Central Asia: human rights challenges – with a special focus on the situation in GBAO Tajikistan (ECA0026)



International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) is a Brussels-based NGO working closely together with local civil society groups and experts in Central Asia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Our projects aim to empower local civil society groups who are working to advance the protection of human rights in their respective countries and assists them with raising human rights concerns at the international level.


At this time of increasing UK engagement in Central Asia, we would like to provide you with an overview of key challenges, risks and opportunities in the region which affect also UK foreign policies.



Key challenges in the Central Asian region and the implications, risks, and opportunities for UK foreign policy


  1. The year 2022 was the bloodiest year in the last decade in the Eurasia region - not only due to the armed aggression of Russia against Ukraine, but also due to the violent state responses to mass protests in the Central Asian region as well as the widespread use of torture against those detained in connection with these events.


  1. The governments of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan responded to the predominantly (although not entirely) peaceful civilian protests with excessive force which amounted to extra-custodial torture and led to at least 300 numerous civilian deaths, massive arbitrary arrests, and widespread torture in detention. In addition, hundreds of people were detained, tortured, and prosecuted for speaking out against injustice.


  1. Central Asian governments (particularly Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) have subsequently failed to take effective measures to hold the perpetrators of torture and excessive police violence accountable and compensate victims – a failure that will still pose major challenges for the region in the years to come. State practices of suppressing criticism of officials and the government, banning protests and prosecuting human rights activists, critics, journalists, and bloggers who influence public opinion also pose a serious challenge to the UK's cooperation and engagement in the region.


  1. The so called “Bloody January Events” of 2022 saw at least 238 people killed when the authorities in Kazakhstan used open fire, tear gas and stun grenades to quash protests which spread across the country. Hundreds of protestors and civilians were subjected to torture and ill-treatment in police stations, makeshift places of detention such as sports halls, as well as on the streets and (sometimes even) in medical institutions. Despite widespread allegations of the use of torture of detainees during the January events, only a few law enforcement officials have been convicted for torture to date. Most investigations into complaints of torture were closed after ineffective investigations which predominantly involved asking the alleged perpetrators if they confirmed the allegations or not. There are reports that victims and those protecting their rights such as human rights defenders and lawyers continue to face harassment and persecution in retribution for carrying out their professional duties.


  1. Similar events were witnessed in Tajikistan after protests which began in November 2021 in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) resurged in May 2022. Military and special forces reportedly violently dispersed the protest in an announced ‘anti-terror operation’ which allegedly led to the deaths of at least 40 persons since 16 May 2022 as reported by media[1] and state institutions. Hundreds of residents of GBAO were arrested, including journalists, lawyers and civil society activists who covered the events and the allegations of torture and unfair trials.


  1. In Uzbekistan, on 1 and 2 July 2022 mass protests broke out in Karakalpakstan, as a reaction against proposed constitutional amendments concerning the autonomous region’s status. On 1 July and 2 July, authorities reportedly tried to disperse protesters with water cannons, rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas.[2] According to official figures, 18 people were killed, 243 were injured, and more than 500 people were detained. However, civil society activists report that the real number of victims is much higher and that detainees were severely tortured.


  1. In Kyrgyzstan, torture and ill-treatment are a serious problem, especially in pre-trial detention, where conditions often amount to degrading treatment. Those detained in politically motivated cases are at particular risk of abusive treatment, including activists who were arrested in October 2022 and charged with preparing riots, although they are only known to have peacefully engaged against the government-negotiated border deal with Uzbekistan concerning the strategically important Kempir-Abad water reservoir.
  2. Central Asian governments have failed to carry out effective, impartial, objective, and transparent investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment and other human rights violations reported in the context of the recent police crackdowns and to bring the perpetrators to account for their actions. There is a risk that there will be no real accountability.


  1. Authoritarian rule, limited democratic governance and the neglect of human rights in the region lay the foundations for political instability and public distrust in the government. UK foreign policy should seek to support democratic reforms, human rights initiatives, and engage with governments to promote stability and inclusive governance.



