The authoritarian regime of President Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled since 1992, severely restricts political rights and civil liberties. The political opposition has been devastated by a sustained campaign of repression in recent years, and the government exerts tight control over religious expression and activity. Wealth and authority are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the president and his family.
Key Developments in 2018:
- The detention and harassment of former members of the banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and their families continued throughout the year.
- In July, the Islamic State (IS) militant group claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack in the country’s southern Danghara District that killed four foreign cyclists and injured three others. The government accused the IRPT, without evidence, of involvement in the attack.
- In November, a prison uprising in Sughd Province reportedly resulted in the deaths of two guards and as many as 50 prisoners. IS claimed responsibility for that incident as well.
- As part of its ongoing crackdown on observant Muslims, the government in March published a detailed “guidebook” on recommended dress for women that officially excluded the hijab (headscarf) and other such garments.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 0 / 40 (−1)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 0 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
The powerful president is elected for up to two seven-year terms under current rules, but constitutional amendments ratified in 2016 removed presidential term limits specifically for Rahmon, who holds the official status of “leader of the nation.” In the last presidential election in 2013, Rahmon won a fourth term with 83.6 percent of the vote, defeating five little-known challengers who did not represent genuine opposition parties; the opposition’s favored candidate was disqualified. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that the election lacked “genuine choice and meaningful pluralism” and featured biased media and voting irregularities.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
The bicameral Supreme Assembly is composed of an upper house, the National Assembly, and a lower house, the Assembly of Representatives. The National Assembly comprises 25 members chosen by local assemblies and 8 appointed by the president; former presidents are also entitled to a seat in the chamber. The 63-member Assembly of Representatives is elected by popular vote through a mixed system of 41 single-member constituencies and 22 proportional-representation seats. Members of each body serve five-year terms.
Ahead of the 2015 elections, the government carried out an extensive campaign of repression against the opposition through state media and the persecution of many candidates, particularly those of the IRPT, leading to the disenfranchisement of the country’s most significant opposition force. The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 51 of the 63 lower-house seats, and four small, mostly progovernment parties divided the remainder. According to OSCE monitors, the elections were marred by serious violations and failed to meet democratic standards.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0 / 4
The Central Commission for Elections and Referenda is subservient to the government and enforces electoral laws in an inconsistent and nontransparent manner. Shortly before the 2015 parliamentary elections, the IRPT representative on the commission was arrested. Despite reforms prior to those elections, constituencies still vary considerably in population, undermining equal suffrage.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 0 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0 / 4
The government consistently marginalizes independent or opposition parties, which have become completely excluded from the political process. In the second half of 2015, the Justice Ministry revoked the IRPT’s legal registration based on a technicality, and the Supreme Court declared the party a terrorist organization, criminalizing membership in or expression of support for the group. The constitutional amendments passed in a 2016 referendum banned faith-based political parties, effectively preventing the IRPT from reforming.
The authorities continued to harass and arrest former members of the IRPT, the political movement Group 24, and their families during 2018, interfering even with the travel of small children separated from their exiled parents. In July, officials refused to allow a four-year-old boy suffering from cancer to seek life-saving treatment abroad, where his father—leading IRPT activist Ruhullo Tillozoda—had been living in exile since 2015; the boy’s grandfather was exiled IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri. In August, the 10-year-old daughter of former Group 24 activist Shabnam Khudoydodova was pulled off an international flight in Dushanbe with her grandmother and uncle, preventing her from rejoining her mother. Both children and their families were eventually allowed to travel in August following intense international pressure.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4
Tajikistan has no record of peaceful transfers of power between rival parties. Rahmon first became chief executive in 1992, during Tajikistan’s 1992–97 civil war, and has held the presidency since the office’s creation in 1994. Under the 2016 constitutional revisions, he is entitled to run for reelection indefinitely and to overrule cabinet decisions even after leaving office as president. The amendments also lowered the minimum age for presidents from 35 to 30 years, which would allow Rahmon’s son to seek the post in 2020.
