Freedom in the World
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The regime of President Emomali Rahmon continued to encroach on religious freedoms and shackle the media in 2008, even as basic services slipped, debt problems deepened, and public discontent increased. Tajikistan cooperated with international organizations to ensure food security, but admitted that it had lied to the International Monetary Fund to obtain a $48 million loan.
Former Communist Party leader Rakhmon Nabiyev was elected president of Tajikistan in late 1991, two months after the country declared independence from the Soviet Union. 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 Emomali Rakhmonov, a leading Communist Party member.
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 secular and Islamic groups that had emerged 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 June 1997. 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.
A September 1999 referendum that permitted the formation of religion-based political parties 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 extended the president’s term from five to seven years. In November, Rakhmonov was reelected with a reported 97 percent of the vote in a poll that was criticized by international observers for widespread irregularities.
In February 2000 parliamentary elections, Rakhmonov’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) 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 in the elections provided some political pluralism, a joint monitoring mission by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations cited serious problems.
After the elections, the National Reconciliation Commission was formally disbanded, and a UN observer mission withdrew in May 2000. 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 for UTO members in senior government posts.
A June 2003 constitutional referendum cleared a path for Rakhmonov to remain in office until 2020. The PDP easily won 2005 parliamentary elections, taking 52 of 63 seats in the lower house. OSCE monitors concluded that “despite some improvement over previous elections, large-scale irregularities were evident.” In the run-up to the polls, a number of Rakhmonov’s prominent former allies were jailed, often on dubious charges. The November 2008 extradition of Abdurasul Mirzo from the United Arab Emirates to Tajikistan marked a continuation of Rahmon’s drive to consolidate his power by eliminating potential opponents. Mirzo’s brother, Ghaffor Mirzo, is a former commander of the Presidential Guard; he was jailed in 2006.
Also in 2005, Russian border guards who had long patrolled the frontier with Afghanistan completed their withdrawal. However, a Russian army division that had been in place since the Soviet period maintained its permanent presence in the country.
Rakhmonov won the November 2006 presidential election with more than 70 percent of the vote, although the OSCE pointed in its report to lackluster campaigning and a general absence of real competition. The president broadened his influence to the cultural sphere in 2007, de-Russifying his surname to “Rahmon” in March and signing legislation in May to establishspendinglimits on birthday and wedding celebrations.
The severewinter of 2007-08 featured widespread power outages and a number of spontaneous demonstrations, even in Dushanbe. In February 2008, the United Nations appealed for $25 million in emergency assistance for the country to stave off famine. The UN World Food Program noted in August that bread and vegetable prices had more than doubled over the last year, and in October, the United Nations warned that one-third of Tajikistan’s inhabitants could face hunger during the coming winter.
Most of the population lives in poverty and survives on subsistence agriculture, remittances from relatives working abroad (mainly in Russia), and foreign humanitarian aid. However, Tajikistan’s relations with international financial institutions were complicated by an April 2008 admission that the Central Bank had lied about its reserves to secure a $48 million loan from the International Monetary Fund, which demanded repayment over six months starting in September 2008. Meanwhile, the global economic downturn in the fall threatened to cut off the vital remittance income.
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 adopted in 1999 increased the powers of the president and created a full-time, bicameral parliament, while 2003 amendments allowed current president Emomali Rahmon to serve two additional seven-year terms beyond the 2006 election. 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 8 are appointed by the president, all for five-year terms. Elections are neither free nor fair.
Patronage networks and regional affiliations are central to political life, with officials from the president’s native Kulyob region dominant in government. Rahmon’s PDP is the ruling political party. Secular opposition parties are weak and enjoy minimal popular support. The limited influence of the IRP, currently the only legal religion-based party in Central Asia, was further reduced by the August 2006 death of Said Abdullo Nuri, its widely respected leader.
Corruption is reportedly pervasive. A list of the 100 richest people in Tajikistan compiled in 2008by the independent news agency Avesta was dominated by government officials and members of parliament. Members of the president’s family allegedly maintain extensive business interests. Tajikistan was ranked 151 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, independent journalists face harassment and intimidation, and the penal code criminalizes defamation. The government controls most printing presses, newsprint supplies, and broadcasting facilities, leaving little room for independent news and analysis. Most television stations are state owned or only nominally independent, and the process of obtaining broadcast licenses is cumbersome. In August 2007, the president signed legislation that criminalized libel on the internet and allowed courts to sentence journalists to up to two years in prison for libel in print publications. In October 2008, exiled opposition journalist Dodojon Atovullo fled from Moscow to Paris to avoid possible extradition to Tajikistan, where he faced criminal charges.
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. However, in October 2008, the Supreme Court found former rebel field commander Nasrullo Sharifov guilty of killing British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent Muhiddin Olimpur in 1995 and sentenced him to a 15-year prison term.
The government has shown an increasing willingness to impose restrictions on religion in this predominantly Muslim country. In October 2005, the minister of education banned the wearing of the hijab (headscarf) in schools and higher educational institutions. In March 2007, the authorities shut down large numbers of unauthorized mosques, and more restrictive rules for licensing religious leaders were imposed in August. In January 2008, male students at the Islamic University of Tajikistan were ordered to shave their beards and don Western attire. The authorities have raided stores and confiscated audio and video material with allegedly extremist content. Reports indicate that conservative religiosity is on the rise despite official restrictions.
The government at times limits freedoms of assembly and association. Local government approval is required to hold public demonstrations. Although fear of reprisal and concern about renewed unrest after the civil war generally dampen protests, more than 500 residents in Mountainous Badakhshan province demonstrated in June 2008 against troop movements connected with an impending presidential visit. All nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Ministry of Justice. In May, the U.S. National Democratic Institute had to close its offices in the country, first opened in 2002, because the government refused to register the group.
Citizens have the legal right to form and join trade unions and to bargain collectively, which they do in practice.
The judiciary lacks independence. Many judges are poorly trained and inexperienced, and bribery is reportedly widespread. Occasional high-profile anticorruption campaigns have had little real impact. Police often conduct arbitrary arrests and beat detainees to extract confessions. Conditions in prisons—which are overcrowded and disease-ridden—are often life-threatening.
Tajikistan is a major conduit for the smuggling of narcotics from Afghanistan to Russia and 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.
Evictions to make way for development projects are a growing problem; in April 2008, 20 women were arrested in Dushanbe after they protested home demolitions.In late April, Dushanbe Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloyev asked city residents to “donate” half of their May and June salaries to fund the construction of the Roghun hydropower plant, a move critics described as state-sponsored extortion (although it was unclear how many people were affected).
Sexual harassment, traditional discrimination, and violence against women, including spousal abuse, are reportedly common, but cases reported to the authorities are rarely investigated. Reports indicate that women sometimes face societalpressure to wear headscarves, even though official policy discourages the practice. Despite some government efforts to address the practice, Tajikistan remains a source and transit country for persons trafficked for prostitution. Child labor, particularly on cotton farms, also remains a problem.