Key challenges in relation to the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in Tajikistan and the implications, risks, and opportunities for UK foreign policy


  1. In Tajikistan, there has been no accountability for serious human rights violations perpetrated in connection with the authorities’ response to mass protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in November 2021 and May 2022. The reported violations include the excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions, torture and ill-treatment, extrajudicial killings, and unfair trials of dozens of people.[3]


  1. Following the protests, the Tajikistani authorities launched a widening crackdown on dissenting voices and civil society, targeting those who have criticised the authorities’ actions in this region.[4] At least 20 human rights defenders, civil society activists, bloggers and journalists have been detained, criminally prosecuted, and convicted following non-transparent trials held in violation of international standards.


  1. On 9 December 2022 the Supreme Court of Tajikistan handed down long prison sentences to Manuchehr Kholiknazarov (see below), Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva and other human rights defenders who were targeted for their efforts to monitor, document and assist victims of government repression in GBAO.[5] These sentences were handed down despite numerous appeals to the authorities to drop the charges and release the human rights defenders made by representatives of the international community[6], Diplomatic missions[7], European Parliament[8], UN treaty bodies and special procedures.[9]


  1. In connection with the mass protests in GBAO criminal cases were initiated against dozens of protestors who were sentenced in unfair trials to prison terms. Reportedly, in violation of procedural requirements, in many cases the verdicts were prepared before court hearings took place, and the hearings lasted no longer than two to four hours before the judge announced the verdict. According to human rights defenders, none of those arrested had access to a lawyer, some were held incommunicado, and some were severely beaten in custody.[10]


  1. In June 2023, the Pamir Daily news portal published the names of 205 GBAO residents sentenced to various terms of imprisonment in connection with the events of November 2021 and May 2022. Of the 205 documented convictions, 11 were sentenced to life imprisonment, 85 were sentenced to terms of 10 and up to 29 years, and 53 were sentenced to terms of 1.5 to 9 years[11].


  1. In December 2022, the Supreme Court sentenced Manuchehr Kholiknazarov, Director of the Lawyers’ Association of Pamir (LAP), to 16 years in prison on charges of participation in a criminal and banned organisation. These charges clearly constituted retaliation for his efforts to assist victims of human rights violations and promote access to justice and the rule of law in GBAO. [12] Following the November 2021 events in GBAO, Kholiknazarov joined a commission of local civil society and law enforcement representatives (‘Commission 44’) set up to investigate these events. However, the commission’s activities were derailed in May 2022 amid the government’s renewed crackdown on protests in GBAO. That same month Kholiknazarov was arrested and charged. Kholiknazarov’s organisation, LAP was liquidated in 2022 without court review.


  1. In total, at least 13 members of the “Commission 44” were detained and sentenced to lengthy prison terms besides Kholiknazarov, including: Faromuz Irgashov, lawyer and unregistered candidate for the 2020 presidential election in Tajikistan, Khursand Mamadshoev, and Muzaffar Muborakshoev.


  1. People originating from GBAO, whom the authorities regard as leaders of the protests, have been forcibly returned to Tajikistan. Among those returned, arrested, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms are popular blogger and MMA fighter, Chorshanbe Chorshanbiev, and Amriddin Alovatshoyev. In some cases, political prisoners were held incommunicado for several weeks.
  2. Recently the authorities have increased pressure on CSOs in GBAO. Security officials have reportedly summoned CSO representatives and threatened them with criminal charges unless they ‘’voluntarilyclose their organisations. Those summoned for such ‘’discussions’’ include representatives of NGOs working on development, educational and human rights projects, including projects funded by international donors. According to unconfirmed information, several dozen CSOs have been forced to close in GBAO since last summer. This trend has given rise to concerns that the authorities are seeking to fully suppress and eradicate independent CSO activities in the region.


