Tajikistan: Clampdown on civil society

Preliminary findings of a fact-finding mission on the situation of human rights defenders and NGOs.

(Geneva-Paris) “The Tajik authorities must put an end to the legal and administrative harassment of human rights defenders and NGOs in the country”, said the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a joint OMCT-FIDH programme), following a fact-finding mission to Tajikistan. The inability of lawyers to carry out their work freely and the draconian restrictions against civil society organisations, notably those receiving foreign funding, are two of the principal concerns of the Observatory.

The delegation, who conducted the mission from November 15 to 21, 2015, met with civil society representatives in Dushanbe and Khujand as well as diplomats. However, the delegation regrets it was not able to meet neither with the Ombudsman nor with any representative of the national authorities, notably the Directorate for Human Rights Guarantees of the Executive Apparatus of the President of Tajikistan, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Department of Legal Entities Registration and the Tax Committee, in spite of formal requests addressed in due course. This denial of dialogue is a worrying signal that adds to the preoccupying information received during the mission.

“At the beginning of 2014, Tajikistan had pledged to implement international human rights standards both in law and practice in order to ensure a smooth working environment for civil society. The current crackdown on independent voices clearly shows this objective was abandoned and it is about time for Tajikistan to live up to its international commitments”

Peter Zangl, mission leader and OMCT Representative to the European Union.

The delegation is concerned that an essential cornerstone of democracy and the rule of law principle is about to disappear: on November 23, 2015, President Rahmon signed the recently amended the Law on the Bar Association (Advocatura), which sets out a new qualification procedure for both experienced lawyers and barristers, which will undermine their independence. As such, the amended Law also undermines the independence of the Tajik Bar Association itself, as the latter would be placed de facto under the MoJ.

Additional amendments which are currently under consideration by the Government would further tighten access to the legal profession. Moreover, it is worrying that it has become nearly impossible to find lawyers in Tajikistan who would accept to defend human rights cases, including torture related, for fear of criminal prosecution. Instances of torture and other ill-treatments, which remain widespread in the country, including in the Armed Forces, therefore go widely unpunished.

The testimonies and analyses gathered during the mission further attest that in Tajikistan human rights NGOs operate under pressure in an increasingly insecure and bureaucratic environment.

The mission delegation is particularly concerned that human rights defenders and organisations in Tajikistan are subjected to restrictive legislation and policies, notably through art. 27§2 of the Law “On Public Associations” as amended by the Parliament on June 10, 2015. The amendments make it mandatory to declare all grants received by NGOs from donors abroad or from international organisations to a specialised register at the MoJ. The amendment also introduces an obligation to notify projects to be implemented with those funds. Although these amendments have reportedly already entered into force, the implementing procedures are not yet known nor have they been presented to civil society. Accordingly, NGOs operate in a high risk, uncertain environment.

“We particularly fear that any bureaucratic hurdles on public associations receiving foreign funding will result in increased control by authorities over human rights organisations activities”

Ekaterina Vanslova, International Protection Consultant at the Russian NGO “Committee for Prevention of Torture”.

Furthermore, increasing unscheduled inspections of NGOs - the legal base of which remains often unclear - were reported to the mission delegation, sometimes followed by legal actions for alleged infringements of the law. Those defending the rights of detainees held on charges involving “religious extremism”, “terrorism” or “undermining national security”, are particularly monitored by the authorities.

Public foundations, which are not covered by the Law “On Public Associations” but registered with tax authorities, are equally affected. The Tax Committee of the Republic of Tajikistan has recently started rejecting public foundations’ registration applications and referring them to the MoJ, which has no competence over them according to national law. For instance, on June 5, 2015 the Tax Committee brought an action to liquidate the human rights organisation “Nota Bene Public Foundation” for allegedly taking advantage of gaps in the legislation when obtaining registration in 2009. The Tax Committee’s claim is currently being heard by the I. Somoni’s District Court of Dushanbe.

The Observatory is concerned about recent developments that negatively impact the work of human rights organisations and undermine the crucial role they play. Independence of civil society organisations in Tajikistan is under threat.

A mission report will be issued in the coming months and will present detailed conclusions and recommendations to the Government of Tajikistan, non-State actors, the United Nations, the European Union, the OSCE and foreign embassies in Tajikistan.

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