Embattled lawyers in Tajikistan received some welcome international attention in September. The International Commission of Jurists released a statement calling on Tajik authorities to "end intimidation of lawyers, including the Bar Association chairperson." And Tajik lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov, who is currently serving a 28-year-sentence in a Tajik prison, was named for an award on the sidelines of the OSCE's annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw.
For more than five years now, lawyers' ranks have been thinned as the Tajik authorities imposed new rules to disbar lawyers and, in some cases, brought criminal cases against lawyers who defended political opponents. According to RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, there are only around 850 lawyers in Tajikistan, a country of more than 9 million people.
Yorov's situation is one of the best-known. He had taken on clients who were almost surely targeted by the government. In 2015, Tajik authorities withdrew the registration of and then banned the country's leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), then later declared it an extremist group and claimed it was behind what the government said was a coup attempt. There is scant evidence to support the claim of an attempted coup and even less evidence connecting the IRPT to the purported coup's alleged mastermind, who was killed by Tajik security forces.
More than a dozen senior IRPT leaders were detained at the end of September 2015. Yorov said he would defend them in court, meeting with one of them on September 26. Two days later, he said publicly that his client was being tortured; shortly after that, Yorov was himself taken into custody.
In October 2016, Yorov and fellow rights lawyer Nuriddin Makhamov were found guilty of fraud and inciting national, racial, local, or religious hatred. Yorov was sentenced to 23 years in prison, but additional time was added to his sentence in two successive trials. At one of those trials, Yorov was given two extra years for contempt of court for quoting 11th-century poet Ibn Avicenna.*
On September 18, the Association of Central Asian Migrants announced Yorov was being given the first Fayziniso Vohidova award. The prize is named after a rights lawyer who died earlier this year. Yorov's brother, Jamshed, accepted the award on his behalf.
Buzurgmehr Yorov has since been shortlisted for the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, whose winner should be announced on September 30.
A September 10 statement by the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists expressed concern about the Tajik Anti-Corruption Agency's "acts of intimidation" against a group of lawyers. The statement mentions Abdulaziz Abdurahmonzoda, a member of the independent Lawyers Union of Tajikistan.
Abdurahmonzoda is being charged with fraud. Prosecutors allege that he demanded a $500 bribe from a man named Saidmurod Saidov, who came seeking Abdurahmonzoda's legal services.
Abdurahmonzoda had reportedly met Saidov outside the Varzob regional court building on April 9. He said it was then that Saidov inquired about hiring the lawyer to represent him in civil lawsuits for damages. He said that he and Saidov reached a verbal agreement that for 1,500 somonis (around $150), Abdurahmonzoda would draw up the legal documents and act as Saidov's attorney at the opening of the trial, and for 5,000 somonis Abdurahmonzoda would act as Saidov's attorney throughout the trial.
He said Saidov came to his office on April 17 and brought $500. Abdurahmonzoda asked him to go exchange the U.S. dollars into somonis at the bank next door. "Grabbing the copy of the [legal] agreement, Saidov quickly left the office," Abdurahmonzoda said, "and at that moment some 25 to 30 people burst into my office and introduced themselves as employees of the Agency for Financial Control and Combating Corruption." They took the $500 left there as evidence of the alleged bribe.
Abdurahmonzoda said some members of the group hit him (he named Adham Nazarzoda and Sayvali Hushvaktzoda in particular). He said there was a medical report confirming his injuries from the beating, including a lost tooth.
Abdurahmonzoda's group, the Lawyers Union of Tajikistan, quickly came to his legal defense. They complained to the judge about the beating and he ordered the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate.
According to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), "Following the initiation of the inquiry of the allegations of ill-treatment, the head of the Anti-Corruption Agency of Dushanbe allegedly sent requests to a number of district courts of Dushanbe to obtain information about civil and criminal cases in which Saidbek Nuriddinov had participated as a lawyer."
Saidbek Nuriddinov is the chairman of the Lawyers Union of Tajikistan. In fact, he was just reelected to that post on September 17.
The ICJ said the requests the Anti-Corruption Agency sent "are said to seek information such as the names and place of residence of clients, subject matter of civil cases, and details of the charges against his previous clients." The ICJ statement said that "while this information is not confidential per se, previous such investigations of the Anti-Corruption Agency have led to criminal prosecution and conviction of lawyers."
Defending The Opposition
In 2013, Yorov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Ishoq Tabarov, and Shukrat Kudratov were the defense attorneys for Zayd Saidov, a successful and former minister of industry who suddenly faced charges ranging from financial crimes to sexual relations with a minor and polygamy, after he declared earlier in the year that he planned to establish a new political party. In December 2013, Saidov was found guilty and sentenced to 26 years in prison (three more years were added in a later trial).
The Anti-Corruption Agency arrested Zokirov in March 2014 and held him in custody until he received an amnesty in November of that year.
Both of Tabarov's sons were arrested in 2016, with one sentenced to more than 13 years in prison after a conviction for extremism and facilitating mercenary fighters. Tabarov, then 61 years old, died of a heart attack in July 2016.
Kudratov was arrested in July 2014 and convicted in January 2015 on charges of fraud and bribery. (Kudratov said the actual charge was "attempted" bribery.) He was sentenced to nine years in prison. He was released in August 2018 but also banned from practicing law in Tajikistan.
Not long after his release, Kudratov moved to Russia, where he gave an interview to Ozodi in early September. "It is painful for me to remember how they brought the case and imprisoned [me], the injustice in society, among the authorities, in the judicial and investigative system," he said. "The injustice in our society has become the system."
Kudratov moved to Russia so he could find employment. He joins hundreds, at least, of Tajik rights lawyers, rights activists, independent journalists, and members of opposition political parties who have fled their homeland.
In June, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared the detention of Buzurgmehr Yorov a violation of international law. Rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Freedom Now, and Lawyers for Lawyers have repeatedly called for an end to the crackdown on lawyers in Tajikistan and the release of those who have been imprisoned.
*NOTE: The quote was: "Society is spoiled by a few ignorant people who believe themselves the wisest, those who would make infidels of all who do not abide by their wishes."