Prominent rights lawyer walks free in Tajikistan

Tajikistan is a landlocked former Soviet republic which has a population of nine million

Tajikistan on Friday freed a prominent human rights lawyer as Western governments and rights groups stepped up pressure on the authoritarian Central Asian country.

Shukhrat Kudratov, a renowned rights lawyer involved in defending Tajikistan's battered opposition was released early on Friday after spending nearly four years behind bars on embezzlement charges in this landlocked former Soviet republic.

In 2015, he was sentenced to nine years in prison although it was later shortened to three years and eight months.

Kudratov's supporters insisted his real offence was representing a wealthy former government official Zaid Saidov, who had branched out politically by attempting to form his own party in 2013.

Saidov's arrest heralded the beginning of a renewed crackdown in Tajikistan, where 65-year-old President Emomali Rakhmon has been in power since 1992.

The businessman and former industry minister is currently serving a 29-year sentence on charges of financial fraud, polygamy, and statutory rape.

Although Kudratov's sentence was shortened, another lawyer also known for defending the opposition, Buzurgmehr Yorov, had his jail term extended from 25 to 28 years in 2017.

Yorov was initially convicted in 2015 on an array of charges that critics denounced as trumped up after he began defending members of an opposition group the government had banned the same year.

His term was extended after prosecutors charged that he publicly insulted officials including the president and was found to be in contempt of court during his trial.

Earlier this week, a Tajik appeals court released Khayrullo Mirsaidov, a popular but critical journalist serving 12 years for embezzlement in an apparent climbdown following robust criticisms from rights groups and noises of concern from the West.

Ahead of his release, British Ambassador Hugh Philpott had described Mirsaidov's case as "politically important", saying it could impact international cooperation with the country.

Amnesty International hailed the verdict as a "rare victory for freedom of expression" while noting he should never have been charged in the first place.

In recent years, rights groups have criticised the silence of Western governments as repression intensifies in Tajikistan, a poor majority-Muslim country of nine million people that borders Afghanistan.