Tajikistan is fast becoming one of the most dangerous places in the world to be admitted to the bar, with authorities arresting six lawyers on seemingly unsubstantiated charges in the space of eighteen months.
The most recent arrest — the basis for which is as yet unclear — came at the beginning of this month.
A cowed civil society and passive international community are doing relatively little to improve a situation that seems a side-effect of the growing political crackdown in the country.
Currently, there is every suggestion that things will become worse for local lawyers after parliament passed government amendments to the ‘Law on Advocates’ last week.
Among other things, the amendments will increase practising lawyers’ dependence on the government bodies that regulate their professional activities, while stopping previously convicted lawyers from practising law as long as the statute of limitations remains in place.
That is particularly significant in the context of the following lawyers, who may never see a Tajik courtroom in a professional capacity again.
Chronology of arrests of lawyers in Tajikistan
March 2014 – Fakhriddin Zokirov was a lawyer for the imprisoned moderate opposition leader Zayd Saidov. He was detained and convicted on vague charges of “fraud”, but later amnestied in November 2014.
Upon release, he ceased defending Saidov.
July 2014 – Shuhrat Qudratov, prominent lawyer, deputy head of Tajikistan's opposition Socialist Democratic Party, was also part of Saidov's legal defense. He was detained for “bribery” and sentenced to nine years in prison, later decreased to three years.
Qudratov’s colleagues and followers believe he was punished for defending Saidov.
August 2015 – Fakhriddin Zokirov (see first lawyer) was re-arrested for “fraud”. The reason behind this detention remains unclear.
September 2015 – Zarafo Rahmoni was detained as a member of the Political Council of the strongest opposition movement in the country, the now-banned Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).
The United States Commission on International religious Freedoms wrote that Ms. Rahmoni has been “severely abused and threatened to commit suicide” during her ongoing detention.
Ms Rahmoni had defended members of her party in the past and was therefore an obvious target as the government launched a major crackdown on the party in September.
September 2015 – Buzurgmehr Yorov, a lawyer who has gained fame for defending opposition leaders in recent years, was detained for “fraud”, after announcing he would defend IRPT's arrested leadership.
October 2015 – Nuriddin Mahkamov, a lawyer active on social media and a second lawyer for the IRPT was detained — also on charges of “fraud” according to his relatives. Mr. Mahkamov had tried to get a license to defend his detained colleague, Mr. Yorov, but was refused.
November 2015 – Dilbar Dadajonova, from the “Sipar” union of lawyers Mahkamov and Yorov are members of, was detained for “fraud”.
There is no available information over whether Ms. Dadajonova was defending a political figure, or whether her arrest is connected to those of her colleagues.
Walls of silence
With the increased atmosphere of fear in the county and the realization that anyone in the country can be charged with anything, civic groups and ordinary netizens are forming walls of silence.
While one year ago the detention of Shuhrat Qudratov sparked discussions and even profile-changing on social networks, the bloody events of September 2015 and the ensuing political persecutions that have followed clamped the public's mouth shut.
In the case of Buzurgmehr Yorov, a Facebook group was opened. But it has just over 1,300 members, many of them hiding their real identities. No recent post has attracted more than 10 likes.
People are now too scared to like the posts or join the Facebook pages of opposition groups like IRPT and Group 24, which have both been absurdly designated as extremist organisations by the Tajik authorities, their members abroad placed on the Interpol list.
Publicly, discussions of the lawyers’ plights are limited to their close relatives or disguised social media accounts, or the occasional brave activist.
Yorov’s sister was one of those actively speaking out in his support. In October she was held by police for one night on unexplained charges before being released the next day.