A jailed lawyer in Tajikistan has had his lengthy sentence extended by two years for contempt of court for quoting the words of an 11th century Persian philosopher and poet during his original trial.
The ruling handed down on March 16 means Buzurgmehr Yorov now faces 25 years in jail. He was sentenced in October on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges of fraud and inciting hatred and extremism, among other offenses.
Rights advocates argue Yorov was targeted for reprisal because he was one of the few lawyers willing to take up the case of arrested members of the now-banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).
During hearings at his trial in October, Yorov quoted Avicenna to say that “society is spoiled by a few ignorant people who believe themselves the wisest; those that would make infidels of all who do not abide by their wishes.” The court was sufficiently offended by the words to file a criminal case of charges of contempt and offending a state representative.
And that isn’t all.
Yorov’s sister, Hosiyat, has told EurasiaNet.org that the Firdavs district court in Dushanbe is now bracing for hearings into yet another case, again on fraud charges, which envision anything up to another 12 years in jail.
In addition to defending the IRPT members, Yorov was the first person to make a public statement about the apparent physical abuse being meted out to the jailed party leadership. That appears to have precipitated in his arrest in September 2015.
State media cast Yorov as a defender of terrorists, which is how the IRPT is now characterized.
“He must be a terrorist himself if he defends terrorists,” one article argued.
Civil society in Kyrgyzstan has begun a counter-offensive against proposed tinkering to the constitution that critics of the amendments suspect constitutes a move to consolidate the power of the current ruling elite.
The Committee for Civic Control, a coalition 70 nongovernment groups, issued a passionate statement on August 24 urging President Almazbek Atambayev to avoid an attempt to make the same mistakes as his two deposed predecessors, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Talk of constitutional reform have been in the air from some time, despite provisions incorporated in 2010 in the last adopted constitution that prohibited any changes before 2020. Atambayev himself spoke for the need to change the basic law as prerequisite for improvements to the justice system.
But the Committee for Civic Control argued that any constitutional amendments would be the thin end of the edge.
“The entire history of independent Kyrgyzstan shows the negative experiences of any changes to the constitution that have been initiated from above. These have always led only to the usurpation of power by those who proposed the changes,” the committee said in a statement.
There are many proposed changes, but the most significant involve a recasting of the state’s obligations toward upholding human rights and enhancing the office of the prime minister.
The language on rights issues signals a marked lurch toward nationalist conservatism
Rights groups have pressed Tajikistan to unconditionally release lawyers who were jailed after taking on cases of behalf of political opposition figures.
Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said in a statement on May 4 that the intimidation of rights lawyers has become commonplace in Tajikistan and even extended to the lawyers’ relatives.
“The Tajik government is tightening the screws on lawyers it deems trouble, locking up those who represent the opposition alongside its political foes,” HRW Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow said in the statement. “Each day these lawyers spend behind bars is a disgrace and brings shame on Tajikistan’s judicial system.”
In some cases lawyers have been targets of death threats.
The escalation of pressure against the legal profession intensified following the liquidation of the country’s only remaining viable opposition force, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Almost all the party’s leading figures were arrested in the wake of a purported attempted coup d’etat in early September. Lawyers agreeing to represent the IRPT leaders were immediately targeted for arrest in flimsily fabricated cases.
“Since 2014, Tajik authorities have arrested or imprisoned at least five human rights lawyers — Shukhrat Kudratov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nuriddin Makhkamov, Dilbar Dodojonova — and Firuz and Daler Tabarov, sons of Iskhok Tabarov, another prominent lawyer,” HRW and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee noted in their statement.
Zokirov has since been released, but all the rest are still imprisoned. He and Kudratov represented government critic Zaid Saidov, who has been serving a 26-year jail sentence since late 2013.
A court in Tajikistan has ruled to extend the detention of jailed lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov by two months, according to a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi.
Ozodi cites the press service of the Ismoil Somoni district court in Dushanbe as saying that the extension is required for further investigation into the case.
Yorov was arrested in September on charges of fraud and forging documents only days after he agreed to represent 13 members of the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), whose entire leadership stands accused of attempting to topple the government. The case against Yorov relates to an alleged incident in 2010, when he is said to have received $4,000 dollars from an individual in the city of Istaravshan.
Yorov’s relatives said that court decision on the extension of his detention was adopted in their presence on January 28, Ozodi reported. “We saw him close up, and he felt fine,” one relative told the broadcaster.
Unrelenting pressure against the opposition is par for the course for a government increasingly reliant on unfettered authoritarian measures, but the mistreatment of lawyers is a particularly grim harbinger.
Another lawyer acting for the IRPT, Nuriddin Mahkamov, was arrested on October 22.
Compounding their international reputation for legal nihilism, the authorities earlier this month detained three foreign lawyers — two from Turkey, another from Russia — who had traveled to Tajikistan in the hope of meeting the jailed IRPT members and lawyers.
Tajikistan has sent an award-winning human rights lawyer to prison on charges his supporters say are meant as a warning to critics of the authoritarian regime.
A court in Dushanbe sentenced Shukhrat Kudratov to nine years in a penal colony for bribery and fraud on January 13, Asia-Plus reported.
Kudratov’s real crime, it appears, was defending opposition activist Zaid Saidov in 2013. That year, Saidov, a local businessman and former official, was swiftly arrested after starting a political party and charged with, among other things, polygamy. He received 26 years in prison. The politician’s supporters said they had received death threats.
Last year, another one of Saidov’s lawyers, Fakhriddin Zokirov, was arrested on forgery charges. He was released after eight months and promised he would no longer defend Saidov.
The cases against the lawyers are widely seen as politically motivated. Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch called Kudratov's jailing "a serious setback for the freedom of expression and the independent legal profession in Tajikistan."
A taxi driver and traffic inspector negotiate over an infraction on Dushanbe's main drag. Police are stationed on Rudaki Avenue approximately every 50 meters to direct traffic when a dignitary passes. Most of the time, however -- such as here, seen through the back window of the taxi -- they are free to interpret the law. (Unless, of course, one has a special number plate.)
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.
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