Ismoil*, a 41-year-old man, sits in a hot, sunlit room in the busy city of Dushanbe at the service desk for ex-prisoners — an EU-funded initiative implemented by the German adult education association (DVV International). His hands are marked by the years of hard work that have prematurely aged him.
When Ismoil graduated from school in 1992, he got his driver’s licence, hoping to find work as a driver. However, that same year, the civil war started and he was forced to take up arms and fight. In 1998, when the war was over, Tajikistan was devastated and Ismoil was imprisoned for having participated in the war.
During his time in prison, conditions were dismal; prisoners were tortured and those who managed to survive did so only because of the food they received from their families. Ismoil had to work in prison and spent his days blowing glass, which eventually gave him lung problems. During his 9 years in prison, Ismoil worked for 7 years and earned a total of 37 Somoni (approximately EUR 6).
While in prison, Ismoil was visited by a group of Iranian human rights observers looking to interview former soldiers from the civil war. During each interview, prison guards were present, so no one dared speak about the conditions they were enduring in prison. However, thanks to administrative changes in 2004 in Tajikistan, the prisoners’ living conditions improved.
Ismoil was released after 9 years in prison. While leaving prison meant freedom, it also meant being unemployed. Ismoil had to deal with his lack of professional experience, education or social network to rely on. On top of that, as an ex-convict, Ismoil was an easy target for police harassment.
Through a friend still in prison, he heard of the services provided by the Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law (BHR) at the service desk for ex-prisoners in Dushanbe. The project operates in four Tajik cities, providing free legal and psychological counselling for former convicts. It also refers clients to centres providing treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, which is a common problem among ex-prisoners. The project also works to improve the capacities of prisons, targeting both prison staff and convicts in Nurek Women’s Prison, with the aim to improve conditions in prison and to prepare prisoners for life on the outside.
At the service desk, a lawyer and a psychologist are at hand to provide their services for ex-prisoners. Zarrina Alimshoeva, the centre’s psychologist, says that clients who come to her are often traumatised, afraid and lack self-esteem. They do not know how to deal with what they have experienced in prison or whom to contact for help with such issues and legal concerns. The centre combines psychological support with legal advice, if requested by the clients. The Government of Tajikistan has no system of social services for ex-prisoners. Instead, the centre relies on good relations with prison staff for referrals to the service desk of prisoners who are about to be released.
For Ismoil, the services of Zarrina and her colleague changed his life. ‘When I came to Zarrina, I felt like I could stretch my wings. Whenever I face any challenges, I pass by or call them’, says Ismoil.
The lawyer at the centre has managed to help Ismoil deal with groundless indemnity claims from authorities and Zarrina has helped him restore his self-confidence.
As a result of this support, Ismoil was able to find a job as a forest ranger, therefore providing for himself. After contacting the BHR service desk he does not feel so lonely. ‘After I was released I had no friends. But now I have a lawyer and a psychologist, and I see them as my friends’, says Ismoil.
*Ismoil is a fictional name used to protect the identity of the person.