NHC condemns murder of Tajik opposition leader

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee was shocked and saddened to learn of the assassination of Tajik opposition leader Umarali Kuvatov, who was shot at close range by an unknown person outside his home in Istanbul, Turkey, on the evening of 5 March. Kuvatov was in the presence of his wife and children when he was killed by a gunshot to the head.

Kuvatov was known as head of the “Group of 24”, an opposition movement critical of the authoritarian regime in Tajikistan, led by President Emomali Rakhmon since 1992. While marginalized in Tajikistan, where government-friendly candidates have dominated both presidential and parliamentary elections in recent years, Tajik opposition in exile has sought to keep international pressure up against Rakhmon.

Tajik authorities have repeatedly made unsuccessful requests to have Kuvatov extradited from Russia, United Arab Emirates and Turkey, where he had been living for the past few years.

“Naturally, one cannot help but draw parallels to the 27 February murder of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow”, said Ivar Dale, Senior Adviser in the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “However, while Nemtsov’s murder caught the world’s attention, the struggle for democracy in Tajikistan remains unknown to most. That doesn’t make Kuvatov’s murder any less brutal or any less shocking”, he said.

The NHC were present to observe the presidential elections in Tajikistan in November 2013, when Rakhmon took some 84% of the votes, and noted then that the elections were marred by a lack of pluralism and pressure against the legitimate opposition. The NHC were also present also during the March 2015 parliamentary elections, which took place only four days before Kuvatov’s murder, and which the ruling People’s Democratic Party took a majority of seats. Again, the run-up to the elections was characterized by a restrictive media atmosphere and the suppression of opposition groups.

“Tajikistan follows an unhealthy pattern evident in several Central Asian republics», said Dale. “The ruling elite is willing to violate the country’s international human rights obligations to ensure continued power. Exiled opposition faces threats and extradition requests, and as in this terrible instance – even murder. We await the conclusions of the Turkish investigation, but consider that all alarms should go off when something like this happens.”

The NHC calls on Turkish authorities to carry out a full and impartial investigation of Kuvatov’s murder, bearing in mind that the case bears all the hallmarks of a political assassination. We also call on Turkey to tighten security around other profiled opposition members from Central Asia currently residing in Istanbul.