Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights.
Freedom of Speech: Authorities continued to curb freedom of speech through detentions, prosecutions, the threat of heavy fines, the passage of strict and overreaching slander legislation, and the forced closure of media outlets.
In 2016 parliament amended the criminal code, originally passed in 2007, which provides for criminal responsibility for public insult or slander, including on the internet, against the president. The amendment also criminalizes such speech against the “leader of the nation.” Such an offense in both instances can carry an imprisonment term of up to five years.
In January and February, independent and private television and radio stations received two directives signed by Tojiddin Karimzoda, the head of the State Inspectorate for Television and Radio Broadcasting of the State Radio and Television of Tajikistan. The first, dated January 31, required private television and radio stations to submit their broadcasting schedule to the State Inspectorate on a weekly basis. The second, dated February 4, contained recommendations to promote issues “related to state policy.” Both directives stated that, if the recommendations are ignored, “punishment” would occur. When questioned, Karimzoda denied the recommendations represented inappropriate interference in the editorial freedom of private television and radio.
On July 4, President Rahmon signed into law amendments to the code of administrative offenses that impose fines and criminal penalties on individuals who disseminate “inaccurate” COVID-19 information, spread infectious diseases, or fail to wear protective masks in public. Prior to the amendments, the Ministry of Health had complained publicly about independent, factual reporting on COVID-19 in the country, claiming that such reporting mischaracterized the situation and would lead to panic. The president signed the law, approved by parliament on June 10, despite multiple appeals from media watchdogs and civil society organizations that argued the new law would undermine freedom of expression and critical media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following passage of the law, news sites began reporting less frequently on suspected deaths from COVID-19. An independent website that maintained an unofficial list of COVID-19 deaths based on reporting from surviving family members stopped posting regular updates, allegedly because families had become concerned about government reprisals for sharing information about deaths due to COVID-19. When COVID-19-like illnesses were officially reported as pneumonia by authorities, local news outlets typically refrained from questioning the diagnosis.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media faced significant and repeated government threats. Although some media published political commentary and investigatory material critical of the government, journalists observed that authorities considered certain topics off limits, including, among other matters, questions regarding financial improprieties of those close to the president or content regarding banned groups such as IRPT and Group 24.
Several independent television and radio stations were available in a small portion of the country, but the government controlled most broadcasting transmission facilities. A decree issued by the government, Guidelines for the Preparation of Television and Radio Programs, stipulates that the government through a state broadcast committee has the right to “regulate and control the content of all television and radio networks regardless of their type of ownership.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not renew the accreditation for RFE/RL’s Russian-language Current Time correspondent Anushervon Aripov after it expired on August 1. According to Radio Ozodi’s local bureau director, Muhammadvafo Rahmatov, the ministry expressed dissatisfaction over two articles published on RFE/RL’s website, claiming biased reporting by its correspondents and Aripov. In one of the articles, Aripov criticized President Rahmon’s campaigning methods during the 2013 presidential election. As of September 1, a total of 13 Radio Ozodi and Current Time employees were without accreditation. Of this group, the Foreign Affairs Ministry informed seven journalists that their accreditation was forthcoming, and they could therefore continue their work in the country. The other six, including Aripov, did not have permission to work as journalists for RFE/RL and another three journalists hired by RFE/RL had not been accredited as of October. In addition, three employees that Radio Ozodi planned to hire in summer 2019 never received accreditation and eventually pursued other employment opportunities.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to renew the accreditation of the last three acting heads of Radio Ozodi’s Dushanbe branch and issued limited three-to-six month accreditations to all other employees whose accreditations were renewed after October 2019 (the standard length was 12 months). According to Radio Ozodi leadership, the ministry declined (in most cases) to offer specific explanations to Radio Ozodi for withholding or delaying accreditations to their staff. Public statements by the foreign minister and the country’s mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) indicated the reason for withholding accreditations was the outlet’s publication of interviews and quotes from members of banned opposition groups, primarily the IRPT and Group 24.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and intimidation by government officials. Radio Ozodi reported that several of its contacts and family members of its staff were questioned by authorities about the activities of its journalists and in some cases had their telephones confiscated for examination. Journalists from the Prague-based independent news website Akhbor were also warned by local authorities not to report on certain topics. On November 13, Akhbor editor in chief Mirzo Salimpur announced the media outlet had to shut down due to legal problems brought on by the Tajik government.
