DUSHANBE (TCA) — Tajik officials, with the apparent acquiescence of Turkish authorities, have forcibly and extra-judicially returned a political activist from Istanbul to Tajikistan, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said on February 20. The activist, Namunjon Sharipov, faces a real risk of torture and other ill-treatment in Tajikistan.
On February 16, 2018, Tajik officials took custody of Sharipov, a well-known businessman and member of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), from an Istanbul detention facility where he had been held for 11 days. They drove him to the airport, and forced him on a plane to Tajikistan, where he faces terrorism charges for peacefully exercising his freedom of expression.
“Returning someone to a place where they may face torture, arbitrary detention, political prosecution, and other rights violations demonstrates shameless contempt by Turkey and Tajikistan for their international obligations,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “By all accounts, Sharipov faces jail and abuse in Tajikistan for no other reason than having a political opinion different than the government’s.”
Sharipov, 55, is a high-ranking member of the opposition party from Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region. The Tajik government first banned the party in September 2015 and later designated it a terrorist organization, arresting hundreds of members on vague and overbroad extremism charges.
The terrorist designation followed an alleged coup attempt, which has not been shown to be linked in any way to the peaceful opposition party. In June 2016, authorities sentenced 14 senior IRPT leaders to lengthy prison terms, including two to life sentences, following a flawed trial. Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have received credible accounts that several party members, including the activists Mahmadali Hayit and Rahmatullo Rajab, have been tortured in prison.
Sharipov moved to Istanbul in August 2015 and established a tea house popular among Central Asian migrants. His son told Human Rights Watch that on three consecutive days starting on February 2, the consul of the Tajik consulate in Istanbul visited Sharipov at the tea house, encouraging him to return voluntarily to Tajikistan.
“First the diplomat offered him money to return and said the government would make him ‘rich’ and ‘give him whatever he wanted’ if he agreed to come back and publicly disavow the IRPT,” the son said. “My father answered simply that he would ‘think about it.’”
But on the second and third days, the diplomat cajoled and intimidated Sharipov, threatening that there would be “problems for him” if he did not agree to return. “My father said, ‘I have done nothing wrong. Why would I leave?’”
On February 5, Turkish police detained Sharipov on the street outside the tea house and took him to Istanbul’s Kumkapi removal center. At the removal center, Turkish migration authorities informed Sharipov that Tajikistan was seeking his arrest on terrorism charges but that he was not facing imminent deportation to Tajikistan.
Turkish officials at the detention center encouraged Sharipov to consider voluntarily leaving Turkey for a safe third country rather than face lengthy detention while he contested Tajikistan’s request for extradition. Over the next 11 days, Sharipov’s relatives and lawyer visited him at Kumkapi removal center several times.
Sharipov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that they were repeatedly assured that Sharipov was not at imminent risk of being removed to Tajikistan.
However, they were not informed as to whether a formal extradition request had been made, and if they could therefore begin proceedings to challenge it. The lawyer said Sharipov told him he wanted to find refuge in a safe third country.
On February 16, a Friday, Turkish officials at the detention center told Sharipov’s lawyer that he should purchase a one-way plane ticket for Sharipov to a country of his choosing that did not require a visa, and to pick him up on Monday, February 19. But when the lawyer returned on February 19, Turkish officials said that two Tajik consular officials, one of whom was the consul, had taken Sharipov into custody later on February 16, driven him to the airport, and forced him onto a plane bound for Dushanbe.
On February 20, Sharipov resurfaced in Dushanbe and called Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service and made a statement that he had “returned voluntarily” to the country, was “freely going about his affairs,” and denied reports that he had been forcibly returned. But Sharipov’s relatives in Tajikistan reported to his lawyer and activists outside the country that Sharipov is in detention in the capital, has no access to a phone, and is being forced to make such statements. On several previous occasions, Tajik activists who have been forcibly returned to the country have been forced to make such statements to the press under duress.
The Tajik government has carried out a severe human rights crackdown over the last three years, with hundreds of political activists, including several human rights lawyers, jailed and opposition parties banned. Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have documented a wide-ranging campaign by Tajik authorities to detain, imprison, and silence peaceful opposition activists and perceived critics at home and abroad. Since 2015, Dushanbe has sought the detention and forcible return to Tajikistan of peaceful political activists in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere.
Turkish authorities should immediately investigate Sharipov’s forced removal, including whether Turkish law enforcement agents were complicit in illegally transferring Sharipov to Tajikistan, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said.
Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and party to the European Convention on Human Rights, and any involvement of, or acquiescence by, state agents in the extrajudicial transfer of Sharipov to Tajikistan is a serious violation of the convention.
“Everything we know about the trials and treatment of people in Sharipov’s position leads us to fear the worst,” said Marius Fossum, Norwegian Helsinki Committee regional representative in Central Asia. “Tajikistan’s international partners, including diplomatic representatives on the ground, should vigorously call on Tajikistan to prevent torture and to refrain from punishing people for the peaceful exercise of their freedom of expression.”