Press Release — HRF Calls for Release of Detained Lawyers, End of Press Persecution in Tajikistan
Yorov was initially arrested for agreeing to act as legal representation for members of the country’s Islamic opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), and sentenced to 23 years of imprisonment. Since then, courts have added five years to his sentence, pushing his cumulative prison time above the legal limit. Yorov’s court cases are part of the continuing persecution of lawyers associated with the IRPT. HRF calls on the Tajikistani regime to release Yorov and four other lawyers who were detained for defending IRPT members, and to cease harassing journalists in connection with the IRPT trials.
“All dictatorships lack judicial independence. However, only the most repressive regimes go so far as to target the lawyers that defend their political opponents. Lawyers like Yorov are simply doing their jobs,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of HRF. “Dictator Emomali Rahmon must end the persecution of lawyers and the press in Tajikistan,” added Halvorssen.
Yorov was first arrested on September 28, 2015 on charges of forgery and fraud while representing 13 senior members of the IRPT. He was detained shortly after he issued astatement on the torture of IRPT political leaders in which he specifically referenced one of his clients and called on lawyers, human rights defenders, and activists to protect the prisoners. During his trial in October 2016, he was charged with “calling for the overthrow of the Tajik regime” and “inciting social unrest,” and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
On March 16, 2017, the Supreme Court extended Yorov’s sentence by two additional years in response to an incident in October 2016, when Yorov recited a poem about foolishness during a closed-door trial. The poem, attributed to Persian poet Omar Khayyam and Persian philosopher Avicenna, read, in part, “with these ignorant few who foolishly/consider themselves the intelligent ones of the world/should be donkeys, because they are so deep in donkeyness/that they call ‘blasphemous’ whomever is not a donkey.” Yorov was charged with “contempt of court” and “insulting a government official.”
On August 4, 2017, a state prosecutor requested an additional 17-year extension related to separate criminal proceedings that started in February and May 2017. In mid-August, the court decided to add three years to his sentence during a closed-door trial; Yorov’s family was only informed of this decision the following week, on August 23. Under articles 58(4) and 68(3) of Tajikistan’s criminal code, the total amount of time of imprisonment that a defendant can serve in prison cannot exceed 25 years. Yorov has already reached that limit with the three-year extension putting him at a total of 28 years of imprisonment.
Yorov and his first defense attorney, Nuriddin Mahkamov, are two of the five human rights lawyers who are currently imprisoned for defending members of the IRPT. They have all been charged with “incitement of interracial hatred,” “plotting to overthrow the government,” “document forgery,” and “support for extremist activity” as a result of their involvement with the IRPT. Mahkamov was detained shortly after agreeing to take on Yorov’s case, and was issued a 21-year prison sentence, without any evidence of wrongdoing, in the same trial as Yorov in October 2016.
Another one of Yorov’s lawyers, Muazzama Qodirova, fled to Germany in late March after being threatened with criminal prosecution for leaking information related to Yorov’s case to international media outlets. As of May 2017, Yorov’s family has had difficulty finding a new defense attorney for Yorov, and Zarina Nabieva, his wife, has taken on the defense of her husband.
Emomali Rahmon has served as Tajikistan’s president since 1992, and has used constitutional amendments and rigged referendums to stay in power. In 2015, the Tajikistani regime banned the IRPT — Tajikistan’s largest opposition group and the only legally registered Islamic political party in Central Asia — by accusing it of being a terrorist organization.
“Under the guise of fighting terrorism, Rahmon and Tajikistan’s judiciary are using phony trials to round up lawyers that are simply following due process and providing opposition politicians their legal right to representation. In a cruel twist of fate, Mahkamov has ended up in prison on the same charges as his clients. He went from being Yorov’s lawyer to becoming his co-defendant,” stated Halvorssen.
The Tajikistani regime has also targeted journalists and independent media outlets that have reported on the IRPT trials, or that are affiliated with IRPT-linked media outlets. In May 2017, Mizhgona Halimova, a reporter at the IRPT-linked news agency Ozodagon was sentenced under Article 347 (“failure to report a crime or concealing a crime”) of Tajikistan’s criminal code and was issued a $2,900 fine for refusing to publish a story about a crime. According to EurasiaNet, Halimova has been threatened with criminal prosecution if she shares details about her case with the public. There is no publically accessible information about the crime that she refused to report on. Additionally, in November 2016, Tajikistani officials allegedly forced the independent newspaper Nigoh to suspend operations at a time when the regime was pressuring the media to refrain from reporting on the IRPT. Prior to its suspension, Nigoh published articles about the IRPT and Yorov’s case.
“Rahmon’s dictatorship is systematically intimidating journalists and targeting news outlets in a naked attempt to maintain control over the public. The international community must hold the dictator accountable,” said Halvorssen.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.
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Condemn the extension of Buzurgmehr Yorov’s sentence and the imprisonment and harassment of lawyers defending IRPT members.
Condemn the Tajik regime’s persecution of IRPT-linked journalists including Mizhgona Halimova, and independent media outlets and journalists providing coverage of the IRPT.
Mahmadamin Mahmadaminov, Permanent Representative
Permanent Mission of the Republic of Tajikistan to the United Nations
Address: 216 East 49th Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10017