The United Nations has slammed Tajikistan over the lengthy sentences imposed on the leaders of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), adding to international criticism of the country’s increasingly repressive regime.
The Supreme Court of Tajikistan has given life sentences to two leading figures of IRP, while ten other party members received up to 28 years in jail, in a trial criticised by human rights groups as politically motivated. The trial, which dealt the final blow to what was once the only opposition force capable of challenging authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon, came less than a month after a referendum that allowed Rahmon to rule for life and start a presidential dynasty.
“The harsh sentencing of multiple opposition leaders reflects the steady increase of restrictions on freedom of expression in Tajikistan,” the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye said in a statement on June 7, adding that crackdown on IRP over the last year silenced one of the few opposition voices in the country. Tajikistan banned IRP last September after accusing it of being linked to a failed coup earlier that month. IRP was later branded a terrorist group.
“Imposing such drastic and arbitrary measures against opposition and religious leaders is not only unacceptable but dangerous as it only helps to radicalize those pushed out of public debate,” Kaye said.
Echoing Kaye’s concerns Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia issued a statement on June 7 saying the sentences followed an unfair trial initiated in retaliation for their peaceful political opposition and “reflect the government’s pervasive manipulation of the justice system and egregious violations of the right to freedom of expression”.
“If allowed to stand, these draconian sentences will not only strike a blow to Tajikistan’s peaceful opposition but to every Tajik citizen,” Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch Steve Swerdlow, said. “These sentences show that anyone in Tajikistan any time can be labelled a criminal and punished simply for disagreeing with the government,” he added.
The life sentences were delivered to IRP deputy heads Husayni Saidumar and Mukhammadali Hayit. The court also sentenced four members of the party to 28 years of prison. Six other members were given prison sentences varying from 14 years to 25 years. The group is accused of conspiring with former Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda in attempting to seize power in early September.
The trial, which began on February 24, was held behind closed doors with serious violations of due process, HRW said.
The human rights organisations urged the US and EU to respond to the sentences with targeted punitive measures against Tajik officials unless concrete human rights improvements are made, including setting aside the opposition leaders’ convictions.
Over the past two years, Tajik authorities have arrested, imprisoned, and tortured members of the country’s peaceful political opposition, HRW claims. “They have also targeted perceived critics abroad, seeking their detention and extradition back to Tajikistan, and have forcibly disappeared critics abroad only to have them reappear in Tajik custody.”
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