Two unknown assailants physically assaulted Asia-Plus journalist Abdulloh Ghurbati on May 11 near Dushanbe’s Korvon Market. According to an Asia-Plus article, Ghurbati received several threatening telephone calls from unknown individuals prior to the attack. The report also alleged that Ghurbati, known for covering sensitive topics, had come under online attack from a government “troll farm,” allegedly created by the country’s security services to silence government critics online. Other media outlets reported that immediately after the incident, Ghurbati sought medical treatment at three Dushanbe hospitals, but the hospitals turned him away, claiming they were under a COVID-19 quarantine. He finally received treatment at a local burn center, and he reported the attack to police. Media also noted that Ghurbati had been covering issues related to the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
On May 29, unknown assailants assaulted Ghurbati again in the Khuroson District of the Khatlon Region as he was reporting on the victims of damage caused by heavy rains and a mudslide that took place earlier in the district. Ghurbati reported that one of his assailants claimed to be the head of the Jamoat (municipality). On May 30, the Ministry of Interior Affairs released a statement regarding the attack alleging that Ghurbati attempted forcibly to enter a tent where victims of the recent rains were residing in order to film family members, especially minors. The residents reportedly resisted Ghurbati by driving him away. The ministry also claimed he wanted to awaken in residents a sense of discontent with the state and government. Ghurbati disputed this version of events, reporting he was not allowed to approach the areas of residences before he was accosted. On June 2, a court in the Khuroson District fined three local residents who perpetrated the attack on Ghurbati for petty hooliganism in the amount of 580 somoni ($58).
On July 3, the prosecutor general’s office in Dushanbe summoned and questioned two relatives of exiled journalist Mirzo Salimpur, the founder and chief editor of Akhbor. Salimpur told the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) in a telephone interview that he believed his relatives were interrogated by the Prosecutor’s Office in an attempt to pressure him to stop publishing criticism of the administration prior to the country’s presidential elections. During the incident, a man who identified himself as an official with the Prosecutor General’s Office interrogated two of Salimpur’s sisters-in-law who lived in the town of Hissor for several hours to learn about Salimpur’s other relatives. Salimpur said that his sisters-in-law felt intimidated and threatened by the interrogations.
On April 16, the Shohmansur District Court of Dushanbe sentenced independent journalist Daler Sharifov to one year in prison for allegedly inciting national and religious hatred. The GKNB detained Sharifov on January 28 and held him in custody for two months while his case was investigated. Sharifov pleaded not guilty but had no plans to appeal the verdict, as he would likely finish his sentence before the appeals process would finish. The guilty verdict came after a two-day closed trial. Sharifov’s lawyer and parents were permitted to attend the trial, but journalists and human rights activists were denied entry, allegedly as a COVID-19 preventative measure. According to Sharifov’s lawyer, the state prosecutor demanded that the judge sentence the journalist to two years and four months in prison, but the court sentenced him to a shorter term, because it was his first offense and he had young children. In December the Prosecutor General’s Office rejected the Penitentiary Department’s recommendation to transfer Sharifov to a less restrictive colony settlement for “good behavior,” ostensibly based on a determination that Sharifov was “a danger to society.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists regularly practiced self-censorship to avoid retribution from officials, according to media reports and journalists. Opposition politicians had limited or no access to state-run television. The government gave opposition parties minimal broadcast time to express their political views, while the president’s party had numerous opportunities to broadcast its messages.
Newspaper publishers reported the government exercised restrictions on the distribution of materials, requiring all newspapers and magazines with circulations exceeding 99 recipients to register with the Ministry of Culture. The government continued to control all major printing presses and the supply of newsprint. Independent community radio stations continued to experience registration and licensing delays that prevented them from broadcasting. The government restricted issuance of licenses to new stations, in part through an application process described as excessively complex. The National Committee on Television and Radio, a government organization that directly manages television and radio stations in the country, must approve and then provide licenses to new stations. The government continued to deny the BBC a renewal of its license to broadcast on FM radio.
