Monthly Archives: July 2017

Reuters: Tajik opposition, rights group say government threatens activists’ families

ALMATY (Reuters) – Authorities in Tajikistan have threatened to confiscate the property of people linked to opposition activists living in exile, a leading opposition politician said on Friday.

Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), said the relatives of at least 10 activists who had taken part in a conference in Germany on July 9 marking the 20th anniversary of a peace accord had been targeted.

The government said it had received no complaints of intimidation.

The mostly Muslim former Soviet republic banned the IRPT in 2015, accusing it of being linked to a failed coup and prompting a number of party leaders and activists, including Kabiri, to leave the country.

The IRPT denies being involved in attempts to topple the government, but, according to Kabiri, its aim is to stop President Imomali Rakhmon passing power to family members.

Human Rights Watch separately said this week that authorities, including police and security officers, visited the relatives of the activists both ahead and after the conference.

“They use them (the relatives of activists) as hostages”, Kabiri said. “Many activists have already given up the fight (because of threats to their relatives).”

His comments echoed those of the New York-based rights group.

”The Tajik government’s vicious campaign of intimidation against dissidents’ relatives is widening and becoming ever more brazen,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for HRW, said.

”The simultaneous actions by security services and local officials across numerous cities suggest a policy of collective punishment sanctioned at the highest levels, which should end immediately.”

The Dortmund conference marked the 20th anniversary of a peace accord which ended a devastating civil war in Tajikistan.

IRPT founders had been among those fighting the government of Rakhmon and later, in 2000, accused him of violating the agreement in order to boost his powers.

Asked whether the authorities were intimidating the relatives of opposition activists, who are wanted in Tajikistan on charges of extremism and terrorism, Tajik Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda said on Friday his ministry had received no such complaints.

“If they have been questioned as witnesses about the whereabouts of their relatives, this does not equal persecution or humiliation,” he said.

Kabiri said there may have been more cases of intimidation which went unreported because the families chose not to tell activists living abroad about them. Kabiri said he had no direct contacts with his own relatives living in Tajikistan.

Reuters

July 21, 2017

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Additional reporting by Nazarali Pirnazarov in Dushanbe; Editing by Alison Williams

Moderndiplomacy: “A reverse side of struggle against ISIS in Central Asia”

How did members of opposition emerge as jihadist?

Often, the authorities of the Central Asian states fight against supporters of the so-called “Islamic states” by using the actions of their political opponents to prosecute their family members. In particular, under the slogan of combating Islamic extremism Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has been repressing the leaders of Islamic Revolutionary Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and their family more than two years.

It should be noted that the IRPT was the largest opposition party in the country and the only Islamic political party that officially registered in Central Asia. Two years ago, on September 29, 2015, the Supreme Court of Tajikistan declared the IRPT as a terrorist organization that threatened the security and stability of the state. Now the activities of the IRPT are prohibited, its leader Said Abdullo Nuri signed a peace agreement with the President Emomali Rahmon at the end of the civil war in Tajikistan in June 1997.

The court decision stated that the party was directly associated with the attempt of mutiny, undertaken in September 2015 by the Deputy Defense Minister, General Abdukhalim Nazarzoda. The rebellion was suppressed, and in mid-September the authorities arrested virtually the whole IRPT leadership. Only the leader of the party, Kabiri Muhiddin, escaped arrest because a few months before these events he had left for Europe.

On June 2, 2016, the Supreme Court of Tajikistan sentenced the Deputy Leaders of the IRPT Umarali Hisainov and Mahmadali Haitov to life imprisonment, 11 party activists up to 28 years of imprisonment. The court found them guilty of terrorism, religious extremism, a coup d’état attempt, the overthrow of the constitutional form of the government and murder. According to Amnesty International, the trial did not meet the requirements of fair trial and is clearly of a political nature. The UN condemned the verdicts to the leaders of the IRPT.

Today, the whole arsenal of the state’s punitive machine is directed not only against activists of the party, but also against members of their family. Authorities took the passports from many wives and children of convicted IRPT members, so that they could not leave the country. Many relatives lost their employment. The fiscal authorities of the country have closed or confiscated medium and small businesses, which belonged to members of the IRPT. The property of the party was also confiscated. More than 10 relatives of the party leader Mukhiddin Kabiri were detained, including his 95-year-old father Tillo Kabirov, who died in October 2016. After this, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed concern over the repressive policies of the Tajik government against the relatives of the leader of the IRPT.

State television and pro-governmental media call convicts “enemies of the Tajik people.” Due to the call of officers of the government, from time to time Tajik youth burn portraits of opposition leaders, throw stones at their homes, throw eggs at the relatives of convicted IRPT members. All this is reminiscent of the times of Stalin’s repression which were subjected not only to “enemies of the people” but also members of their families. Because of fear of physical violence and political repression, more than 1,500 IRPT activists and their family members left the country. On June 12, 2017, the IRPT political council made a statement from Germany expressing its outrage at the persecution of relatives of its activists in Tajikistan and urged the world community to intervene. But this is hardly affecting the government.