Years of unrelenting repression of independent political activity have left opposition parties unable to compete in elections. The administration exerts control over the electoral process through its near-absolute dominance of the media, an extremely high threshold for the number of signatures required to run for office, and the exclusion of citizens working abroad—who constitute between 20 and 45 percent of the electorate—from the nomination process for the presidency and parliament. Many IRPT members and their relatives were beaten, harassed, and imprisoned before the 2015 elections, with some reportedly tortured in custody.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 0 / 4
Political affairs in Tajikistan are controlled almost exclusively by Rahmon and his extended family, leaving citizens with few avenues to exercise meaningful political choices or participate in the political process. Presidential family members hold numerous public positions and control key sectors of the private economy.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0 / 4
No segment of the population enjoys full political rights or electoral opportunities in practice. The regime, which generally seeks to suppress any genuine dissent, does not permit women or minorities to organize independently to advance their political interests. Women remain underrepresented in the political system, both as voters and in elected positions.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 0 / 12 (−1)
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4
The president, who is not freely elected, and his inner circle are virtually unopposed in determining and implementing policy. The PDP-controlled legislature does not offer a meaningful check on the executive’s expansive constitutional authority. Officials from the president’s native Kulob District are dominant within government. In 2017, Rahmon strengthened his family’s grip on power by installing his son, Rustam Emomali, as Dushanbe’s mayor.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0 / 4
Patronage networks and regional affiliations are central to political life, corruption is pervasive, and laws designed to prevent it are routinely ignored. Major irregularities have been reported at the National Bank of Tajikistan and the country’s largest industrial firm, the state-owned Tajik Aluminum Company (TALCO).
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4 (−1)
Government decision-making and budgetary processes lack transparency, and public officials are not required to disclose financial information. Crackdowns on the media, the opposition, and civil society have further reduced independent scrutiny of state operations. In recent years the government has concluded extensive infrastructure and resource-extraction agreements with the Chinese government and Chinese companies, with little consultation or transparency on the terms of the deals or accountability for their implementation. The pattern has added to concerns about corruption and public debt, among other possible ramifications. Two new mining concessions involving Chinese companies were announced in April and June 2018.
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because harsher repression of independent journalists, opposition groups, and civil society in recent years has further eroded transparency and accountability for government activities, including major investment deals with foreign states and companies.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 9 / 60 (−1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 2 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 0 / 4
The government controls most printing presses, newsprint supplies, and broadcasting facilities, effectively denying independent media access to them. The state also uses regulatory and licensing mechanisms to shut out independent outlets and encourage self-censorship. Independent journalists face harassment and intimidation. Civil libel charges have been used to cripple outlets that criticize the government. Authorities routinely block critical websites, news portals, and entire social media platforms, and use periodic wholesale blackouts of internet and messaging services to suppress criticism.
In July 2018, veteran journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov was sentenced to 12 years in prison on trumped-up charges of embezzlement, false reporting to police, and other offenses after he published an open letter to the authorities detailing an incident of local corruption. Having spent eight months in detention, he was freed in August when an appellate court—amid an international campaign on his behalf—reduced his sentence to fines and community service.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 0 / 4
The government imposes severe restrictions on religious freedom, in part by limiting religious activities to state-approved venues and registered organizations. In 2018, authorities continued to prosecute individuals for alleged membership in banned religious organizations, including Christian and Muslim groups. Minors are generally barred from attending religious services in mosques, as are women in most cases.
A 2017 law that discourages religious clothing is widely perceived as an effort to limit the wearing of hijabs, which along with an unofficial ban on beards for men continued to be arbitrarily enforced in 2018. The government in March published a detailed “guidebook” on recommended dress for women that officially excluded the hijab and other such garments in favor of “traditional” or “national” alternatives. In addition, the government pressured students to adhere to these dress codes and established roadblocks in some areas to search cars for women in hijabs and men with beards.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1 / 4
The government exerts significant political pressure on universities and academic personnel. In recent years, international scholars have noted the self-exile of Tajikistani academics who faced harassment from security services, surveillance and self-censorship within institutions of higher education, scrutiny of scholars who cooperate with foreign colleagues, and the appointment of officials backed by the security services to senior academic posts. Opportunities to study abroad, especially for religious education, are tightly restricted. In April 2018, the government closed the office and cut the internet access of an association that provides technology services to dozens of academic institutions in the country.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1 / 4
Restrictive laws and government surveillance serve as deterrents to open discussion of sensitive topics, including criticism of the country’s leadership. A 2017 law allows authorities to monitor citizens’ online behavior and prescribes fines and prison sentences for those who visit “undesirable websites,” among other provisions. In August 2018, a Tajikistani man was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for insulting the president by reposting and “liking” critical videos on social media while living and working in Russia; he was arrested after returning to the country in June. Other users were reportedly convicted during the year for sharing content associated with banned groups, including the IRPT.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 2 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 0 / 4
The government strictly limits freedom of assembly. Local government approval is required to hold demonstrations, and officials often refuse to grant permission. Protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan region in November 2018 reportedly triggered localized internet blackouts. Authorities there had warned the previous month that participation in unauthorized gatherings would result in criminal charges.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Ministry of Justice and are vulnerable to closure for minor technical violations. NGOs must disclose funding from foreign sources to the Ministry of Justice. Foreign funds must be logged in a state registry before organizations can access them, and the government has oversight of operations supported by the funds. Under legislation that was adopted by the parliament in December 2018 and awaiting the president’s signature at year’s end, NGOs would be obliged to comply with more expansive and vaguely worded financial reporting requirements and to maintain their own websites.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1 / 4
Citizens have the legal right to form and join trade unions and to bargain collectively, but these rights and the right to strike are undermined by general legal restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association. There are no laws against antiunion discrimination by employers, and the country’s trade union federation is controlled by the government.
