Some 5,000 people turned out in the northern Tajik town of Chorkuh on January 20 to pay their last respects to Umed Tojiev. The 34-year-old father of two passed away on January 19 in a prison hospital from what prison officials say was a heart attack. Many of the 5,000 mourners at his funeral believe Tojiev died of torture.
Tojiev was detained on October 30 on charges of failure to obey police orders but that charge would soon change to something much more serious. A court ordered Tojiev held in custody for 10 days, but on November 2 he jumped from a third-floor window at a police detention facility in Isfara, not far from Chorkuh, breaking both his legs. Police said he was trying to escape. Tojiev, whose first name means “hope,” said he was trying to kill himself.
His attempted suicide brought Tojiev’s plight to the attention of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), hardly surprising because Tojiev was a member of the party from Chorkuh, where the IRPT has widespread support. IRPT representatives sent to check on Tojiev, who was by this time at a prison hospital in Khujand some 60 minutes' drive from Isfara, said Tojiev had been tortured while in custody.
The IRPT said police subjected Tojiev to sleep deprivation, denied him food and water, put a plastic bag over his head to prevent him from breathing, and administered electric shocks through a wet blanket, all techniques that leave no marks. The accusations seemed to have some credibility because on November 7 the Interior Ministry announced it was punishing those involved for “negligence in carrying out their duties.” It is still not clear how the policemen were punished.
More details about Tojiev’s case came to light. He was being charged with “organizing a criminal group,” and in fact those charges were formally brought against him the day he jumped from the window. Authorities rejected his first selection for legal representation -- attorney Fayzinisso Vakhidova. Vakhidova was already defending one of Tojiev’s relatives and Tajik law prohibits an attorney from defending two people involved in the same case. There were actually two of Tojiev’s relatives under arrest and according to the IRPT, they were receiving treatment in custody similar to that Tojiev received. And they had confessed to charges of organizing a criminal group and implicated Tojiev.
On November 28, Amnesty International released a statement on Tojiev. The statement said on November 13 Tojiev was finally able to see a lawyer of his choice who, according to the statement, said Tojiev “was carried into the room as he could not walk, he was shaking and crying, and he said he was forced to incriminate himself under duress.” The statement also quoted Tojiev explaining why he jumped from the window. “I am religious and understand that suicide is a sin but I did not have any choice, I needed to attract public attention as I understood that no one will help me.… I wanted to express protest against the unlawful actions of the police,” he said.
He was eventually returned to a holding facility. His mother Bibisalima visited him in late November. She told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, Ozodi, Umed’s condition was “very, very bad, there is no proper medical treatment in the jail and they (prison authorities) won’t transfer him to the hospital.”
On January 16, his lawyer, Yusuf Doniyorov, told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service “after repeated requests” to be moved because of the cold and difficult conditions in the holding cell, Tojiev was transferred again to a prison hospital, where he died.
IRPT representative Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda told RFE/RL's Tajik Service witnesses and Tojiev’s lawyer said Tojiev’s body had bruises on it. The IRPT political council said Tojiev’s body showed signs of having been subjected to electric shock, which probably brought on the heart attack. Tojiev’s brother Khasanboy said doctors did not give the family any reasons for Umed’s death.
Tajikistan has been criticized for use of torture, including by the UN Human Rights Committee Against Torture. The Tajik government has pledged to address the problem but clearly this was not done in time to save Umed Tojiev.
-- Bruce Pannier (Farangis Najibullah from RFE/RL's Newsroom and Mirzo Salimov and Salimjon Aioubov from RFE/RL’s Tajik Service contributed to this report.)