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A defendant awaits trial at a Dushanbe court. Rights groups and international monitors have long maintained that the Tajik justice system is often used by authorities as a means of punishing activists and oppositionists. (file photo)

International rights watchdogs have long charged that the judiciary system in Tajikistan is often used to punish perceived enemies of the government.

There are, indeed, many cases in recent years to support those claims. And even when moved to gestures of mercy, the Tajik courts and state officials seem callous in their actions.

The following are some of the most egregious recent cases.

The Lawyer

Buzurgmehr Yorov is a Tajik attorney who was detained in late September 2015 and shortly thereafter sentenced to 28 years in prison.

In honor of Tajikistan marking 30 years of independence this year, an amnesty has been granted to some prisoners. Yorov had four years removed from his long sentence.

The 50-year-old attorney had a reputation for defending people who had little, if any, chance of proving their innocence in Tajik courts.

He defended members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), a group that had been in a power-sharing agreement with President Emomali Rahmon’s government and was later seen by Rahmon as an impediment to his exerting greater control over the country.

Buzurgmehr Yorov (file photo)
Buzurgmehr Yorov (file photo)

Yorov also defended fellow lawyer Fakhriddin Zokirov, who was the attorney of businessman Zayd Saidov.

Saidov founded a new political party -- Tajikistan Now -- in April 2013 and was convicted in December that same year on charges of fraud, polygamy, and statutory rape, charges seen as politically motivated.

Zokirov was arrested in March 2014 on forgery charges and was held for eight months before he received an amnesty.

Saidov’s second lawyer, Shuhrat Kudratov, was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of fraud and bribery. His term was shortened after two rounds of amnesties.

In early September 2015, there was an outbreak of violence near the capital, Dushanbe.

The government said it was an attempted coup led by the deputy defense minister, who many years earlier had tenuous ties with the IRPT.

The IRPT was quickly blamed, declared an extremist group, and banned.

All its top members who were still in Tajikistan were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms.

Yorov intended to defend some of the top IRPT officials and said in an interview on September 28, 2015, that one of his clients was being tortured.

On September 29, Yorov was detained on fraud charges that allegedly dated back to 2010.

Originally sentenced to 23 years, Yorov had five more years tacked on at two later trials.

At one of those trials, Yorov was given two extra years for contempt of court for quoting 11th-century poet and polymath Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna.

International rights groups condemned the entire process from the lawyer's detention to the court decision.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued an assessment in June 2019 that said “…taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the appropriate remedy would be to release Mr. Yorov immediately, and to accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations.”

Yorov’s sentence was reduced by another 6 1/2 years under an amnesty in 2019, so with the subtraction of another four years, and time already served, he still faces 11 1/2 more years in prison.

That would mean he would be released when he is 61 years old.

The Opposition Figure

Mahmurod Odinaev is the deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP).

The Social Democrats are now the only genuine opposition party still registered in Tajikistan.

Odinaev is in prison, serving a 14-year term, though the recent amnesty shaved three years off that sentence.

In November 2020, Odinaev posted a message on his Facebook page appealing to Dushanbe Mayor Rustam Emomali, the son of the Tajik president, to allow the SDP to hold a demonstration against increasing food prices.

Mahmurod Odinaev (file photo)
Mahmurod Odinaev (file photo)

Odinaev disappeared on November 20, 2020. On December 5, the prosecutor’s office confirmed that he was under arrest.

In late January 2021, Odinaev was convicted of hooliganism and calling for extremism based on his request to hold a protest rally.

His son, Habibullo Rizoev, was a co-defendant. He was fined 58,000 somonis (about $5,000).

In March 2021, another of Odinaev’s sons, Shaikhmuslihiddin Rizoev, was convicted of hooliganism and attempted rape and sentenced to six years in prison.

The 59-year-old Odinaev refused to sign the amnesty, saying he never did anything illegal and is wrongly imprisoned. Ordinaev added that he will only accept his immediate release and full exoneration.

The Cast-Iron Teapot

In mid-September 2021, four members of the IRPT who were imprisoned after the alleged coup attempt in September 2015 managed to get a letter out of prison in which they again professed their innocence and asked that their cases be reviewed in the presence of international experts.

The four are Zubaydullohi Rozik, who is serving a 25-year sentence; Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda, who has a 16-year sentence; Rahmatulloi Rajab, serving a 28-year sentence; and Muhammadali Fayzmuhammad, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

The letter was made public on September 16, the day the Tajik opposition in exile marks as the Day of Political Prisoners.

Tajik officials were unmoved by the appeal. There was no official reaction from Dushanbe.

At the end of September there were reports that the 70-year-old Sayfullozoda had been attacked early one morning while in a prison hospital.

Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda (file photo)
Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda (file photo)

He had undergone heart surgery in June and has been housed in the prison hospital since shortly after the operation.

There were concerns Sayfullozoda was being tortured in prison.

The Justice Ministry released a statement on October 8 denying the reports of torture.

The ministry did confirm that Sayfullozoda was attacked, but they claimed that the assault was by another inmate. And not just by any prison inmate, but a prisoner who was from the United Tajik Opposition, the IRPT-led civil war opponents of the Tajik government.