F. RULE OF LAW: 1 / 16 (−1)
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4 (−1)
The judiciary lacks independence. Many judges are poorly trained and inexperienced, and bribery is widespread. The 2016 constitutional amendments abolished the Council of Justice, which was responsible for nominating judges and was directly controlled by the president, and transferred most nomination and oversight functions to the Supreme Court instead. However, judicial appointments and oversight have remained under executive control in practice. The courts’ opaque and biased adjudication of numerous cases against opposition figures and other dissidents, particularly since 2015, has further demonstrated their subordination to the political leadership.
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because the judiciary’s biased handling of politicized cases in recent years has demonstrated its subordination to the executive branch.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4
Arbitrary arrests and detentions are common, as is corruption among law enforcement agencies. Defendants are often denied timely access to an attorney, and politically fraught trials are frequently closed to the public. Nearly all defendants are found guilty.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4
Civilians are subject to physical abuse by security forces and have no meaningful opportunity to seek justice for such violations. Detainees are reportedly beaten in custody to extract confessions. Overcrowding and disease contribute to often life-threatening conditions in prisons.
In November 2018, an uprising in a high-security prison in Sughd Province reportedly resulted in the deaths of two guards and as many as 50 prisoners. The incident led to investigations into prison conditions and the arrest of the warden on charges of negligence and abuse of power.
IS claimed responsibility for the prison riot, as well as for a July terrorist attack in Danghara District that killed four cyclists from Europe and the United States and injured three others. Despite a video of the alleged perpetrators swearing allegiance to IS, the government accused the IRPT, without evidence, of involvement in the attack on the cyclists.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4
Discrimination against ethnic minorities is not a major problem. However, women face bias and disparate treatment in the workplace, and discrimination or violence against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people is common. There is no legislation against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBT people frequently face abuse by security forces.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 4 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1 / 4
Most citizens can travel within the country, but they must register their permanent residence with local authorities. Students interested in studying Islamic theology are forbidden from seeking education abroad. Some areas, particularly Gorno-Badakhshan, feature a heavier security presence that includes police checkpoints, which hamper travel and provide opportunities for extortion and other abuses.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4
Corruption and regulatory dysfunction affect enterprises ranging from peasant farms to large companies. The president’s extended family and others from his native Kulob District maintain extensive business interests in the country and dominate key sectors of the economy, impeding business activity by those without such political connections.
By law, all land belongs to the state, which allocates usage rights in a process plagued by corruption and inefficiency.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4
Although forced marriage and polygamy are legally prohibited, marriages arranged by parents and religious marriages that allow polygamy are both common in practice. Unlike under civil law, women are placed at a disadvantage under Islamic legal standards for divorce. Domestic violence is widespread, but cases are underreported and seldom investigated adequately.
Reports indicate that women sometimes face societal pressure to wear headscarves. Meanwhile, in addition to restricting hijabs for women and beards for men, the government interferes more broadly in matters of personal appearance. The government guidebook issued in March 2018 outlined acceptable and unacceptable styles of dress for women in great detail, barring clothing that could be deemed immodest or “foreign” in origin, among other considerations.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
The government has reportedly improved enforcement of laws against forced labor and especially child labor in the cotton harvest in recent years, though such practices have persisted to some extent. Safeguards against other forms of labor exploitation and hazardous working conditions are not well enforced. The scarcity of economic opportunity has compelled citizens to seek work abroad in large numbers, and these migrant workers are at risk of exploitation by human traffickers.