  1. The government has tightened control over the Aga Khan development institutions in GBAO. Local media reports that in recent months, the Serena Khorog INN hotel, owned by the Aga Khan Foundation for Economic Development (AKFED), was nationalized and that ownership of the City Park of Khorog, previously belonging to the Aga Khan Foundation, was transferred to the state. According to Radio Ozodi, the GBAO Prosecutor's Office has filed a lawsuit related to the nationalization of the Aga Khan Foundation's Medical Center in the Barhorugh mahalla of Khorog.


  1. The Education Department closed the Aga Khan Lyceum in Khorog on 30 June 2023 and teachers and staff were dismissed, although the reason remains unclear. The lyceum, established in 1998 with the support of President Rahmon and Prince Karim Aga Khan, was unique in GBAO as it offered education in three languages to foster multilingual communication among students.


  1. When visiting Tajikistan in November-December 2022, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Mary Lawlor expressed concern that the events in GBAO have ‘’had a broader effect on the ability of civil society to operate in the country’’ and ‘’marked a watershed moment’’ in the attitude of authorities toward civil society actors. She criticised the authorities for creating an ‘’intensifying climate of fear’’ for civil society.[13]


Religious freedoms

  1. Representatives of Tajikistan's Ismaili community are in a difficult situation. There are currently two Ismaili centres in Tajikistan - in Khorog and Dushanbe, with limited capacity to accommodate worshipers. Until late 2022 Ismaili community representatives were allowed to gather in private houses for weekly prayers on Thursday evenings or on Fridays. However as of January 2023 officials banned holding joint prayers in private homes with threats of fines.[14]


  1. The law on parental responsibility allows minors between the ages of seven and 18, with written parental consent, to obtain religious instruction provided by a registered religious organisation outside school hours.  This may not duplicate religious instruction that is already part of the school curriculum – classes on the history of religion. However, Ismaili Centers are banned from conducting such educational or cultural activities. According to reports, in December 2022 and January 2023, teachers of “Akhlok va Marifat”, a course for school children about Islamic ethics and history of Islam and Ismailism were summoned by the GBAO Prosecutor’s Office. Text books were confiscated and teachers were forced to sign statements promising not to teach this course, even though they taught after school and on a voluntary basis. The courses were supervised by the Ismaili Tariqa and Religious Education Board (ITREB) an institution based in Khorog and Dushanbe that has functions of religious education, research on religion and interpretation of the religious messages from the Aga Khan.[15] The staff of ITREB has come under pressure since the summer of 2022 and the centre was closed for several months due to ongoing inspections.[16]


  1. Muzaffar Davlatmir, a Muslim cleric from Khorog, known for criticising government violence in his sermons, was detained on 26 July 2022, by GBAO State National Security Committee. In August 2022, Badakhshan regional court sentenced Davlatmirov to five years in prison for "public calls for extremist activity... committed with the use of mass media or the Internet" (Art. 307 of the Criminal Code). [17]


  1. On 23 May 2022, the Interior Ministry published a list of 19 residents of Rushan district, GBAO, who allegedly participated in the 15-18 May protests, and who voluntarily surrendered to the authorities. Among them are 55-year-old religious clerk from Paskhuf village Amirbek Kayobekov and 67-year-old Nuriddin Saidov, whom the Interior Ministry describes as a former leader of the Rushan cell of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).[18] Both were tried in August 2022 and sentenced to lengthy terms after unfair trials, although details remain unknown.


