Tajikistan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Not Free

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Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, the small, impoverished nation of Tajikistan was thrust into the international spotlight as a potential base for the U.S.-declared war on terrorism. Fears of an influx of Afghan refugees or a backlash by the Taliban or other domestic radical forces highlighted concerns that events in Afghanistan could destabilize Tajikistan's still fragile four-year peace. At the same time, the nation struggled to cope with the devastating effects of a two-year drought, including impending famine in parts of the country.

Conquered by Russia in the late 1800s, Tajikistan was made an autonomous region within Uzbekistan in 1924 and a separate socialist republic of the U.S.S.R. in 1929. Tajikistan declared independence from the U.S.S.R. in September 1991, and two months later, former Communist Party leader Rakhman Nabiyev was elected president.

Nabiyev's increasing consolidation of the power of the old guard, many of whom were from the more prosperous northern province of Leninabad, at the expense of other regional factions, led to increasing opposition to his rule. In May 1992, supporters and opponents of Nabiyev clashed in the streets of Dushanbe, with the violence quickly spreading beyond the capital. Clans from the Gharm and Kurgan-Tyube regions in the east and the Pamiris from the mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan area in the south sought to unseat the ruling northern Leninabadi and southern Kulyabis from power. These long-simmering clan-based tensions, combined with various anti-Communist and Islamist movements, soon plunged the country into a five-year civil war for central government control. In September, Communist hardliners forced the resignation of President Nabiyev, who was replaced in November by leading Communist Party member and ethnic-Kulyabi Emomali Rakhmonov. The following month, Rakhmonov launched attacks in the Gharm and Gorno-Badakhshan regions, causing tens of thousands to flee into neighboring Afghanistan.

In November 1994, Rakhmonov was elected president after most opposition candidates were either prevented from competing in or boycotted the poll. March 1995 parliamentary elections, in which the majority of seats were won by pro-government candidates, were boycotted by the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), a coalition of various secular and Islamic opposition groups that emerged during the war as the main opposition force fighting against President Rakhmonov's government.

Following a December 1996 ceasefire, President Rakhmonov and UTO leader Said Abdullo Nuri signed a formal peace agreement in Moscow on June 27, 1997, officially ending the civil war, which had claimed tens of thousands of lives and left several hundred thousand refugees. The accord called for opposition forces to be merged into the regular army, granted an amnesty for UTO members, provided for the UTO to be allotted 30 percent of senior government posts, and established a 26-member National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), with seats evenly divided between the government and the UTO. The NRC was charged with implementing the peace agreements, including preparing amendments for a referendum on constitutional changes that would lead to fair parliamentary elections. By the end of 1998, nearly all exiled UTO leaders and Tajik refugees from Afghanistan had returned, although the government had pushed back parliamentary elections scheduled for June of that year.

During 1999, the government and the UTO took steps towards implementing the peace accord: parliament adopted a resolution in May granting a general amnesty to more than 5,000 opposition fighters; several members of the UTO were appointed to government posts; and the UTO announced that it had disbanded all of its military formations. In a September nationwide referendum, voters approved a series of constitutional amendments permitting the formation of religion-based political parties. This move paved the way for the legal operation of the Islamic opposition, including the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which constitutes the backbone of the UTO. In November, President Rakhmonov was reelected president with a reported 97 percent of the vote in a poll criticized by international election observers for widespread irregularities.

As the final stage in the implementation of the 1997 peace accord, Tajikistan held parliamentary elections in February (for the 63-seat lower house) and March 2000 (for the 33-member upper house). In the February poll, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) of President Rakhmonov received nearly 65 percent of the vote, followed by the Communist Party with 20 percent and the IRP, which was plagued by internal divisions, with 7 percent. Although the participation of six parties and a number of independent candidates in the poll provided some political pluralism, international election observers, including a joint mission by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations, cited serious problems, including the exclusion of certain opposition parties, biased state media coverage, and a lack of transparency in the tabulation of votes. In the March elections to the upper house of parliament, in which regional assemblies elected 25 members and President Rakhmonov appointed the remaining 8, the PDP obtained the overwhelming majority of seats.

With the conclusion of the 1997 peace agreement following parliamentary elections, the NRC was formally disbanded and a UN observer mission withdrew in May 2000 after nearly six years in Tajikistan. However, important provisions of the peace accord remained unimplemented, with demobilization of opposition factions incomplete and the government failing to meet the 30 percent quota of senior government posts to be awarded to the UTO. Dushanbe's failure to stop the movement of Islamic guerillas on its territory, mostly members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), strained relations with Tashkent and Bishkek. The IMU, which is attempting to overthrow the Uzbekistan government, had used Tajikistan as a transit country from its training camps in Afghanistan for armed incursions into the Kyrgyz Republic in 1999 and Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000.

Throughout 2001, Tajikistan's internal security situation continued to be precarious as outbreaks of violence linked to regional clan feuds and political rivalries plagued the country. From April through September, three senior government officials--First Deputy Interior Minister Khabib Sanginov, presidential foreign policy advisor Karim Yuldashev, and Culture Minister Abdurahim Rahimov--were assassinated. The fragility of the country's peace process was further underscored by two hostage-taking events in June led by former UTO field commanders, who were protesting the arrest of other UTO members in connection with Sanginov's murder. Although all of the hostages were released unharmed, the government subsequently launched a six-week military operation against the rebels, whom they claimed had been linked to some 270 murders since 1998. The fighting that ensued reportedly resulted in the capture or deaths of dozens of rebel fighters, including one of the rebel leaders, as well as numerous civilians. On September 5, seven former Tajik opposition fighters were formally charged with Sanginov's murder.

