ARTICLE 19 condemns last week’s guilty verdict against human rights lawyer, Buzurgmehr Yorov, on charges of ‘insulting the Leader of the Nation’. He now faces 28 years’ imprisonment on numerous charges. ARTICLE 19 urges the Tajik authorities to drop all charges against Yorov and release him immediately and unconditionally.
Yesterday, 23 August 2017, Yorov’s family were informed that his original 25-year prison sentence had been extended by a further three years following an additional guilty verdict handed down to him for ‘publicly insulting the Leader of the Nation,’ Tajikistan’s President, Emomali Rahmon (Article 137.1). The family had previously been informed the court proceedings would take place on 23 August and were not informed about the hearing, which was held behind closed doors last week.
“Yorov’s detention and the trumped-up charges made against him are continued evidence of the Tajik authorities’ continued repression of those critical of the government,” said Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia for ARTICLE 19. “The authorities’ targeting of lawyers taking on politically-sensitive cases has a particularly chilling effect on freedom of expression with human rights defenders and journalists increasingly vulnerable to legislative harassment, arbitrary detention and long prison terms with no effective legal representation.”
Article 137.1 (‘insulting the Leader of the Nation through the media through print, online or other media’) was included in Tajikistan’s Criminal Code in a series of amendments signedinto law by Rahmon on 13 October 2016 under Government Order No. 247. Individuals found guilty of this charge face up to five years’ imprisonment.
“Insult laws violate freedom of expression”, said Morris. “It is well established under international law that officials, including heads of state, should tolerate more, rather than less, criticism than ordinary citizens. Laws granting them higher protection must be abolished.”
Yorov has rejected all charges and considers the criminal case against him to be politically motivated. He believes he was arrested for his work to defend political activists linked to the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), an opposition political party. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty Internationaland the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have all repeatedly called on the Tajik authorities to release Yorov and other imprisoned attorneys. The Tajik authorities have denied that they have initiated any politically-motivated criminal cases.
Yorov was arrested on 28 September 2015 following statements to the press that one of his clients, IRPT Deputy Chairman Siadumar Hussiani, had been tortured in pre-trial detention. Yorov was charged with ‘fraud’ (Article 247) and ‘forgery’ (Article 340). Later, three additional charges were brought against him, including ‘incitement to national, racial, local or religious violence’ (Article 189).
Following his arrest, Yorov was held in pre-trial detention together with 18 others in a cell made for just eight inmates. According to Yorov’s sister, the inmates were forced to sleep in turns, on the floor and even on the dining table. Yorov was forbidden access to the media and was not even allowed to read books.
On 6 October 2016, Dushanbe’s City Court found Yorov guilty on a total of five charges: 1) Article 247 (‘fraud’); 2) Article 340 (‘forgery, production or sale of forged documents, state awards, stamps, forms’); 3) Article 307 (‘public calls to a violent change of the constitutional order’); 4) Article 307.1(‘public calls to conduct extremist activity’); and 5) Article 189 (‘incitement to national, racial, local or religious violence’). He was sentenced to 23 years’ imprisonment in a high-security prison colony.
In March 2017, the Supreme Court of Tajikistan sentenced Yorov to a further two years’ imprisonment for ‘contempt of court’. The charge was brought against Yorov as a result of the statement he made in his original hearing. While the statement was made during a closed hearing, it was later published online. Yorov’s wife believes the investigative committee were involved in making the statement public. As a result, Yorov was also sentenced to one year’s correctional labour for ‘insulting a representative of the authorities’.
On 4 August 2017, the state prosecutor requested that Yorov be sentenced to a further 17 years’ imprisonment for an additional charge of ‘fraud’ (Article 247) and ‘insulting the Leader of the nation through the media’ (Article 137.1) following further charges brought against him on 14 April.
On 22 August 2017, it Dushanbe city court also announced its intention to confiscate the shop belonging to Yorov’s wife, Zarina Nabieva, which is located in an unfinished ten-storey building. As the building is yet unfinished, Nabieva does not have a technical passport to prove her ownership. She has twice challenged the decision to confiscate the shop, into which she has invested over $20,000, and which is an important source of income for her and her three children now that her husband is in prison. Yusuf Donierov, an independent lawyer, told Radio Liberty’s Tajik Service that Nabieva’s documents were in order and urged the authorities to refrain from confiscating the property.
Criminal charges have also been brought against Yorov’s brother, Jamshed Yorov, who is accused under three articles of Tajikistan’s Criminal Code: Article 307 (‘public calls to a violent change of the constitutional order’); Article 247(‘fraud’); and Article 189 (‘incitement to national, racial, local or religious violence’). Yorov’s sister, Hoshiyat Yorova, was also charged under Article 307, as was his lawyer, Muazzama Qodirova. Qodirova has since been put under such significant pressure by the Tajik authorities that she has been forced to drop Yorov’s case and fled Tajikistan. According to some reports, charges were brought against Yorov’s brother and sister as a result of their participation in a protest in Bonn on 23 March 2017 organised to raise awareness the charges brought against their brother. Following Qodirova’s departure, Yorov’s family stated were unable to find another lawyer to replace him.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Tajik government to drop all charges against Yurov, his family members and his lawyer and to release him immediately and unconditionally. ARTICLE 19 also urges the authorities to release other human rights lawyers imprisoned in Tajikistan and to cease their harassment of the legal profession.