Eleven political leaders have been in a prison in Tajikistan for more than four years and, according to a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, they should not have even been charged with crimes.
The men are all senior members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which was part of a coalition of groups that joined to fight the Tajik government during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war. The June 1997 peace accord that ended the war provided for the wartime opponents of the government -- including the IRPT -- to share power.
The U.S.-based NGO Freedom Now, which “works to free individual prisoners of conscience through focused legal, political, and public relations advocacy efforts,” released a statement noting that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UN-WGAD) recently concluded, “It is quite clear...that the basis for the arrest and subsequent detention of the  IRPT members was in fact their exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”
Freedom Now and lawyers from the international law firm Hogan Lovells filed a legal petition with the UN-WGAD, which in turn conducted its own investigation of the legal process against the 11 IRPT members.
Freedom Now Director Maran Turner said in a statement that “the Tajik government arrested and detained the IRPT leaders as part of a broader campaign to vilify peaceful political opposition parties.”
To all appearances, the IRPT had become a peaceful political opposition party and the second-largest political party in Tajikistan after the ruling Democratic People’s Party of Tajikistan, which is led by President Emomali Rahmon.
Tajikistan’s leader since late 1992, Rahmon's hold on power was rather tenuous during the 1990s, but he has since consolidated his position -- particularly in the last decade. This stabilization of his power coincided with his nine children becoming adults and, often along with their spouses, taking control of as many of Tajikistan’s lucrative businesses as possible.
That left no space in the political realm for the existence of a genuine opposition party with significant public support.
In March 2015, the IRPT failed to win any seats in elections to the Majlisi Namoyandagon, the lower house of parliament. It was the first time that had happened in the postwar era and heralded a steep decline in the IRPT's fortunes.
The Tajik Justice Ministry revoked the IRPT’s registration in August 2015 and within one month the party was declared an extremist organization.
Authorities connected the IRPT to an alleged coup attempt by a deputy defense minister in early September 2015, though the alleged connections were extremely thin.
After the group was declared an extremist organization, IRPT leaders still in the country were taken into custody, accused of being part of the coup attempt, and put on trial behind closed doors.
That included the 11 men mentioned by the UN-WGAD and Freedom Now.
According to the UN working group, “no trials should have taken place” and, when the trials were still held, they were “carried out in total disregard for the guarantees encapsulated” in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Karl Horberg of Freedom Now told RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, that "the [UN] investigation showed that the charges were fabricated by Tajik authorities in order to sweep the IRPT from the political scene."
The Freedom Now statement said, “The rising popularity of the IRPT threatened the ruling regime, and Tajikistan undertook efforts to discredit and dismantle the party.”
The statement also noted during the trial of the IRPT leaders that “at least two witnesses were coerced into giving testimony. One witness recanted his testimony, claiming government coercion.”
The IRPT leaders were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 14 years to life.
The 11 members named in the UN report are Saidumar Husaini, Muhammadali Faizmuhammad, Rahmatulloi Rajab, Zubaidulloi Roziq, Vohidkhon Kosidinov, Kiyomiddin Avazov, Abduqahar Davlatov, Hikmatulloh Sayfulloza, Sadidin Rustamov, Sharif Nabiev, and Abdusamat Ghayratov.
Marc Gottridge, a partner in the Hogan Lovells law firm said, “Our clients continue to suffer deplorable conditions in Tajik prisons, placing their lives in great risk of injury or death.”
The Freedom Now statement recalled that, “In May 2019, a deadly riot, instigated by imprisoned [Islamic State] members, broke out at a prison in the city of Vahdat, where many of the IRPT leaders are held," and that “one of the IRPT leaders initially named in the UN petition -- Sattor Karimov -- was killed, reportedly by members of [Islamic State]. At least two other IRPT members were attacked and killed, and several more received serious injuries.”
The UN-WGAD issued a separate opinion on IRPT Deputy Chairman Mahmadali Hayit, who was convicted with the other IRPT leaders and given a life sentence.
Hayit’s alarming situation was the topic of a previous Majlis podcast.
Steve Swerdlow, human rights lawyer and Central Asia expert, said: “The UN working group’s call for the immediate and unconditional release of the IRPT leaders provides yet another opportunity for the United States, the European Union, and other key international actors to make unequivocal calls for the defendants’ release.”
He added that “Tajikistan’s human rights situation has been spiraling downward at a rapid pace. Tajikistan’s international partners should publicly and unanimously condemn this mockery of justice.”
Tajikistan is holding parliamentary elections on March 1 and, for the first time in 20 years, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan will not participate.