After a decade of relative obscurity on the international scene, Tajikistan suddenly saw its profile rise in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The nation's strategic value as a possible base for U.S. retaliatory actions against the Taliban lay in its 1,200-kilometer border along Afghanistan's northeastern region--the stronghold of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces. At the same time, the continued inability of the shaky secular-Islamic ruling coalition to assert control over substantial portions of the country's territory, much of which is under the sway of local warlords, remained a serious issue of concern for the emerging U.S.- backed antiterrorism coalition.

Following several weeks of confusing media reports on Tajikistan's role in the antiterrorism campaign, Dushanbe announced the day after the first U.S.-led strikes in Afghanistan on October 7 that it had agreed to the sharing of intelligence information and the opening of the country's airspace for humanitarian flights. The government denied, however, that it had plans to allow U.S. troops or warplanes to use its territory for military strikes against the Taliban. In early November, Tajik officials authorized the U.S. military to begin assessing conditions at three of its airbases. A month later, the government announced that advanced detachments of foreign troops had begun arriving in Tajikistan, although it insisted that they would take part only in rescue and humanitarian operations.

Tajikistan's cautious reaction stemmed from fears of possible retaliatory measures by Taliban forces, as well from domestic radical Islamists and others, if it provided more extensive support to the U.S.-led coalition; while the IRP pursues its agenda through established political means, some former UTO members continue to engage in armed opposition to the national government. Tajikistan's participation in the U.S.-backed coalition was further complicated by its dependence on Russia for maintaining its national security. Tajikistan remains the only Central Asian country in which Moscow has ground forces stationed, including some 10,000 troops along the Tajik-Afghan border. The government also expressed worry over the possibility of a new wave of Afghan refugees, whom officials insisted they would not let into the country because of economic and security concerns.

After years of economic devastation wrought by the civil war, Tajikistan continued to suffer the effects of a two-year drought. International aid agencies warned that an estimated one million Tajiks could face starvation without adequate food assistance. According to the World Bank, an estimated 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Tajikistan cannot change their government democratically. The 1994 constitution provides for a strong, directly elected executive who enjoys broad authority to appoint and dismiss officials. Amendments to the constitution adopted in a 1999 referendum further increased the powers of the president by extending his term in office from five to seven years and creating a full-time, bicameral parliament whose members would be appointed directly by the president or elected by indirect vote through local parliaments led by presidential appointees. Neither the country's presidential polls in 1994 and 1999 nor the parliamentary elections of 1995 and 2000 were free and fair.

Despite formal guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, media freedoms remain severely curtailed by the government. Independent journalists continue to be threatened by removal of their accreditation, denial of access to state printing facilities, and acts of physical violence. Consequently, self-censorship among journalists is widespread. In July 2001, Dodojon Atovullo, the exiled editor of the independent opposition newspaper Charogi Ruz (Light of Day), was arrested in Moscow on charges of sedition and insulting President Emomali Rakhmonov and threatened with extradition to Tajikistan. Following pressure from international organizations and other governments, he was released after six days in custody. Charogi Ruz has published articles accusing Tajik authorities of corruption, including tax evasion and involvement in narcotics trafficking.

The state Committee on Religious Affairs registers religious communities, largely to ensure that they do not become overtly political. The government continued to arrest members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Islamic Party of Liberation), which calls for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate throughout the Muslim World, and handed down increasingly lengthy prison sentences. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, while Hizb-ut-Tahrir officially rejects the use of violence, some members reportedly do not exclude support for armed resistance or for the IMU.

The state strictly controls freedom of assembly and association for organizations of a political nature. Nongovernmental and political groups must obtain permits to hold public demonstrations, and organizers of protests have at times faced government reprisals. Although a May 1998 ban on religion-based parties was lifted in September 1999, leading to the registration of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), the government has stopped or limited the activities of certain other political parties. Despite legal rights to form and join trade unions, labor rights are largely ignored in practice.

The judiciary is directly influenced by the executive branch, on which most judges depend for their positions, as well as by some armed paramilitary groups. Many judges are poorly trained and inexperienced, and bribery is reportedly widespread. Police routinely conduct arbitrary arrests of citizens and beat detainees to obtain confessions. Prison conditions have been described as life threatening because of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. In August 2001, parliament approved an amnesty for 19,000 prisoners to mark the tenth anniversary of the country's independence. High levels of criminal and political violence, including hostage taking and extortion, continue to affect the personal security of most citizens. Certain regions of the country remain largely under the control of former rebel fighters from the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), who have rejected the terms of the 1997 peace accord, and government and various former opposition groups continue to engage in armed skirmishes. Since neighboring Afghanistan's Taliban launched a major offensive in northeastern Afghanistan over a year ago, an estimated 15,000 Afghans who fled have been living in squalid camps on islands in the middle of the Pyandzh River separating the two countries; despite calls by international aid groups, the Tajik government has refused to allow them to cross into Tajikistan.

The government imposes some restrictions on the right of its citizens to choose a place of residence and to travel, including sometimes lengthy exit visa procedures. Checkpoints manned by interior ministry troops and customs officials have extorted money from drivers and passengers, limiting their freedom of movement. Corruption, which is reportedly pervasive throughout the government, civil service, and business sectors, restricts equality of opportunity.

Although women are employed throughout the government and the business world, they continue to face traditional societal discrimination. Domestic violence is reportedly common, and there are credible reports of trafficking of women for prostitution. The participation of women in criminal activities, including the drug trade, has increased as a result of the country's widespread poverty.