Tajikistan: Human Rights Defender, Abdulmajid Rizoev, sentenced to 5 and a half years for social media posts (joint communication)

BACKGROUND

On 20 September 2021, I wrote a joint communication to the Government of Tajikistan concerning the detention, conviction and sentencing of human rights defender and lawyer Mr. Abdulmajid Rizoev.


Mr. Abdulmajid Rizoev is a human rights defender and lawyer, and previously a member of “Amparo”, the Association of Young Lawyers, which was forcibly dissolved in 2012. Mr. Rizoev monitors reported human rights violations within the Tajikistan military and provides legal assistance to conscripts and soldier who have been subjected to such violations, allegedly including physical and psychological abuse, during conscription or military service. Mr. Rizoev also provides legal representation and consultation to residents in Dushanbe, whose homes are due to be demolished as part of new construction projects in the city.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication

ALLEGATIONS

On 18 November 2020, Mr. Rizoev was detained without a warrant at his office in Dushanbe by plain- clothes law enforcement officials. He was then taken to a temporary detention facility, however his family was unaware of his whereabouts until the following morning, when residents whom Mr. Rizoev was assisting and had been meeting with at the time of his arrest contacted his family to inform them. The day prior to his arrest, the construction company carrying out the demolitions, Pulodi Plaza LLC, had allegedly filed a complaint against Mr. Rizoev with the Prosecutor General ’ s Office, alleging that he had obstructed the company ’ s work. Two days prior to his arrest, Mr. Rizoev was reportedly visited by representatives from the company who allegedly threatened him that unless he ceased his legal work with the residents, they would “close him down”.

Mr. Rizoev had been representing former residents of a building on 49 Bukhoro St. in Dushanbe, which was ultimately demolished in February 2021, following a lengthy legal dispute between the residents and the contractor, Pulodi Plaza LLC. During the dispute, the residents were reportedly subjected to targeted electricity blackouts and other forms of harassment, before being evicted. Some of the residents were reportedly still living in the building when the demolition began. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Rizoev had written an appeal to the mayor of Dushanbe, who is also the Chairperson of the Parliament of National Assembly of Tajikistan, alleging that the activities of Pulodi Plaza LLC were inconsistent with the rights of the residents according to the Housing Code of the Republic of Tajikistan.

Following his arrest on 18 November 2020, Mr. Rizoev was placed in pre-trial detention in Detention Centre #1 in Dushanbe. Mr. Rizoev was permitted to meet with his lawyers, however his relatives have only been permitted to visit him on two occasions for 20-30 minutes, with most of their requests for visits reportedly refused. He is reportedly not permitted to speak on the phone with his family either. Mr. Rizoev’s wife has been able to deliver packages containing books, food, pencils and paper to him, and collects his clothes once a week to wash and drop back to the Detention Centre.

On 8 February 2021, Mr. Rizoev appeared before the Shokhmansur District Court for the first hearing on the charge of “public calls for performance of an extremist activity made using the mass media or the Internet” under Part 2, Article 307.1 of the Criminal Code of Tajikistan. The charges were filed
against Mr. Rizoev in relation to some of his posts on Facebook in 2019 and 2020, some of which, the prosecutor alleged, amounted to “extremist activity”. The prosecutor cited two posts in particular from March 2020. In one, Mr. Rizoev claimed that of the people he interviewed following the elections in October 2020, only 25% of those interviewed had participated in the elections. The second post made reference to a plaque outside of a polling station, which reportedly stated that: “participation in the elections is a sign of political intelligence”. The prosecutor also made reference to another post from April 2019, which stated that the Tajik people are unduly placed in conditions of obligations to the authorities and included a poem. The poem, “Padare guft ba scribe…”, reportedly aired regularly on local TV stations and relatively well- known, is about a conversation between a father and son, in which the father tells the son he had become a man, but had not achieved humanity. One other post was also referred to in particular by the prosecutor as indicating extremist views, which read: “The wise government fights the causes of the protest, the stupid one fights the protesters”.

During the preliminary stages of the investigation into Mr. Rizoev’s posts on Facebook, the posts were reportedly sent to a political scientist working for the Republican Centre for Forensic Expertise under the Ministry of Internal Affairs who was tasked with analysing the posts and concluding as to whether they included calls for extremism. The analysis took place in November 2020, following which the political scientist reportedly concluded that Mr. Rizoev’s posts included an implicit call to extremism that could threaten peace in Tajikistan in the future and lead to conflict.

On 24 February 2021, Mr. Rizoev’s lawyers petitioned for a secondary, more comprehensive analysis of the Facebook posts to be conducted, including a linguist and other specialists. The court granted the request and a secondary analysis was conducted by a special commission of experts, including a
linguist, a literary scholar, a religious expert, a sociologist and a political scientist. Their findings were included in a report, dated 7 May 2021. During the trial, the experts were questioned about their analyses of the Facebook posts. The political scientist, sociologist and literary scholar reportedly deemed the posts to include a hostile appeal against the Government, that they could have a negative impact on public opinion, they were insulting and degrading, and that they could be viewed as incitement to violence.

Mr. Rizoev’s legal counsel reportedly challenged the analysis of the Facebook posts that had been conducted by the special commission of experts, insisting that the analysis be discounted from the case materials as the analyses was subjective, too broad an interpretation and unsubstantiated. During the trial, Mr. Rizoev reportedly told the Court that he had received numerous threats from individuals who he believed to be associated with the company Pulodi Plaza LLC. On one of the occasions he recounted, the company’s director and lawyer allegedly attempted to hand Mr. Rizoev an envelope containing $25,000 USD, reportedly so that he would cease “interfering” with the company’s business.

On 14 June 2021, Mr. Rizoev was convicted by the Shokhmansur District Court of Dushanbe and sentenced to five and a half years’ imprisonment. Earlier the same day, individuals who had liked Mr. Rizoev’s posts on Facebook were allegedly interrogated by the prosecution.

On 16 July, Mr. Rizoev’s lawyer applied for a review the Shokhmansur District Court of Dushanbe’s conviction, and asked for the charges against the human rights defender to be dropped. On 11 August 2021, the Dushanbe City Court rejected the cassation appeal to review Mr. Rizoev’s case. The human rights defender’s lawyer is planning to write a supervisory complaint after receiving the official decision from the cassation collegium.

CONCERNS

In the communication we expressed our concern that the present allegations, as outlined in this letter, would indicate that Mr. Rizoev exercising right to freedom of expression online has been misrepresented as an expression of extremist views and ideologies, and in turn, charges of extremism have been levied against him in response to the legitimate exercise of his legal profession. If confirmed, the apparent criminalisation of the exercise of human rights would be incompatible with international human rights law. We are concerned that such allegations of extremism will not only denigrate Mr. Rizoev’s efforts to defend the rights of others, but also the efforts of other human rights defenders in Tajikistan, creating a chilling effect. We also wish to express our utmost concern regarding the information, which would indicate that the targeting of Mr. Rizoev is in reprisal for his work defending the evicted residents of the building in Dushanbe and criticism of the company Pulodi Plaza LLC. According to the information received, it would appear that Mr. Rizoev’s Facebooks posts were unduly subjected to scrutiny and unwarranted mischaracterization in attempts to deter him from carrying out his legitimate human rights activities

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