for re-election indefinitely. Other proposed amendments will ban political parties espousing either religious or atheist views.
Given the state’s complete control over all channels of information, it is widely expected that the referendum will be overwhelmingly approved.
“My first concern is that even if the amendments were progressive there needs to be space for public debate about them now. So my main concern is about the present, the debate about the amendments, not the amendments themselves,” Kaye said.
Kaye said that he will be drafting a report on his findings and presenting to the UN Human Rights Council.