Ahead of the annual EU-Central Asia Ministerial Meeting scheduled to take place in Dushanbe on 22 November 2021 with the participation of the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joseph Borrell and the foreign ministers of the Central Asian countries human rights groups urge the EU to call on the Tajik government to release two jailed Tajik opposition politicians, Zubaidullo Roziq and Rahmatullo Rajab, from harsh punishment cells where they have been placed on dubious grounds. The men are serving 25 year and 28 year sentences, respectively, on politically motivated charges relating to their membership in the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), an opposition party banned by the Tajik government.
Roziq and Rajab were placed in punishment cells, known as SHIZO, in the basement of the newly built Vahdat prison. Such cells are cramped (2.5 m by 4 m) and damp, lack ventilation, and are prone to extremely cold and hot conditions in the winter and summer, respectively. The cells are overcrowded, with cells intended for 16 people now holding at least 25. Each punishment cell has only 4 metal beds, often with no bedding or mattresses, forcing prisoners take turns sleeping. The beds are stored during the day and prisoners are forced to stand until night when they are allowed to use the bed. The lights are always on in the cells.
During his last call with relatives on November 8, Rajab reported that the prison administration placed him and Roziq in punishment cells in retaliation for sending an open letter to President Emomali Rahmon in early November urging him to reconsider their case. Since that time, Rajab and Roziq have been held incommunicado and denied care packages that their relatives brought to the prison.
“This disturbing news about the retaliation against political prisoners for demanding review of their cases in open court by placing them in dangerous and degrading punishment cells must be raised by Tajikistan’s international partners”, said Ilhomjon Yoqubov, director of NGO Association of Central Asian Migrants. “We call on representatives of diplomatic missions in Dushanbe to request permission to visit prisoners in Vahdat, press for their immediate release from punishment cells and call on Tajik authorities to respect prisoners right to a public and a fair trial”.
The groups are the Association for Central Asian Migrants, NGO “Freedom for Eurasia”, Buzurgmehr Yorov Foundation, Tajik Center for Human Rights.
This is not the first time the two men have been punished for appealing to President Rahmon. In September 2021, Roziq, Rajab, and two other IRPT members, Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda and Muhammadali Faizmuhammad, sent a letter to the President Rahmon demanding a review of their sentences. Soon thereafter, 70-year-old Saifullozoda was attacked in a prison hospital and Rajab’s relatives reported he was attacked with a knife. Following the assault, Rajab’s relatives tried unsuccessfully to get permission to visit him.
“As the Tajik authorities’ efforts to coerce the men into making false confessions and publicly condemning the IRPT and its leaders as terrorists failed, the ill-treatment of these prisoners has intensified”, Jamshed Yorov, head of Buzurgmehr Yorov Foundation.
The United States, the European Union, and other key international entities should call for the unequivocal release of prisoners from punishment cells, the groups said. They should also request access for diplomats, including representatives of the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to visit the IRPT members in detention.
The Committee against Torture and the Human Rights Committee have consistently found that detention conditions can amount to inhuman and degrading treatment. We would like to draw the attention of government of Tajikistan to detention standards adopted by the UN General Assembly: the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules (amended November 5, 2015), and the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment (adopted December 9, 1988).
The Nelson Mandela Rules call for, inter alia, appropriate accommodation, including a minimum cubic content of air and floor space, lighting, and ventilation (rules 12 to 17); requirements to be met regarding personal hygiene (rule 18), clothing and bedding (rules 19 to 21), food (rule 22), exercise and sport (rule 23), solitary confinement (rule 45), and family visits (Rule 58); and a prohibition of the use of force (Rule 82).
We remind the government of Tajikistan that Principle 19 of the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment emphasizes: “A detained or imprisoned person shall have the right to be visited by and to correspond with, in particular, members of his family and shall be given adequate opportunity to communicate with the outside world […]”.
“Tajikistan’s international partners should publicly condemn the use of punishment cells and incommunicado detention by Tajik authorities to inflict even more suffering on unjustly imprisoned political prisoners. They should also press the Tajik government to respect its international obligations and impose targeted punitive measures, such as asset freezes and visa bans, on Tajik government officials responsible for imprisoning, mistreating, torturing or committing other grave human rights violations against peaceful activists, opposition politicians, journalists, critics until immediate human rights improvements are made”, Leila Nazgul Seiitbek, representative of “Freedom for Eurasia”.