Tajikistan | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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The overwhelming political dominance of President Imomali Rakhmonov and his People’s Democratic Party continued with Rakhmonov’s landslide victory in the November 2006 presidential election. In the run-up to the vote, the government maintained its tight control of the media and political environment, effectively blunting all real and potential opposition. Meanwhile, Tajikistan strengthened its ties with China and Iran amid attempts to balance the roles of Russia and the United States in its foreign relations.

Conquered by Russia in the late nineteenth century, Tajikistan was made an autonomous region within the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan in 1924 and a separate Soviet republic in 1929. Tajikistan declared independence from the Soviet Union in September 1991, and two months later, former Communist Party leader Rakhman Nabiyev was elected president.

Long-simmering, clan-based tensions, combined with various anti-Communist and Islamist movements, soon plunged the country into a five-year civil war. In September 1992, Communist hard-liners forced Nabiyev’s resignation; he was replaced later that year by Imomali Rakhmonov, a leading Communist Party member. The following month, Rakhmonov launched attacks against antigovernment forces that caused tens of thousands of people to flee into neighboring Afghanistan.

As the fighting continued, Rakhmonov was elected president in November 1994, after most opposition candidates either boycotted or were prevented from competing in the poll. Similarly, progovernment candidates won the March 1995 parliamentary elections amid a boycott by the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), a coalition of various secular and Islamic groups that emerged during the war as the main force fighting against Rakhmonov’s government.

Following a December 1996 ceasefire, Rakhmonov and UTO leader Said Abdullo Nuri signed a formal peace agreement in Moscow in June 1997. The civil war had claimed tens of thousands of lives and left several hundred thousand as refugees. The accord called for the merging of opposition forces 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, with seats evenly divided between the government and the UTO. The commission was charged with implementing the peace agreement and preparing constitutional amendments that would lead to fair parliamentary elections.

During the next two years, the government and the UTO worked to implement the peace accord. In a September 1999 referendum, voters approved a series of constitutional amendments that permitted 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 constituted the backbone of the UTO. The referendum also included an amendment extending the president’s single term in office from five to seven years. In November, Rakhmonov was reelected 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 elections in February 2000 for the 63-seat lower house of parliament. Rakhmonov’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP)—which he joined in 1998—received nearly 65 percent of the vote, followed by the Communist Party with 20 percent, and the IRP 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, such as 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 33-seat upper house of parliament, in which local assemblies elected 25 members and Rakhmonov appointed the remaining 8, the PDP obtained the overwhelming majority of seats.

After the elections, the National Reconciliation Commission 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.

Rakhmonov’s already substantial powers as president were further consolidated in a June 2003 constitutional referendum. A reported 93 percent of voters approved a package of 56 amendments, the most controversial of which permitted the president to serve two additional seven-year terms beyond the next presidential election in 2006. (The constitution previously limited the president to a single seven-year term.) Rakhmonov, who argued that the change would better address post–civil war needs and bring the country continued stability, could theoretically remain in office until 2020. Critics charged that most voters were not fully aware of the proposed changes, which were not printed on the ballot papers and had not been given much media coverage. The opposition Democratic Party (DP) urged its supporters to boycott the vote, while the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the IRP adopted less openly confrontational positions.

As February 2005 parliamentary elections approached, the government increased pressure on real and potential opposition figures. Former Rakhmonov allies were jailed, including Drug Control Agency head Ghaffor Mirzoyev, who was arrested in August 2004 on numerous criminal charges. DP leader Mahmudi Iskandarov was arrested in Russia on a Tajik warrant in December, released in April 2005, and then forcibly repatriated under mysterious circumstances. He was tried on charges including terrorism and sentenced to 23 years in prison in October 2005. The parliamentary elections ended in an easy victory for the PDP, which won 52 of 63 seats in the lower house. Election monitors from the OSCE concluded that “despite some improvement over previous elections, large-scale irregularities were evident,” and that the balloting “failed to meet many of the key OSCE commitments for democratic elections.”