Libel/Slander Laws: In 2012 the government repealed the law criminalizing libel and defamation and downgraded the offenses to civil violations, although the law retains controversial provisions that make publicly insulting the president an offense punishable by a fine or up to five years in jail.
Individuals and groups faced extensive government surveillance of internet activity, including emails, and often self-censored their views while posting on the internet. Authorities blocked some critical websites and news portals and used temporary blackouts of all internet services and messaging to suppress criticism. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities periodically cut access to mobile and messaging services when critical statements about the president, his family, or the government appeared online.
There were regular government restrictions on access to news websites, such as RFE/RL’s Radio Ozodi, Asia-Plus, and Akhbor. Independent and opposition news agencies and websites located outside the country have been blocked by the government for several years. The State Communications Service, the official communications regulator, routinely denied involvement in blocking these sites, but the government admitted to periodically implementing a law that allows interruption of internet content and telecommunications “in the interest of national security.” The government continued to implement a 2015 law enabling the GKNB to shut off internet and telecommunications during security operations.
In May, kvtj.com, a website created by a group of civil society activists to track those who died from COVID-19 and pneumonia, became inaccessible without a virtual private network. The website showed that the number of deaths due to COVID-19 was several times larger than that reported in official government statistics. Some of the website’s authors received warnings from the government about laws penalizing “false” or “misleading” information around COVID-19.
The law gives law enforcement bodies the right to track citizens using the internet, an ability they continue to exercise regularly. According to the law, security agencies can monitor internet traffic and have access to information about which internet sites citizens visit and the type of information they seek. In 2018 parliament further amended the criminal code to criminalize the use of the “like” or “share” function on social media regarding “terrorism” and “extremism-related” topics, with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. Parliament also amended the law criminalizing public calls for the commission of terrorist crimes or publicly justifying terrorist activities, to include statements or calls made via the internet.
The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code that bans wearing the hijab in schools and government institutions. Authorities allowed women to wear a traditional version of the head covering–a scarf that covers hair but not the neck–to schools and universities. Some female students wore the hijab to and from school but removed it upon entering the school building. Parents and school officials appeared to accept this arrangement. The ministry also maintained its ban on beards for all teachers. Students with beards reported being removed from class, questioned, and asked to shave. A Ministry of Education decree obliges all female teachers, university students, and schoolchildren to wear traditional dress during the academic year.
Government authorities increased the urgency of their effort to dissuade citizens from wearing “foreign clothing,” primarily focused on the hijab, which covers the hair, ears, and neck. According to media reports, the government’s Committee on Women and Family Affairs, in cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, conducted informational campaigns, or “raids,” in public areas against women wearing the hijab, threatening those who refused to remove their hijab with a large fine and six months’ imprisonment. Addressing these media reports, the ministry denied that such measures existed and claimed the government was conducting a public campaign to promote national culture and clothing.
A Ministry of Education directive requires school administrators to inform students of the Law on Parental Responsibility, which bans all persons younger than 18 from participating in public religious activities, with the exception of funerals. The law provides that, with written parental consent, minors between the ages of seven and 18 may obtain a religious education during their free time from school and outside the state education curriculum and may worship as part of educational activities at religious institutions.
The government requires all persons studying religion abroad to register with the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The law provides criminal penalties for violating restrictions on sending citizens abroad for religious education, preaching and teaching religious doctrines, and establishing ties with religious groups abroad without CRA consent.
The Ministry of Education reportedly issued a regulation in 2018 requiring students and academic staff to request government permission before any education-related travel abroad. During the year the ministry issued an amendment to the regulation that requires students who wish to travel abroad for educational purposes to provide detailed personal information about close relatives but does not specify consequences for noncompliance. Civil society organizations requested the ministry to exclude the data requirement, as it allegedly violates the provisions of the law on personal data, but the ministry has not yet responded.
