Rights groups call on Tajikistan to disclose whereabouts of “forcibly disappeared” opposition leader

Rights groups call on Tajikistan to disclose whereabouts of “forcibly disappeared” opposition leader
Suhrob Zafar. / Guruhi24.com, HRW
By bne IntelliNews May 4, 2024

A call for Tajikistan to "immediately confirm the detention and whereabouts of and release" Suhrob Zafar, leader of the opposition Group 24 movement outlawed by Dushanbe, was on May 3 made by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the International Partnership for Human Rights.

Zafar’s whereabouts have been unknown since early March, when he disappeared in Turkey in a suspected case of transnational repression. Group 24 is headquartered in Istanbul.

The human rights groups described Zafar as "forcibly disappeared”, despite his holding of official UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) asylum seeker status in Turkey.

In a statement, they cited unnamed sources as saying the Tajik State Committee for National Security is holding Zafar in its detention centre in Dushanbe, "periodically torturing him, and [denying] him medical assistance".

The Tajik government has not stated whether or not Zafar is in state custody or if it knows of his whereabouts.

"There are devastating reports that Suhrob Zafar may already have lost his ability to walk as a result of torture, so prompt action could be a matter of life and death," said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at HRW.

"Tajik authorities should immediately verify Zafar’s detention status and whereabouts and urgently investigate allegations that he has been tortured."

Authorities should also ensure and confirm that Zafar's legal rights are respected, the rights groups added, saying he should be given contact with his family, access to a lawyer of his own choosing and necessary medical treatment.

The whereabouts of another Group 24 member, Nasimjon Sharifov, who went missing in late February while residing in Turkey, are also unknown.

In March 2015, the movement's founder, businessman Umarali Quvatov, was assassinated in Istanbul.

Group 24 is an opposition movement seeking political reforms in Tajikistan. It was banned and designated “terrorist” in October 2014, after it called on the Tajik population to publicly protest against the government.

In the last decade, according to HRW, Tajik authorities have cracked down brutally on the group and its members, imprisoning scores at home and driving large numbers into exile. Last month, a Freedom House report, Nations in Transit: A Region Reordered by Autocracy and Democracy, assessed that there is zero tolerance of opposition politics by Tajikistan’s Rahmon regime.

bne IntelliNews has reported on how there are fears that so heavy is the repression in Tajikistan that Tajiks who have lost hope of a better life are targeted by Islamist terrorist groups who radicalise the individuals and assign them to cells that commit terrorist attacks abroad.

Turkey is a member of Europe’s top human rights body Council of Europe and party to the European Convention on Human Rights, and any involvement of, or acquiescence by, Turkish state agents in the forcible disappearance of and potential extrajudicial transfer of Zafar and Sharifov to Tajikistan is a serious violation of the convention, HRW noted.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has warned that “any extra-judicial transfer or extraordinary rendition, by its deliberate circumvention of due process, is an absolute negation of the rule of law and the values protected by the Convention. It therefore amounts to a violation of the most basic rights guaranteed by the Convention.”

“Türkiye should thoroughly investigate the unlawful actions on Turkish territory, which appear to have led to the forced rendition to Tajikistan of Zafar Sukhrob,” said Marius Fossum, regional representative in Central Asia at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “Zafar should be released pending a fair trial on any credible charges and provided with redress for the violation of his rights as a result of his forced removal to Tajikistan.”