Thus, the President Emomali Rahmon skillfully used the threat of Islamic radicalism and the struggle with ISIS jihadists to eliminate the political opposition represented by the IRPT. In the absence of real political competition, the Head of the state strengthened his authoritarian power, appointed his son the mayor of the capital, daughter – the head of the presidential administration. The president decided to create the most comfortable conditions for the transfer of power by inheritance using a monarchical pattern of repressive methods not only against opponents but also their closest relatives.

No One Writes to the Colonel Halimov

Four brothers of the past commander of the Special Police Force of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan, Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, who joined ISIS militants in April 2015 due to religious belief, were killed. It is known that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi appointed him to the post of “Minister of Military Affairs” of the Islamic state. Because of his rich background he became the iconic agitational figure of the Caliphate, who several times urged Tajik migrants in Russia to join the jihad. He stated that they had become “slaves of the disbelievers “, instead of being “slaves of Allah”, after which he called his compatriots to go to Syria for war. At one time, the US State Department announced a $ 3 million reward for the information on the whereabouts of Halimov. On April 15, 2017 the British magazine “The Times” reported that the Tajik colonel was liquidated in consequence of the air strike in the west of Mosul, but so far there is no concrete confirmation of this.

On July 5, 2017 full blood brothers of the disgraced colonel Gulmorod, Sultonmurod Halimov and Fozil Halimov, and his nephew Afzal Abdurashidov and their close relative Naim Rahmonov were murdered by covert means of interior ministry member. They were buried by the relatives in Darai Foni village without washing and “Janoza” ceremony. Under Islamic canons the man who fought on Allah track and fell down on the battlefield is called “Shakhid”. So, shakhid will not be washed (do the ghusl) and buried in their clothes. Also three his brothers, Ali, Komil and Nazir, were arrested.

According to law enforcement authorities of Tajikistan, relatives of Halimov Gulmorod intended to cross the Tajik-Afghan border in the vicinity of Chubek village and join ISIS.  Allegedly on the Afghan side of the Pyanj River, the brothers and relatives of Colonel Halimov were awaited by Islamic state militants. But the probability of this version raises deep suspicions, as the authorities of the country have started using punitive technologies against the innocent relatives of Colonel Halimov.

For example, in June 2017, the Dushanbe City Court sentenced the son of a runaway colonel, Gulmurod Behrouz who had just graduated from school, to 10 years in prison. According to the investigation, the young man maintained contact with his father and wanted to flee to him who was in Syria. But at the trial which was held in closed mode, no evidence was given of his guilt. He himself declared his innocence. According to him, after his father’s escape, he had never contacted him, and he found out about his father’s fate from social media platforms. According to the statement of the first wife of the runaway colonel Nazokat Murodova, due to financial difficulties she could not hire a lawyer for her son. Her son did a small business to help his family financially, and now they are left without a breadwinner and live in the grip of poverty. She does not intend to appeal the verdict to a higher court, since she does not believe in the justice of the judges. She added that the authorities fulfilled the political order and made her son a victim in the fight against Islamic radicalism, although by the law her son should not be responsible for the actions of his father.

On July 4, 2017, the authorities of Tajikistan arrested another nephew of the “ISIS military minister”, F. Halimov who was extradited from Russia to Dushanbe. He is the son of one of the six brothers of the runaway colonel. He is accused of recruiting Tajik youth for jihad in Syria on the side of the Islamic state.

The analysis shows that the personal mistake of Colonel Gulmurod Halimov to join ISIS made a social outcast not only of his blood brothers and family members, but also of all fellow villagers in Darai Fony village in the south of Tajikistan, where he was born and raised. Today, all the power of the repressive apparatus of the state is directed against the inhabitants of this village. One of the residents of this village, on condition of anonymity, informed us that Stalin’s repression had returned to them, when the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs shot down “enemies of the people” without trial and investigation, and expelled members of their families to Siberia for hard labor.

ISIS is a convenient lever for the authorities of Central Asia in the fight against political opposition

Unfortunately, lawyers, local human rights organizations, the Human Rights Association in Central Asia and the regional offices of Human Rights Watch are forced to turn a blind eye to the obvious facts of human rights violations in lawsuits related to Islamic radicalism. Opposing the authorities may turn into accusations against them as ISIS extremists. Recently it happened, for example, the well-known Tajik lawyer Buzurgmekhr Yorov who defended the leaders of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, and himself was sentenced to 23 years imprisonment on October 6, 2016. He was found guilty of “fraud”, “a mass appeal for overthrowing the constitutional order”, “incitement of national or religious hatred.” The court also condemned for 21 years the lawyer Nuriddin Makhamov, who defended his colleague Buzurgmkhar Yorov. Thus, the authorities wanted to teach a lesson for all lawyers and human rights defenders who wanted to protect “Islamic radicals” in the future.

