Ishoq Tabarov was known for defending Tajiks who most needed defending. He was a rare lawyer for Tajikistan, one who would take cases representing opposition figures, people who some would say had already been marked for exclusion from society by the authorities.
Tabarov died during the evening of June 12, officially of a heart attack. But there is a big difference between a heart attack and a broken heart, and some feel it was the latter that actually led to Tabarov's death on his 61st birthday.
Tabarov defended many people who -- to put it mildly -- were not viewed kindly by the Tajik government. Tabarov's best-known client was Zayd Saidov, once a successful businessman and someone who enjoyed good connections with the government.
In April of 2013, the year of Tajikistan's last presidential election, Saidov declared his intention to create a new political party: Tojikistoni Nau, or New Tajikistan. The next month, Saidov faced a series of charges ranging from financial wrongdoing to sexual assault and polygamy. Government opponents had faced charges before, but in Saidov's case the charges were numerous and covered a wide array of violations.
His case was really hopeless from the start, but Tabarov and fellow defense lawyers Shukhrat Kudratov and Fakhriddin Zokirov agreed to defend Saidov. Saidov's defense team repeatedly pointed to procedural violations and flimsy evidence during the trial process. Tabarov even showed that evidence used by prosecutors to substantiate a rape charge was fake; but to no avail. In December 2013, Saidov was found guilty of financial fraud, polygamy, and sexual relations with a minor and sentenced to 26 years in prison.
Losing the case was only the start of the problems.
Anticorruption police arrested Zokirov in March 2014 and kept him in detention until November 2014, when he was amnestied. However, he was arrested again on extortion charges in August and released in November after paying an approximately $2,000 fine.
Fellow defense lawyer Kudratov, who is also the deputy leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, was arrested on bribery charges in July 2014. He was found guilty of that charge and fraud at a trial in January 2015 and sentenced to nine years in jail, which was later reduced on appeal to three years and eight months.
Tabarov wondered if he was next to be arrested. In fact, he wasn't that lucky.
Instead, Tabarov's oldest son, 27-year-old Firuz, was arrested in July. Ishoq Tabarov said his son was tortured into making a confession in pretrial detention. Firuz Tabarov was found guilty on February 11 of serious crimes, including extremism and facilitating mercenary fighters, and sentenced to 13 1/2 years in prison.
In March, another son, Daler Tabarov, was arrested on charges of failing to report a crime. On June 2, just 10 days before his father died, Daler was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail.
'It Broke Him Completely'
Ishoq Tabarov's wife, Zuhro Sherova, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, that in recent months her husband had trouble breathing and had lost about 20 kilograms. "He worried a lot about the arrest and imprisonment of our son Firuz, and when they sent our second son Daler to prison, it broke him [Ishoq] completely," Sherova said.
Members of Tabarov's family said the cause of his death is not clear, despite reports that he died of a heart attack.
Steve Swerdlow, Central Asian researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), has been tireless in trying to help and highlight the cases of opposition figures, activists, and others who have encountered legal and other entanglements, not only in Tajikistan but throughout Central Asia.
He has been keeping a close eye on the Tabarov family's problems. He told Qishloq Ovozi, "While the exact circumstances of Mr. Tabarov's death are not yet fully known, Human Rights Watch is aware of the terrible moral and psychological toll he had been under for many months due to the politically-motivated attacks on his family and the imprisonment of both of his sons in a matter of months."
Tabarov also lived long enough to see other attorneys put on trial who were known for defending government opponents and rights activists.
HRW, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and Amnesty International have released statements questioning the legal processes against Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nuriddin Makhamov, and others.
And before Tabarov died, he witnessed Tajik authorities starting work to disbar attorneys who defended perceived enemies and nuisances of the state through the introduction of a new mandatory test for all lawyers. Some Tajik attorneys and international rights organizations have noted the new test contains many questions that have nothing to do with the law but all the same can lead to a suspension of licenses to practice law if not answered correctly.