There were several reports throughout the year that academics writing on sensitive subjects regarding politics, religion, and history feared publishing or even submitting their articles for review because of possible government retribution.
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association through requirements to obtain permission from local governments and through frequent inspections by various government agencies.
The constitution provides the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government required that individuals obtain permission from the government to stage public demonstrations. Individuals considering the staging of peaceful protests reportedly chose not to do so for fear of government reprisal.
Many female activists were subjected to anonymous harassment and attempts to denigrate them in social networks, including by falsely portraying them as sex workers, in retaliation for their participation in protests. In January the Vahdat police department refused to open a criminal case regarding the distribution of a video, which first appeared in September 2019, containing sexual scenes of activist D.M. with a man whose face on the video was erased. D.M. was among those who in April 2019 collected signatures requesting the president cancel the order to increase fees for mobile internet. The letter from the Investigative Department of Vahdat stated that no criminal case was opened due to the absence of evidence of a crime on the part of the man in the video.
On March 17, the GKNB detained and interrogated the former Dushanbe-based director of RFE/RL’s Tajik service Radio Ozodi, Nisso Rasulova. Observers believed the GKNB targeted Rasulova for attending a women’s empowerment event on March 13. The GKNB reportedly attempted, and failed, to prevent the event from taking place. After finding a venue and holding the event, several participants reported they were contacted, threatened, and blackmailed by GKNB agents.
On July 16, a Khatlon District Court sentenced 10 Khuroson residents to up to 10 days in prison for blocking a major highway on May 17 in a protest demanding government action in response to a mudslide. After heavy rain on May 14-16 caused extensive damage to critical infrastructure across the Khuroson region, dozens of residents took to the streets in protest. Police responded by dispersing the protestors with force. On May 18, the governor of Khatlon met with disaster victims, promising that government aid would be forthcoming, but also warning that “a tough response would follow any provocation.” As of October, in addition to the 10 convictions on July 16, six additional criminal cases against other protestors were still pending.
The constitution protects freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. In 2019 President Rahmon signed into law amendments to the Law on Public Associations (PAs) which require all PAs to post detailed financial reports on their websites and impose burdensome reporting requirements. As in the previous year, civil society organizations reported a noticeable increase in the number and intensity of registration and tax inspections by authorities.
On January 2, the president signed amendments to the code on administrative offenses. The penalty for managing the activities of unregistered, suspended, or prohibited public or religious associations increased fourfold, up to $1,200. Participation in the activities of such associations is now punishable by a penalty of up to $600, a sharp increase from the previous maximum penalty of $42. Individuals and organizations charged with funding the activities of illegal organizations also face fines.
The government continued to enforce the ban on activities held under the banner of the IRPT. As a result of a 2016 constitutional referendum, religious-affiliated political parties are banned.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some restrictions. According to the constitution, restrictions on the rights and freedoms of a person and a citizen are allowed only for ensuring the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protecting the foundations of the constitutional order, state security, national defense, public morality, public health, and the territorial integrity of the republic.
The government rarely cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, or other persons.
In-country Movement: The government prohibits foreigners, except diplomats and international aid workers, from traveling within a 15-mile zone along the borders with Afghanistan and China in the Khatlon Region and the Gorno-Badakhsan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials did not always enforce the restrictions along the western border with Afghanistan, although the government continued to require travelers (including international workers and diplomats) to obtain special permits to visit the GBAO. The government also continued to enforce a policy barring Afghan refugees from residing in urban areas.
Foreign Travel: Individuals in some cases do not have the right to leave the country due to arbitrary and inconsistent restrictions. Civil society organizations asserted that a new regulation requiring the Ministry of Education’s approval for all students wishing to study abroad is a restriction of citizens’ rights to freedom of movement inside and outside the country and is a violation of the country’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In response, the ministry stated that the decree is necessary to better regulate international education programs, safeguard students, and better maintain education statistics.