The pressure continued in the run-up to the November 2006 presidential election. IRP head Said Abdullo Nuri was the target of a defamation lawsuit in March, and the DP split in April amid charges of government involvement. The SDP and the unrecognized opposition wing of the DP announced that they would boycott what they termed an unconstitutional and illegal election, while the IRP declined to take part, pointing to flaws in election legislation and global suspicion toward Islamic parties. The IRP suffered another blow when Nuri died in August after a long illness. The four registered presidential challengers were little known and broadly pro-Rakhmonov, suggesting a government-engineered attempt to create the impression of a competitive election. Rakhmonov won the contest, garnering more than 70 percent of the vote, although the OSCE noted in its report that the lackluster campaigning and general absence of real competition rendered the election a less-than-impressive test of Tajikistan’s fledgling democracy.

On the international front, Tajikistan in 2006 established closer ties with Iran, which was investing $180 million in the construction of the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power plant, and China, which was funding a $300 million highway construction project. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was warmly received in Dushanbe in July. U.S.-based energy company AES announced that it hoped to invest $1 billion to build electrical transmission lines connecting Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited in early July. Business ties with Russia cooled, as Russian Aluminum (Rusal) quarreled publicly with Tajik officials over alleged delays in the Russian company’s $1 billion project to finish construction of the Roghun hydroelectric power station, and Rakhmonov announced that the Tajik Aluminum Plant, which Rusal had reportedly hoped to acquire, would not be privatized.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Tajikistan is not an electoral democracy. The 1994 constitution provides for a strong, directly elected president 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 the term in office from five to seven years. The amendments also created a full-time, bicameral parliament. In the Assembly of Representatives (lower chamber), 63 members are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. In the 33-seat National Assembly (upper chamber), 25 members are chosen by local assemblies and eight are appointed by the president, all for five-year terms. Constitutional amendments adopted in a 2003 referendum allow the president to run for two additional seven-year terms in office. Neither the presidential polls in 1994, 1999, and 2006, nor the parliamentary elections of 1995, 2000, and 2005 were free and fair.

Patronage networks and regional affiliations are central to political life, with officials from the Kulyob region—the home of President Rakhmonov—dominant in government. Rakhmonov’s PDP is the ruling political party. Secular opposition parties, including the DP and SDP, are weak and enjoy minimal popular support. The IRP, currently the only legal religion-based party in Central Asia, has limited political influence within government structures but has also faced opposition accusations that it has been co-opted by the authorities. The IRP’s fading influence was compounded by the August 2006 death of Said Abdullo Nuri, the party’s widely respected leader.

Corruption is reportedly pervasive throughout society, with payments often required to obtain lucrative government positions. According to the 2006 U.S. State Department human rights report, the government recognized that corruption remains a serious problem in the police, army, and security forces, and arrested 89 Interior Ministry officials for corruption and abuse of power. Tajikistan was ranked 142 out of 163 countries in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, independent journalists continue to face harassment and intimidation, selective tax audits, and denial of access to state printing facilities. The penal code criminalizes public defamation or insult to a person’s honor or reputation. Consequently, journalists often avoid reporting on sensitive political issues, including corruption, and directly criticizing the president and other senior officials. The government controls most printing presses, newsprint supplies, and broadcasting facilities. Most television stations are state-owned or only nominally independent, and the process of obtaining broadcast licenses is cumbersome. In the run-up to the November 2006 presidential election, Tajik authorities apparently ordered local internet providers to temporarily block access to five websites that featured materials critical of the government.

Dozens of journalists were murdered during the country’s five-year civil war in the 1990s, and most of the cases have not been solved. In January 2004, the prosecutor-general’s office announced that it had established a special group to investigate the killings. However, according to the 2006 report by the press freedom watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists, the wartime murders of 29 journalists remain unsolved.

