Response stories

The invisible barrier: how fear makes one silently endure

Human rights violations occur all over the world. And in most cases, this happens due to discriminatory laws and practices, although the government is supposed to protect – not do harm – ensuring equality for everyone without exception.

There is a key population that is at a greater risk than others. It includes people living with HIV (PLHIV), whose rights are violated almost everywhere, incl. by law enforcement agencies and at health care facilities. Moreover, the human factor ‘contributes’ as well – people, despite the generally available information about HIV, still treat PLHIV with apprehension, spreading discrimination and stigma against them, which are generally recognized barriers for this group’s access to prevention, treatment, and support.

Due to effective treatment (antiretroviral therapy), people living with HIV can now live long, healthy and active lives with little (or no) risk of transmitting the virus to their partners. This achievement has also contributed to the elimination of some aspects of discrimination. Nevertheless, the fear of negative attitudes of others is often stronger than that of the disease as such.

Tell me who your friend is…

In Tajikistan, violation of rights of PLHIV is criminally punishable, but people with HIV, just as before, are exposed to stigma and insults both from their relatives and from representatives of authorities (who are supposed to, on the contrary, protect their rights). Therefore, due to the fear of discrimination and stigma, they often either do not seek help or are afraid to take their case through to the end.

Our protagonist has been living with HIV for a long time, due to the fault of a man who failed to tell her about his disease. When Muhabbat (the name is changed) found out about her own positive status, she was confused, but she quickly pulled herself together and lived on. In December 2020, she was unexpectedly summoned to the district police department. Upon her entering the office, law enforcement agency representatives started referring to her as an ‘enemy of the people.’ She was interrogated in a rude manner about the disease, how she had got it, whom she had infected. The police requested that she wrote an explanatory note and narrated her entire story in it. Muhabbat refused to, as well as she refused to sign any documents. They continued interrogating her for a long time, then she was released. But the issue did not end there.

A week later, police officers requested that a telecommunication operator disclosed all phone numbers of this woman’s contacts, called her friends and relatives, and demanded that they be tested for HIV! All of them received negative results, but Muhabbat’s life changed dramatically since then. After the close ones had found out about the protagonist’s status, they started avoiding and stigmatizing her in every possible way. It got to the point that they stopped eating meals at the same table with her, each time they would remind her of her illness and insult her. Hoping for support, Muhabbat turned to REAct.

Fear and renouncement of one’s rights

The REActor suggested that the client drew up a statement to the highest public authority on the illegal actions of the operative staff, disclosure of the information by the telecom company, as well as against her relatives. Muhabbat took a break, but after much deliberation, she decided not to contact law enforcement agencies because of her fear.

Alas, this is not the first time: PLHIV often refuse to seek help because they have no trust either in law enforcement agencies, or the judicial system. After all, lots of cases have been documented where a victim wrote a complaint against the offenders, but no adequate action was taken by the police (i.e. there is no effective mechanism in the state to protect the rights of its citizens).

Lawyer’s comments

Were the actions of the police officers legal? Do they have the right to ask such questions?

Police officers cannot summon or interrogate a person without any reason. But if there is a reason or a grievance or complaint has been filed against a person, then law enforcement agencies have the right to summon the person for interrogation. However, summoning one without any reason, i.e. ‘just like that’, without a statement (notification) of a crime or offense that would have been received and that required verification, is illegal. Summons must always be justified. Quite often, a citizen is not summoned but invited by phone. Whether or not to appear for such an invitation is up to each and every one. According to regulations, summons must be official, and they must indicate in which quality the citizen is summoned.

Interrogating a woman having the HIV status where she got HIV from and who she could infect is already illegal and is interference with privacy. Article 17, ICCPR states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

Besides, according to Article 23 of the Constitution of the Republic of Tajikistan, “Collection, storage, use, and dissemination of information about a person’s personal life without his/her consent shall be prohibited.” The woman has the right to apply to the prosecutor’s office with a statement about interference with her personal life, as well as to court to recover compensation for moral damage and disclosure of her status.
Under Article 8 of the Law of the Republic of Tajikistan On Field Investigative Activities, operative staff shall have the right to perform field activities (conducting field investigative measures that restrict constitutional rights of a person and a citizen to the privacy of correspondence, telephone conversations, postal items, telegraph and other messages transmitted by electrical and postal communication networks, as well as the right to inviolability of the home) based on a substantiated resolution of authorities performing field investigative activities at the request of an authorized prosecutor and sanction of an authorized judge, and if the following information is available:

  • on signs of a criminal offense being prepared, being committed, or having been committed, in respect of which preliminary investigation is mandatory
  • on persons preparing, committing, or having committed criminal offenses, in respect of which preliminary investigation is mandatory;
  • on events or actions (inaction) that pose a threat to public, state, military, economic, informational, or environmental security of the Republic of Tajikistan.
How should a person behave in such a situation?

If summoned to the police, one – especially a woman – just needs to know one’s rights. According to the Constitution of the Republic of Tajikistan, “Everyone is equal before the law!” No one has the right to interfere with personal life. To request the participation of a lawyer, without the participation of a lawyer to not sign any documents and not write explanatory reports.

Just to say to the police officers: “I will not say anything, I will not sign any papers without the presence of a lawyer.” Under Article 46 of the Code of Criminal Procedures of the Republic of Tajikistan, if a person is considered a suspect, he or she shall have the right to give or not give explanations or testimonies and to be informed about this right before interrogation.

Is a person obliged to write an explanatory report by order of a police officer?

In practice, situations often arise associated with summons to law enforcement agencies for testimony, questioning, explanations, etc. Offering explanations is a voluntary communication of information of interest to law enforcement agencies not regulated by law. This is a certain form of documenting evidence in writing. Any information received from a person is drawn up by a law enforcement officer in the form of a written explanation. This is done in order to compile verification materials, where all collected documents are filed, including explanations.

If you believe that your rights were violated when writing an explanatory report (for example, the pressure was exerted, obscene language was used), you can submit a complaint about the actions (inaction) of the police officers to the manager or to the prosecutor’s office.

Moreover, you can go to court with a statement about the illegality of the actions of law enforcement agencies and recover compensation for moral damage.

In 2020, in Tajikistan, REActors documented 165 cases of human rights violations. 121 of them were cases involving PLHIV. Most violations documented were by their relatives, spouses, and neighbors.
In Tajikistan, REActors represent 8 NGOs located in different cities of the country, one REActor per region. REActors can make trips to cities and towns of the region in order to collect information and provide services to clients. Cases are also documented via the hotline on the protection of key populations’ rights by the Human Rights Center. A REActor in Tajikistan is a community representative, an NGO employee who – in addition to providing services and outreach work – documents cases of rights violations when community members submit complaints to them. A REActor can provide counseling, psychological support, or referral. If a case requires more professional legal intervention, it is referred to the national legal coordinator from the Human Rights Center.
The REAct system is being implemented in Tajikistan within the framework of the #SoS_project Sustainability of Services for Key Populations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (2019-2021) and the UNDP Project to reduce human rights-related barriers to HIV services in the Republic Tajikistan (04/2020-31/2020). The framework’s implementation is supported by NGO “SPIN Plus” in cooperation with the Human Rights Center and coordinated at the regional level by ICF Alliance for Public Health.
You can report a case of your rights’ violation and get support using REAct Feedback. Describe details of the situation that happened to you, how and when your rights were violated, and a reactor will contact you to help solve the problem. Don’t keep silent and help will be provided!