According to relatives, the inmate came into Sayfullozoda’s room and hit him on the head with a cast-iron teapot.

There were reports that another author of the letter, Rahmatullo Rajab, had been physically attacked.

Relatives of Rajab said at the start of October that they heard someone attacked him with a knife.

Some of his relatives went to Vahdat Prison to try to get more information. They could not see Rajab but were able to speak with him by telephone.

They said Rajab denied he had been attacked but they added that he was very careful about what he said, and the relatives left with the impression that someone else was listening to Rajab when he spoke.

Prison officials denied Rajab was being tortured while incarcerated.

Tajikistan’s ombudsman, Umed Bobozoda, later visited Sayfullozoda, Rajab, and another imprisoned IRPT member, Abdykahhor Davlatov.

Bobozoda said Rajab and Davlatov denied they were being tortured and Sayfullozoda confirmed he had been attacked but not by a prison guard.

But no independent confirmation of any of these charges or reports has been possible, with all the information available coming from prison officials or the ombudsman.

The Rights Defender

Izzat Amon had lived in Russia since 1996 and nearly always dedicated himself to helping Tajik migrant laborers in Russia.

In 2000, Amon helped establish the Center for Tajiks of Moscow and helped Tajik migrants in the Russian capital register with Russian authorities, find places to live and work, and offered advice and services for Tajik citizens facing legal problems.

Izzat Amon (file photo)
Izzat Amon (file photo)

On the eve of the 2020 parliamentary vote in Tajikistan, Amon announced his intention to create a political party and take part in the elections. But he soon abandoned this idea due to the requirement that candidates must have resided in Tajikistan for 10 years prior to an election.

Amon was at times critical of what he believed was the failure of Tajik authorities to stand up to the Russian government and defend the rights of Tajik migrant workers, whose remittances are essential to thousands of families in Tajikistan and whose work is needed in Russia where there is a labor shortage.

Russian authorities detained Amon on March 25, 2021, and forcibly returned him to Tajikistan, where he faced charges of fraud connected to his work in Russia.

On October 19, Amon was convicted of major fraud and sentenced to nine years in prison.

One thing that these cases have in common is that nearly all independent observers, international rights organizations, lawyers’ organizations, and other witnesses of the trial processes and sentencing of these men agree that their rights were violated.

RFE/RL Tajik Service Director Salimjon Aioubov contributed to this report
Outstanding in his field? Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev is seeking reelection on October 24.

There were a lot high expectations when Shavkat Mirziyoev became the president of Uzbekistan in 2016, replacing the autocratic Islam Karimov.

Mirziyoev made a lot of promises, while also pledging serious reforms and a fight against corruption. And while he has delivered on some of those promises, most of them have gone unfulfilled during his term in office.

Despite his lackluster record, Mirziyoev is seen as the overwhelming favorite in the October 24 managed election in which true opposition candidates were either not registered or pressured not to run.

New Face, Same Old Electoral Process

Karimov ruled Central Asia's most-populous country for a quarter of a century -- being reelected four times in elections found wholly undemocratic by international election monitors.

And despite hope that the election process might be more democratic under Mirziyoev, observers can't help noticing that this election looks a lot like the ones under Karimov.

To begin with, the campaign for the upcoming election has been largely absent from local media coverage.


And the five parties fielding candidates in this election are the exact same state-approved parties that have been involved in Uzbekistan's elections since 2009.

Despite Mirziyoev saying several times that he had no objections to the creation of opposition parties and their participation in elections, none of the three parties that were interested in having candidates in the presidential election was allowed to register.

In fact, all three opposition parties -- the Erk Democratic Party, Truth and Development (Haqiqat va Taraqqiyot), and the People’s Interest (Halq Manfaatlari) -- were pressured into halting their activities before official campaigning even started.

So Uzbekistan’s voters will only be able to cast their ballots for Bahrom Abduhalimov of the Adolat (Justice) party; Maksuda Borisova of the People’s Democratic Party; Nazrullo Oblomuradov of the Ecological Party; Alisher Qodirov of the National Revival Party; or Mirziyoev from the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (LDPU).

The LDPU was founded in November 2003 and since then has not only won the most seats in every parliamentary election but has also nominated the winning candidate for every presidential election.

Only recently was there even a spark of interest in the election campaign.

Alisher Qodirov
Alisher Qodirov

That came on October 14 when Qodirov -- who in June called for expelling all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from the country -- said he viewed remittances sent from abroad to be income and would tax them.

It was a shocking proposal. Millions of Uzbek citizens have gone abroad over the years as migrant laborers to find work since unemployment is so high in Uzbekistan. Millions of their family members back home could not have made ends meet without the money sent to them.

Qodirov’s statement was the equivalent of taking a dive in a boxing match as it would turn off most voters. Mirziyoev was quick to pounce on the opportunity, saying the next day that “one should never view helping a family as profitable and impose taxes.”

Though that was probably the most riveting moment in an otherwise barely noticeable campaign, some wonder whether it was staged specifically to generate a buzz among the electorate and boost Mirziyoev’s vote tally on election day.

