Tajikistan: New criminal case opened against imprisoned human rights lawyer

The Tajikistani human rights lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov has spent eight years unjustly in prison. And yet, the authorities are now targeting him again. On 6 April 2023, the Investigation Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened a new criminal case against Yorov. This is the fourth consecutive criminal case brought by the Tajikistani authorities against Yorov in an apparent retaliation for his human rights activities. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) is concerned that the new charges have been initiated in order to penalise Yorov for exercising his right to freedom of expression and other fundamental rights while in prison. Today, we renew our call for his immediate and unconditional release.

According to a statement by the Buzurgmehr Foundation, the new criminal case was initiated under Article 247, part 4, clauses “a” and “b”, of the Criminal Code (repeated large-scale fraud committed), allegedly at the request of a prisoner who served his sentence alongside Yorov in the Vahdat colony YaS 3/1. This article provides for punishment by eight to twelve years’ imprisonment, or a fine as well as confiscation of property, and in case of recidivism the court can impose the most severe type of punishment.

However, the details of the accusation on which the charges were initiated remain unclear. There are concerns that this case was initiated based on evidence obtained by illegal means. The authorities, as well as Buzurgmehr Yorov’s lawyer have remained silent since the announcement of the new charges.

In 2015, Yorov was arrested after representing members and leaders of the banned opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRTP). Following his arrest, he was interrogated for ten hours and allegedly beaten. He was detained for eight months before his trial began – during which time he was physically abused and held in solitary confinement on many occasions.

In a series of closed and unfair trials held between October 2016 and August 2017, the human rights lawyer was convicted on various charges, including overthrowing the government, inciting unrest, and insulting the President and government officials, following which he was sentenced to 22 years behind bars.

In mid-November 2022, Yorov was transferred from Vahdat colony, where he had been serving his sentence to a maximum-security prison in Dushanbe. The authorities, dissatisfied with the human rights and educational activities he was conducting among prisoners, including providing legal assistance, changed his conditions of detention to stricter ones for a period of two years. He is now awaiting the completion of the preliminary investigation and the final court decision.

The new charges against Yorov  mark a concerning trend in Tajikistan, where independent lawyers are increasingly facing intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, threats and criminal prosecution, in an attempt to stop them from taking on politically sensitive cases. His family reports that lawyers in the country have faced pressure from the investigative or law enforcement agencies. In fact, according to the Buzurgmehr Foundation, the state lawyer assigned to Yorov has only participated a very few number of times in the process and does not contact his relatives nor provides information on his case in fear of retaliation.

Buzurgmehr Yorov has been a vocal critic of government abuse and has been awarded numerous international prizes in recognition of his contribution to democratic and civil rights in Tajikistan. After founding Sipar law firm in 2007, he frequently represented government critics and provided legal assistance to victims of human rights violations.

In May 2019, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Buzurgmehr Yorov’s arbitrary detention is against international law, and it called on the Tajikistan authorities to release him immediately. We second that call again today, and call for the immediate and unconditional release of Buzurgmehr Yorov from detention.