  1. Pressure is reported against Ismaili Community representatives: several members of the Ismaili Shiite Council of Tajikistan, including its president Sharofat Mamadambarova, were questioned by Tajikistan’s security service in August 2022.[19]


  1. The atmosphere of fear and the reluctance of the local religious leader to speak was noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Nazila Ghanea during her visit to Tajikistan in April 2023. Ghanea stated that her observations confirmed reports she had received about ongoing pressure in GBAO.[20] In an April 2023 statement Ghanea emphasised that Tajikistan's provisions are not in line with international human rights standards; stressed the importance of visible respect for freedom of religion or belief, including for women, religious minorities, children and young people; highlighted that freedom of religion or belief encompasses the right to worship, observe, practice, and teach, and is connected to freedom of expression and association. She urged the authorities to move beyond their focus on extremism, terrorism, and incitement, and to recognize the positive contribution of religion or belief to a harmonious society.[21]


  1. Outside GBAO, journalists, bloggers, civil society activists, independent lawyers and human rights activists face intimidation and harassment, including by being interrogated, arrested, and criminally prosecuted on charges initiated because of their exercise of freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms. Among these is human rights lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov who is serving a 22-year prison sentence after being arrested when defending IRPT leaders in 2015. In April 2023, a new criminal case was opened against Yorov on charges of fraud, which could result in his sentence being extended.[22] The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for Yoro’s immediate release.[23]






In relation to Central Asia, we urge the UK government to



Regarding Tajikistan’s GBAO region we urge you to



Furthermore, we recommend that you urge the Tajikistani authorities to:









July 2023






[1] https://rus.ozodi.org/a/31905149.html

[2] https://www.iphronline.org/uzbekistan-karakalpakstan.html

[3] For more information, see briefing paper from October 2022: https://www.iphronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Briefing-paper-on-key-concerns-in-Central-Asia-October-2022.pdf

[4] For more information on this trend, see update prepared by IPHR as part of its cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor, published in March 2023: https://www.iphronline.org/tajikistan-continuous-crackdown-on-civil-society.html


[6] https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/05/tajikistan-un-expert-fears-crackdown-against-pamiri-minority-could-spiral

[7] On May 19, 2022, the European Union delegation to Tajikistan, together with the embassies of France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, issued a joint statement expressing deep concern about the events. https://www.eeas.europa.eu/delegations/tajikistan/joint-statement-developments-gbao_en 

[8] In June 2022, the European Parliament passed Resolution RC-B9-0350/2022, strongly condemning the violent crackdown and urging the Tajik authorities to respect and protect human rights. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/RC-9-2022-0350_EN.html


[9] UN SR on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor end of mission statement https://srdefenders.org/end-of-mission-statement-official-country-visit-to-tajikistan/

[10] https://cabar.asia/en/?p=51099

[11] https://pamirdaily.com/pamiris-prisoner-list-2022/

[12] See joint statement by IPHR, the OMCT, Human Rights Watch, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Frontline Defenders, International Federation for Human Rights and Freedom Now issued on 3 April 2023: https://www.iphronline.org/tajikistan-manuchehr-kholiqnazarov-must-be-immediately-released.html

[13] See the Rapporteur’s end-of-visit statement at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/12/tajikistan-human-rights-defenders-face-increasing-threats-climate-fear-says 


[15] The Ismaili Tariqa and Religious Education Board (ITREB) registered in 2012 along with the Ismaili Center in Dushanbe. The location was used by followers of Ismaili Shiism for secular and religious education.

[16] https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-authorities-intensify-war-on-ismailis-other-muslims

[17] https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2782

[18] https://bomdodrus.com/2022/05/23/poimenno-mvd-opublikovalo-imena-19-zaderzhannyh-zhitelej-rushana-video/

[19] https://rus.ozodi.org/a/31994584.html

[20] Preliminary observations and recommendations Dushanbe, 20 April 2023 https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/04/un-expert-urges-tajikistan-leave-past-behind-and-uphold-freedom-religion-and

[21] https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/04/un-expert-urges-tajikistan-leave-past-behind-and-uphold-freedom-religion-and

[22] See IPHR statement from 2 May 2023 at: https://www.iphronline.org/tajikistan-new-criminal-case-against-buzurgmehr-yorov.html 

[23] The opinion, issued in 2019, is available at: https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Detention/Opinions/Session84/A_HRC_WGAD_2019_17.pdf