At times border security guards placed arbitrary restrictions on citizens wishing to travel abroad. On February 21, border control officers refused to allow a citizen named Abdu Vohidov to cross into the Kyrgyz Republic because he lacked a certificate from the military department office stating he was not a conscript. Such a certificate is not required for travel abroad. The press center of the Border Guards office refused to respond to a media inquiry on the incident.
Refoulement: National security concerns continued to dominate decisions related to protection and human rights, which often heightened the risk of deportation of asylum seekers and refugees. During the year there were six refugee families (28 persons) whose status the government revoked and who continued to be at risk of penalty and subsequent deportation a law that prohibits refugees and asylum seekers from living in major urban areas, including Dushanbe. In June the government amended the law to exclude deportation. Despite the update to the law, the risk of refoulement remains.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the access to asylum, and individuals may seek refugee status. The government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The refugee status determination process, as well as judicial procedures, does not comply with international standards. The criminal code criminalizes asylum seekers who entered the country illegally, in contrast to the country’s Refugee Law, which states that illegal entry is not a crime. These conflicting legal codes mean asylum seekers run the risk of arrest and subsequent deportation without access to asylum procedures. According to law, in order to seek asylum legally, asylum seekers must enter the country legally with valid travel documents and a visa obtained in advance.
The government provides asylum seekers with temporary certification while processing asylum applications through the National Refugee Status Determination Commission and, upon granting refugee status, refugee identification cards as a proof of legal stay. Government-recognized refugees enjoy socioeconomic rights on par with local nationals and can legally reside in the country. Formal notifications of administrative and legal decisions provided little insight into the rationale for adjudications.
The government continued to place significant restrictions on asylum seekers and registered refugees, and officials continued to enforce a 2000 law prohibiting them from residing in the capital and all major cities in the country. Security officials regularly monitored refugee populations. Police subjected them to raids if they were believed to be residing in prohibited areas.
National law grants refugee status for as long as three years. Since 2009 the Department of Citizenship and Works with Refugees, under the Passport Registration Services within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, has had responsibility for refugee issues. Refugees must check in annually with authorities to verify their address, but this is not a reregistration of their status. According to government statistics, there was a significant increase in the number of newly arrived asylum seekers in the first half of the year. The country had approximately 5,000 registered refugees, 99 percent of whom were Afghans.
Freedom of Movement: According to Government Resolution 325, refugees are not permitted to live in major urban areas, including Dushanbe, which restricts their ability to find work and go to school.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees and asylum seekers shared unhindered access to social, education, and health services with Tajik citizens. Although UNHCR’s activities were mostly focused on advocacy and protection, it maintained a limited humanitarian component to render assistance to the most vulnerable families. Thus, UNHCR through its NGO partner Refugees, Children, and Vulnerable Citizens (RCVC) provided books, school uniforms, and some language classes to children from vulnerable families and assistance with medical expenses. When refugees and asylum seekers faced legal issues, UNHCR’s legal assistance partner assisted clients in obtaining judicial redress while providing training and awareness-raising sessions to local authorities to strengthen their understanding of refugee rights.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for expedited naturalization, leaving refugees on equal standing with nonrefugee foreigners when applying for citizenship. As a prerequisite, refugees should denounce their refugee status and apply for a temporary residence permit to be able to apply further for naturalization. To date no such precedent has been recorded.
The total population of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality identified and registered by UNHCR and its partners was 47,746 persons (14,430 men and 33,316 women). The government, UNHCR, and NGO partners continued to implement a project to identify and find solutions for stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality–such as former USSR citizens–in three pilot provinces of the country (Khatlon, Sughd, and Districts of Republican Subordination). UNHCR, NGOs, and local authorities worked together to find solutions–including confirming nationalities and issuing citizenship and identification documents–for 42,695 persons, both adults and children, with the remaining 5,051 still needing assistance to resolve their situation.
In December 2019 the government adopted an Amnesty Law allowing stateless persons and foreign nationals illegally residing in the country in violation of the rule of stay (for former USSR citizens) to legalize and regularize their legal status. The Amnesty Law is valid until December 2022, at which time all persons falling under the scope of the law must submit their applications for legalization. UNHCR evaluated the law as a major step in combating statelessness in the country.