oDR: Analysis

Journalist’s jail term paints dire picture of civil rights in Tajikistan

Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva was accused of conspiring against the state and tried behind closed doors

Syinat Sultanalieva
19 December 2022, 3.27pm

Journalist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva

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Source: Facebook

The last time I spoke to Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, she told me she was not worried for herself.

Mamadshoeva, 65, had been accused of conspiring against the Tajik state and organising a street protest in the country’s Gorno-Badakshan autonomous region (GBAO) in mid-May. She strongly denied the allegations.

We had arranged to talk via Telegram so she could connect me with witnesses to the unrest in GBAO’s capital Khorog. We never got the chance. Tajikistan’s interior ministry put out a notice alleging that she had personally masterminded the protests, alongside the well-known Tajik opposition leader Alim Sherzamonov – and Mamadshoeva was detained hours later in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

This courageous woman was tried behind closed doors in the pre-trial detention centre of the country’s national security agency. Her case was categorised as “secret”, which made any monitoring impossible.

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She was handed a 21-year jail sentence in early December.

Her story says a great deal about the state of human rights in Tajikistan today.

Last message

Between November 2021 and June 2022, there are said to have been hundreds of arrests and several people killed by the Tajik security forces as they tried to suppress the peaceful gatherings. Meanwhile, internet and mobile telephony were shut down.

Mamadshoeva had originally got in touch with me to talk about the cruel treatment of those protesting against what they perceived as the authorities’ harassment and abuse of Gorno-Badakshan residents.

Before she was detained, Mamadshoeva told me she had no plans to go into hiding. She said she had found a lawyer and would be able to give me an interview the next day. It was her last message to me.

The authorities who arrested her claimed her goal had been to disrupt public order and intimidate the population. Mamadshoeva, who has extensive experience of facilitating peace negotiations during the 1990s Tajik civil war, was accused of leading a criminal association and fomenting disorder and opposition to the constitution.

Screen_Shot_2022-08-02_at_16.23.49.max-760x504

16 May 2022: government troops disperse protests in Khorog by force

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Source: Bomdod TV

On 24 May, nearly a week after her arrest, the state TV channel broadcast a documentary in which Mamadshoeva and her former husband Kholbash Kholbashov appeared to admit organising the protests in Khorog and nearby Rushan, and apologised for causing distress to the residents. Kholbashov, a former officer in the Tajik Border Troops, was sentenced to life imprisonment in September.

It’s obvious that the couple’s interviews were recorded while they were in custody. However, the exact circumstances of the filming are unclear. The documentary, which showed Mamadshoeva leaving a café in Dushanbe with two people who look foreign, also claimed that she was cooperating with the intelligence services of “certain Western countries”.

Region under fire

Mamadshoeva is not the only victim of the Tajik government’s clampdown on Gorno-Badakshan activists.

More than 200 GBAO residents have been detained since May. Some were kidnapped and transferred to Dushanbe, where they were detained and tried behind closed doors, without access to lawyers or even learning what evidence would be used against them. Scores of GBAO residents have received prison sentences ranging from ten years to life terms. PamirDailyNews Telegram channel has reported that whole families in Khorog and the surrounding villages have been arrested and sentenced.

The unrest in Gorno-Badakshan is one of the worst escalations of tensions since the end of the civil war that spanned 1990 to 1997. The region’s residents identify as Pamiri, a distinct ethnic and religious minority. Although Gorno-Badakshan had enjoyed autonomy from early Soviet times and through Tajikistan’s independence, tensions have frequently risen with Pamiris alleging harassment and persecution and the Tajik authorities accusing GBAO’s de facto leaders of criminal links.

In the May clashes alone, 40 people were reportedly killed – which may be an undercount because witness statements on Telegram channels mention scores of bodies found in rivers or shot execution-style on the streets of Rushan and Vamar villages outside Khorog.

Tajikistan’s international partners have called on the government to investigate the violent clashes in GBAO and to release arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, but more is needed to make clear to Tajik authorities that this treatment of Pamiri activists, journalists and lawyers has to end.

On 9 December, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, in a news conference concluding her two-week visit to Tajikistan, expressed her deep concern at the “apparent clampdown on dissenting voices”.

During her two weeks, Lawlor met human rights defenders, as well as representatives of various government ministries and agencies, to whom she emphasised the importance of a vibrant civil society. The authorities may have listened and nodded at her statements – but Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva remains behind bars.

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