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Preliminary observations of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances at the conclusion of its visit to Tajikistan (1-5 July 2019)

5 July 2019

Introduction

A delegation of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) concluded a five-day official visit to Tajikistan. The visit took place from 1 to 5 July 2019. 

The delegation was composed of the Chair of the WGEID, Mr. Bernard Duhaime and Mr. Henrikas Mickevicius, member of the WGEID. 

At the outset, the WGEID wishes to thank the Government of Tajikistan for extending an invitation to visit the country, and for the efforts made before and during the visit to facilitate its smooth undertaking including granting most of the meetings requested. 

The WGEID also wishes to thank the Regional Office for Central Asia of OHCHR for the continuous support during the visit.

The WGEID met inter alia with the Minister of Justice, representatives of the Presidential Office, the Prosecutor General, the State Committee for National Security, the Medical Forensic Center under the Ministry of Health and Social Protection, the Ministry of Defence, the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Interior as well as the Ombudsman’s Office. They also visited the pre-trial detention centers of the Ministry of Justice and State Committee for National Security in Dushanbe and prisons in Dushanbe and Vahdat. The Working Group regrets not having been granted a meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the beginning of the visit and debriefing at the end as per usual practice. 

The WGEID also met with relatives of disappeared, civil society organisations, international organisations, and lawyers and wishes to thank all stakeholders met. 

The WGEID has 8 cases registered in its database related to the Tajikistan under its humanitarian procedure. One is still outstanding, 7 have been clarified over time: 5 based on information from the Government and 2 on information from the sources. It also notes that a high number of individuals remain unaccounted for following the civil war between 1992-1997.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of preliminary observations. The Working Group’s final report on the visits will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2020.

The Civil War 1992-1997 

The Civil War that broke out in Tajikistan in 1992 and lasted for almost five years appears to be a virtually unaddressed issue in the country. The Working Group could not get official figures but it is estimated that thousands may still be unaccounted for from the different factions. The Working Group also received reports on the existence of a number of unopened mass graves. Nevertheless, very little has been done to deal with issues related to truth, justice, reparation and memory in relation to the serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, which occurred during the conflict - except a trivial amount of compensation granted to the families of soldiers and some psychosocial support for relatives coordinated by ICRC. The Working Group had hoped to visit Khatlon region to discuss the issues with the regional authorities and other stakeholders but was not granted meetings.  Tajikistan needs to create conducive conditions to openly and comprehensively address issues related to past violations, including enforced disappearances.  

In this regard, the Working Group encourages the Government to develop a  strategy for the collection of data, search and identification of those unaccounted for and exhumation of remains. Accordingly, forensic capacities should be strengthened including the creation of a DNA bank and additional DNA laboratories. 

Legislation 

The WGEID welcomes the information received from the authorities in a number of meetings that the Government is considering the ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, and that this is included in the 2017-2020 National Plan of Action to implement the UPR recommendations after the second cycle. 

The Convention contains useful guidance for States to build a more solid and robust legal and institutional framework and help states to implement it in practice. The Working Group encourages the Government to ratify the Convention as soon as possible without reservations. 

The Working Group also observes that Tajikistan does not have an autonomous crime of enforced disappearances. The experts were informed of ongoing work on a new Criminal Code and encourage the Government to ensure the new version makes enforced disappearances an autonomous crime consistent with the definition given in the 1992 Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (the Declaration) and punishable by appropriate penalties that take into account its extreme seriousness.

The importance of introducing an autonomous crime of enforced disappearance should not be underestimated, as the lack thereof creates a situation whereby acts of enforced disappearances are investigated and prosecuted under other crimes (e.g. murder, kidnapping, abuse of authority or arbitrary deprivation of liberty). This is highly problematic because enforced disappearances have specific requirements in terms of investigations. This also creates a situation whereby suspects of enforced disappearance can be acquitted if the standards of proof for the other crimes of which they are accused are not met.

Transnational Arrests 

According to the information received and to a number of stakeholders met during the visit, there have been a number of recent and previous cases of Tajik individuals, reportedly political opponents, who were residing abroad and were forcibly returned to Tajikistan. In some cases, these individuals have appeared in detention in Tajikistan after short periods of disappearance, while in a few instances their whereabouts are still unknown.

Registration and Notification 

As safeguards during the first hours of deprivation of liberty are essential to prevent possible abuses, including enforced disappearances, the experts noted amendments adopted in 2016 related to registration of those deprived of their liberty and notification of family members. However, the Working Group received information that significant delays often occur before or in the initial registration and notification of apprehended individuals, which may amount to short-term enforced disappearances. The experts also received information that families sometimes have to visit different facilities to ask for the location of their relatives and that there is no legal requirement that families be informed of transfers of convicted prisoners. 

The Working Group was able to visit a number of places of deprivation of liberty. The visit of these places has confirmed the need to establish a centralized nation-wide system of registration of all persons deprived of liberty as provided for in the Declaration, as the absence of a centralized digital system renders inaccuracies frequent and abuses possible.
Furthermore, a simple, accessible and effective mechanism for families to quickly locate their loved ones is urgently needed.

Prison Riot and Conditions of Detention

The Working Group also visited for a short time Vahdat prison where a riot took place in May 2019. According to information from the authorities, after rioting prisoners killed three guards and three other prisoners, the guards responded with force killing 27 inmates. The Working Group was informed that 20 surviving prisoners are suspected of having participating in the riot and are currently being held in the punishment block of the prison. However, the Working Group notes contradictory information on whether the families of those arrested have been notified of their current location. 

While the authorities gave assurances that families of those killed were able to see the bodies to confirm their identity and received their remains to perform final rites, the experts are extremely concerned by information received from other sources that this was not the case. 

The Working Group observes that the information available so far points to likely serious violations committed in the operation, including an excessive use of force and urgently calls for a thorough, effective, impartial and independent investigation to be conducted into the incident in line with international standards including the Minnesota Protocol. This is particularly pressing given that there was previously another similar incident in Khujand in November 2018. 

Taking into account the poor conditions in the detention facilities visited, notably in the pre-trial detention center n°1 of the Ministry of Justice in Dushanbe - the Working Group also calls on the Government to improve conditions in detention. It should also ensure full and effective access to independent monitoring bodies such as the Ombudsman and its Monitoring Group, as well as the ICRC which can assist in this endeavour. In this respect, the Working Group was informed of the plan to open a new complex in Vahdat but it is not clear when it will be operational.   

Tajikistan should also become a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and establish an independent and effective National Preventive Mechanism. 

Conclusion

The Working Group stands ready to assist Tajikistan to address the above-mentioned gaps in order to provide full protection against enforced disappearances of any duration and to bring its legislation and practice in line with the Declaration. 

Thank you.