Independent and opposition journalists and media outlets faced government pressure both before and after the February 2005 parliamentary elections, and by 2006 there were few truly independent or opposition news organizations left in Tajikistan. Against this generally grim backdrop, independent reporter Jumaboy Tolibov, who had been sentenced in July 2005 to two years in prison on charges including hooliganism and trespassing, was released in December 2005, and a new media coalition was formed in June 2006 to promote cooperation among journalists; nevertheless, negative tendencies persisted. In January, British Broadcasting Corporation FM radio broadcasts were shut down in a licensing dispute. After the opposition wing of the DP succeeded in September in publishing the first issue of the party newspaper Adolat in two years, it experienced printing problems in October. Later that month, each of the DP’s two rival factions published its own edition of Adolat .

The government generally respects religious freedom in this predominantly Muslim country, although it has shown an increasing willingness to impose restrictions. Religious communities must register with the State Committee on Religious Affairs (SCRA), a process sometimes used to control religious and political activities. The authorities monitor the activities of religious institutions to keep them from becoming overtly political. The Council of Religious Scholars, a body close to the authorities, issued a ruling in 2004 banning women from worshipping in mosques. In October 2005, the minister of education banned the wearing of the hijab in schools and higher educational institutions; in 2006, expulsions continued to take place under this regulation. In 2006, the SCRA put forward a draft law on religion that contained numerous restrictions; it remained under discussion in Parliament at year’s end. There were reportedly no arrests of high-profile Muslims during the year. According to the U.S. State Department, the Tajik government does not restrict academic freedom.

The government at times restricts freedom of assembly and association. Local government committee approval is required to hold public demonstrations. Unapproved protests are rare because of the fear of reprisal from the authorities and concerns about a return to the political unrest of the civil war period. All nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Ministry of Justice. A number of NGOs operate in the country without restrictions. However, following the recent political upheavals in several post-Soviet countries, which the Tajik government perceived to have been at least partly the result of intervention by foreign-backed organizations, the authorities became increasingly wary of foreign-funded NGOs in 2005. As of April 2005, all foreign embassies and international NGOs were required to notify the Tajik government about any meetings with local political and civil society activists.

Citizens have the legal right to form and join trade unions and to bargain collectively, which they do in practice. Although the law does not restrict the right to strike, no strikes occurred in 2006, reportedly because workers fear government retaliation.

The judiciary is strongly influenced by the executive branch, as well as by some criminal groups. Many judges are poorly trained and inexperienced, and bribery is reportedly widespread. The government took some steps to address the problem during the year by trying some corrupt judges and officials. Police often conduct arbitrary arrests and beat detainees to extract confessions. Detainees are commonly refused access to legal counsel, and they frequently face lengthy pretrial detention. Conditions in prisons—which are overcrowded, unsanitary, and disease-ridden—are often life-threatening.

A January 2006 government order provided financial incentives for Tajik families to move to the city of Tursunzadah, with plans to relocate 1,000 families by year’s end. The move raised concerns that the government-sponsored initiative aimed to alter the ethnic composition of Tursunzadah, which was home to some 70,000 residents, roughly 80 percent of whom were ethnic Uzbeks. The government offer was extended to residents of central Khatlon Province, who are ethnic Tajiks.

Most of the population lives in poverty and survives on subsistence agriculture, remittances from relatives working abroad (mainly in Russia), and foreign humanitarian aid. Widespread corruption, patronage networks, regional affiliations, limited privatization of land and industry, and the narcotics trade restrict equality of opportunity and limit economic growth. Child labor, particularly on cotton farms, remains a problem.

Tajikistan is a major conduit for the smuggling of narcotics from Afghanistan to Russia and then on to Europe. A side effect has been an increase in drug addiction within Tajikistan, as well as a rise in the number of cases of HIV/AIDS. Although there were only 600 officially registered HIV cases in Tajikistan in 2006, unofficial estimates by doctors put the total at 6,000.

Women are often sexually harassed in the workplace and continue to face traditional societal discrimination. Violence against women, including spousal abuse, is reportedly common, but cases reported to the authorities are rarely investigated. Despite a 2004 law against human trafficking that addresses prevention, protection of victims, and the prosecution of traffickers, Tajikistan remains a source and transit country for persons trafficked for prostitution.