Tajikistan frees lawyer in another surprise gesture of clemency

There is talk the government may free many more under a widespread amnesty.

Aug 24, 2018

A lawyer in Tajikistan who made his name defending independent media, activists and opposition politicians has been released from prison in yet another unexpected turn to toward clemency in the Central Asian nation.

Friends of Shukhrat Kudratov, who was arrested in 2014 on charges of bribery and fraud, told Eurasianet on August 24 that he is now at home with his family. His supporters have always argued that the charges were fabricated and politically motivated.

Kudratov’s most famous client was Zaid Saidov, a businessman and one-time government official who was arrested in 2013 and later sentenced to 29 years in prison on a slew of charges following his announcement that he would be going into opposition politics. Kudratov was arrested only days after raising the alarm with rights groups and diplomatic missions over Saidov’s case.

Kudratov was initially, in 2015, sentenced to nine years in prison, but that penalty was later commuted to three years and eight months. There have long been lingering fears, however, that the government might find new grounds to extend his time in prison, but that appears not to have come to pass.

In 2011, Kudratov was bestowed with the Human Rights Defender of the Year by the Tajik Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law for his willingness to defend of activists, torture victims and people accused on religious extremism charges.

This release and other recent developments go against the trend for deepening authoritarianism established in Tajikistan over the past three years. And there is mounting speculation that the government may be on the cusp of liberating dozens more political prisoners as it tries to improve its dismal international reputation.

On August 22, the Sughd regional court in northern Tajikistan ruled, in another unusual gesture, to release a whistle-blowing journalist who had only weeks earlier been sentenced to 12 years in prison. Khairullo Mirsaidov’s conviction remains in place, but the lifting of the custodial sentence marked a notable change of tack in punitive practices.

Eurasianet has learned that the Justice Ministry and the General Prosecutor’s Office are now considering releasing a substantial number of individuals imprisoned on what activists have described as political grounds. The putative list includes Saidov and senior members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, including one of its co-leaders, Mahmadali Hayit.

A working group for the UN Human Rights Council in May found that Hayit, who was jailed on trumped-up terrorism charges along with a dozen or so other senior IRPT figures, had been deprived of a raft of basic legal rights. It urged the Tajik government to release and compensate Hayit for his ordeal, which has reportedly included torture at the hands of security service officers.

A source familiar with the amnesty proposals told Eurasianet that among those who could be freed there are also members of Salafi Islamic groups.

“But it is not clear how they will be released. Because if they release them just like that, it will mean the international community can put pressure on Tajikistan. So there are talks going on with them, in order that they might appeal to the president for forgiveness, and so the president can pardon them,” Eurasianet’s source said.

News of the apparent planned amnesty has also been reported by Prague-based Akhbor, a government-critical outlet whose coverage has previously indicated it has well-placed government sources. Akhbor has said that there is already a list of around 200 possible amnesty candidates being studied by officials. That list includes Maqsud Ibrohimov, who used to lead a Russia-based opposition movement called Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan, and Abumalik Salomov, a well-known doctor who was member of a Salafi-affiliated group.

In an unrelated development, there appear to be moves toward softening penalties for certain types of offenses. The government's representative for human rights, Zarif Alizoda, has told Eurasianet that there are plans afoot to change the law to allow for fines or suspended sentences for people suspected of affiliation with radical religious groups, instead of the mandatory prison time now envisioned.

“That will ensure that Tajik prisons are not so overcrowded, as they are now,” Alizoda said.

A source close to the government has told Eurasianet there are also proposals being studied to loosen strict formal and informal regulations on religious practices. One would allow for children to attend mosques, which is currently forbidden. Another is to lift the de facto ban on madrasas. Changes to the law adopted in 2012 required religious schools to get approval to operate from the government, but no such institution has received the green light since that time.

As to what is provoking this sudden softening, that is anybody’s guess.

There are indications that Western governments have grown increasingly exasperated at Tajikistan’s escalating and indiscriminate campaign of political repression. That became most clear in a statement condemning Mirsaidov’s 12-year jail sentence in July that was co-signed by the embassies of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United States, and the EU Delegation in Tajikistan. Putting up an unusually united front, the diplomatic missions chided what they termed an “extremely harsh” punishment and warned that the “sentence will compromise our joint struggle for good governance and thus cast a shadow on our cooperation.”

It is also possible that the killing last month of four tourists by a group of young men declaring fealty to the Islamic State group played a role. In the immediate wake of those killings, the Tajik authorities sought to take advantage by pinning the act on the IRPT, despite a total lack of reliable evidence to that effect.

As two of the victims of the Islamic State-claimed attack came from the United States, which has provided Tajikistan with considerable security-related assistance over the years, that may have proven an attempt at exploitation too far.

The U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan told Eurasianet in the days after last month’s deadly hit-and-run attack that U.S. law enforcement agencies were on the ground and involved in gathering and sharing information.

One more scenario is that the government is beginning to rethink the wisdom of its hardline policies, particularly as regards religion. The suffocating regulation of religion has left the devout with few and unappealing options. One is to abide by the dry, abstract and state-sanctioned strain of Islam propagated in legally operating mosques, where imams must deliver pre-written sermons, often under close scrutiny from security officials. Another is to turn to informal sources, such as the internet and messaging app groups, where exotic, radical and religiously illiterate versions of the faith often flourish. Many Tajiks who have fallen prey to radicalization are said to have been recruited through prayer groups while working in Russia, far from their families and communities.

If any, even marginal, liberalization occurs, it may signal that the government has decided to go down a slightly different route.