Mirziyoev does seem to be genuinely popular with the majority of Uzbeks and would likely win an election even if opposition parties were allowed to compete -- especially considering the state's firm control of the media in Uzbekistan.

A memorial to former Uzbek President Islam Karimov
A memorial to former Uzbek President Islam Karimov

Mirziyoev is, surprisingly, different from Karimov -- Uzbekistan’s first and only president -- despite serving as his prime minister from 2003 to 2016 and fully enabling his predecessor's hard-line policies and intolerance of any opposition.

Those policies earned Karimov a reputation as a chronic rights abuser and enemy of the free press.

At no time during his 13 years as prime minister was there any hint that Mirziyoev was a reformer at heart who was just following orders.

But he did make some shrewd moves early on in his term that attracted the attention of Uzbeks and the international community.

Positive Moves

Among them was the freeing of several dozen political prisoners, some of whom had languished in Uzbek prisons for two decades.

Mirziyoev also made improving ties with Uzbekistan’s neighbors a priority, much to the relief of those countries, all of which had endured periods of testy relations with Karimov’s government.

Mirziyoev said Uzbekistan, long isolated under Karimov, was open for business again and sent officials to countries in Europe, Asia, North America, and the Middle East to attract investors.

Western countries, in particular, were encouraged by Mirziyoev’s rhetoric of a kinder, gentler Uzbekistan and showed renewed interest in it as an important Central Asian country and hub for trade due to its central location in the region.

Mirziyoev has also enjoyed some domestic successes as well.

He spoke out against the use of forced labor in cotton fields and, while that has not been totally eradicated, the number of people ordered to work as volunteers has dropped significantly while wages have increased for those who pick Uzbekistan’s “white gold.”

Mirziyoev has also given support to the country's migrant laborers -- once criticized by Karimov as “lazy beggars” -- while lamenting that they could not find gainful employment in Uzbekistan, using this reality to vaguely chastise officials for not providing enough jobs.

Unkept Promises

But much of what Mirziyoev said he would do remains unfinished or has never been started.

His campaign for reelection is an example. When he was campaigning in Samarkand in late September, he promised free meals for schoolchildren.

While in Tashkent on October 19, Mirziyoev promised every "mahalla" (neighborhood) would receive huge sums of money for development.

Everywhere Mirziyoev goes he promises money, an end to the abusive practices of local officials, improvements in living conditions, and other benefits.

Yet these things have been slow to materialize and many in Uzbekistan are still waiting to see the changes Mirziyoev has promised.

In his first years as president, Mirziyoev went to neighboring states and made grandiose promises, like investing in Kyrgyzstan's and Tajikistan’s hydropower sectors or in Turkmenistan’s offshore oil and gas fields, all despite the fact Uzbekistan has little experience with such projects and little money to invest in foreign ventures.

So far, none of those things has happened.

Uzbekistan’s foreign debt was negligible when Mirziyoev became leader, but it has now ballooned to some $36 billion.

Mirziyoev during a visit to the Bozatau district of Karakalpakstan in September.
Mirziyoev during a visit to the Bozatau district of Karakalpakstan in September.

Much of that money has gone toward construction projects, but there are suspicions a large share of that has really gone into the hands of officials appointed by Mirziyoev. There are also questions about the many people who have been moved out of areas of new construction and not received adequate -- or in some cases any -- compensation for their demolished homes.

It seems apparent that not enough of that money went to repairing Uzbekistan’s aging infrastructure, as power outages were frequent last winter and it looks like that will be the case again this year.

Heard That Before

Much of Mirziyoev’s popularity among Uzbeks seems to be based on his promises for a better life in the future.

Such promises are reminiscent of other Central Asian leaders who sought greater public support by describing a better tomorrow for everyone.

Once the oil money started pouring in after the early years of economic stagnation following independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, often foretold of his country becoming one of the most industrial and prosperous nations in the world.

Programs in the late 1990s looked to 2020 and 2030 as the dates for these promised achievements, yet as of 2021, while conditions have noticeably improved for many in Kazakhstan, most of the goals set by Nazarbaev more than 20 years ago are still unrealized.

His family and friends, however, are listed as being among the richest people in the world.

Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, similarly promised to turn his country into a second Kuwait, and when Niyazov died and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became president, he, too, pledged to turn Turkmenistan into a wealthy nation.

But Turkmenistan’s economic situation is currently worse than it has ever been, while Berdymukhammedov’s relatives are also rumored to be fabulously wealthy.

Central Asian precedent tends to show that once leaders are firmly entrenched in power, their promises of reforms and attention to improving conditions for citizens wanes as their (and their inner circle’s) appetites for enrichment grow.

Should Mirziyoev win the October 24 presidential election, as seems quite likely, he would start his second and constitutionally final term in office.

Having portrayed himself as a reformer, if Mirziyoev goes the route of other Central Asian leaders and decides to ignore a two-term limit, it would be impossible for him to claim such a title.

But more importantly, it would signify he has cemented his rule and, at that point, the need for reforms would probably be subordinate to thoughts of regime preservation while those close to him focus on gaining wealth.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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