Human Rights Day Shines Unwelcome Spotlight On Tajikistan

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As the world marked the 70th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, Tajikistan's government attracted unwanted attention at home and abroad.

In Berlin, a group of Tajik opposition activists whose political parties have been banned in Tajikistan rallied outside that country's embassy and then outside the Bundestag. They were from the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and Group 24.

As its name suggests, the IRPT is a religiously based opposition party. It partnered with President Emomali Rahmon for some 18 years in a government that worked under a secular constitution. Tajik authorities declared the IRPT an extremist group in late 2015.

The much smaller Group 24 is a secular opposition group founded by a formerly successful Tajik businessman whose fortunes appear to have dwindled when he was joined in business by one of the president's sons-in-law. Tajik authorities declared Group 24 an extremist organization in 2014. The leader of Group 24, Umarali Kuvvatov, was shot dead in Istanbul in March 2015.

Some members of both parties fled Tajikistan if they were able, and some of them were in Berlin on December 10.

IRPT leader Mihiddin Kabiri was there, leading more than 200 supporters of his own party and Group 24, as well as other opposition activists in calling on authorities to release party members who are currently imprisoned in Tajikistan.

Tajik opposition supporters were advertising the rally in Berlin many days ahead of the event, so the authorities in Dushanbe were aware it was coming.

There were reports that a pro-government youth group called Avangard planned to demonstrate outside the German Embassy in Dushanbe on December 10 to protest Germany providing refuge to "terrorists." That rally apparently never materialized.

News Websites Blocked

What emerged instead was a statement from the embassies of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United States, and the representative office of the European Union in Tajikistan expressing concern about the "continuing periodic blocking of news websites, including Asia-Plus and [RFE/RL's] Radio Ozodi, and also social networks."

The statement, released in English by the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, called on Tajik authorities to ensure freedom of the press. The group reminded "the right of a person to express their views is universal, regardless of whether it is carried out on a public platform or on the Internet."

It is telling that Tajikistan -- and not any of the other Central Asian states -- was the focus this year as Human Rights Day was marked.

The Tajik rights situation has arguably deteriorated. Once known for having the only registered Islamic political party in the Commonwealth of Independent States, virtually all significant opposition parties and groups in Tajikistan have been crushed in recent years, along with fledgling independent media outlets that emerged after the 1992-97 civil war. Tajik authorities have imprisoned many opposition leaders (and often their lawyers as well) and followed and harassed political opponents who fled the country.

It is difficult to say what, if any, effect the Berlin rally and the statement from Western embassies might have on the Tajik administration's policies. But it is clear that the policies of the Tajik government are drawing negative attention, and an economically challenged country like Tajikistan, which lies in the high mountains in the middle of the Eurasian continent and faces security threats from southern neighbor Afghanistan, might need all the friends it can get.

But as it stands, Tajikistan is seemingly competing with Turkmenistan to be the most oppressive state in Central Asia in the eyes of the West.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.