Recently, authoritarian rulers of the Central Asian states have successfully mastered a new trend, blaming all of their political opponents for links with the jihadists of the Islamic state. It turned out that this is a very convenient screen to justify its repressive actions. In the case of criticism by Western European countries, the United States and international organizations about human rights violations, democratic norms and censorship of freedom of speech, authoritarian leaders of Central Asia unanimously affirm that they are fighting ideological supporters of ISIS. Indeed, if the entire civilized world fights against Islamic extremism and international terrorism, the Western powers will not defend the one who is accused of having links with Islamists. Thus, the rulers of the five Central Asian republics have learned to benefit from the world struggle against religious extremism, through which they strengthen their power and pursue oppression against their political opposition.

In January 2017 one of the critics of the government of Kyrgyzstan, former parliamentary deputy Maksat Kunakunov was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with the confiscation of his personal property “for the attempted coup and the financing of the local cell of the international terrorist group ISIS”. Closer to the presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan which will be held in October 2017, the conveyor of political repression against opposition leaders has intensified. So, on April 17, 2017 Pervomaisky district court of Bishkek sentenced strong opponents of the president, opposition politicians Bektur Asanov, Kubanychbek Kadyrov, Ernest Karybekov and Dastan Sarygulov to 20 years imprisonment for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and to seize power.” The accused at the trial which was held in closed mode categorically rejected the accusations and said that the authorities pursued them for their opposition activities. Also, political repression touched prominent leader of the opposition Ata Meken party Tekebayev Omurbek and Sadyr Japarov, who were arrested on the eve of the presidential election. Today, the trial of them continues. But it is already clear that he cannot take part in the upcoming elections. Thus, President Almazbek Atambayev used the threat of Islamic radicalism for the repression of the political opposition and for the transfer of power to his successor the current Prime Minister, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

With the emergence of the so-called “Islamic state” in the Middle East and the activation of the Taliban militants, ISIS in Afghanistan, the political regimes of Central Asia have found a convenient political tool to influence public sentiments and to distract society from economic problems. As you can see by the analysis, the heads of the region through the threat of ISIS have been and are clearing the political field of opponents, pursue their opponents and strengthen their authoritarian regime. By the decision of improvised courts, the oppositionists easily turn political figures into criminals by accusing them of being ISIS supporters. The authorities are at work to further develop such methods that develop a negative attitude towards the opposition party in their society. The presidents of the five former republics of the Soviet empire whose population is Sunni Muslims, dream of having an opposition only characterized under the ISIS grouping, so that overseas society does not raise questions about their methods of fighting in order to continue “maintaining stability.”

But the authorities must understand that the constant accusation of the opposition in connection with Islamic radicals is beneficial, first of all, to local Wahhabis and Salafis who bear the idea of building a Caliphate in Central Asia. Supporters of Al Qaeda and ISIS will try to join their ranks at the expense of those who suffered from the repression of the authorities and the injustice of corrupt courts. The repression of the opposition gives additional radical arguments to the recruitment of new jihadists into the hands of radical Islamic groups. In order to successfully resist the ideology of radical Islamism, the authorities need to improve the social and economic conditions of the population, carry out radical reforms of the judicial branch of government and law enforcement agencies, and eradicate corruption in state structures.

moderndiplomacy

HRW: “Tajikistan: Stop Persecuting Opposition Families”

US, EU Should Urgently Address Retaliation.

(Bishkek) – Tajik authorities have detained, interrogated, and threatened relatives of 10 peaceful opposition activists who took part in a conference in Germany on July 9, 2017, in retaliation for the peaceful exercise of their fundamental rights, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today.

Activists provided details about 10 incidents in cities around the country that have been sanctioned by the Tajik government at the highest level. Tajik security services officers and local officials publicly shamed, banned from leaving the country, and threatened to confiscate the property of the activists’ relatives, and in one case threatened to rape an activist’s daughter.

“The Tajik government’s vicious campaign of intimidation against dissidents’ relatives is widening and becoming ever more brazen,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The simultaneous actions by security services and local officials across numerous cities suggest a policy of collective punishment sanctioned at the highest levels, which should end immediately.”

Hundreds of political activists, including several human rights lawyers, have been jailed in the widening crackdown on free expression, and opposition parties banned. The authorities are also violating the rights of family members who remain in the country, primarily relatives of members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and the opposition movement Group 24. National and local officials mobilize vigilante groups of “concerned citizens,” including school officials, who surround relatives’ homes and brand the families “enemies of the people.”

Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) chairman Muhiddin Kabiri addresses a conference attended by Tajikistani opposition activists in Dortmund, Germany on July 9, 2017.

 © 2017 IRPT

The latest string of attacks was retaliation against opposition activists who attended the July 9 conference in Dortmund, Germany, marking the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that formally ended Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. On July 10, Tajik media reported that a pro-government security analyst, Saifullo Safarov, deputy director of the Strategic Research Center of the Office of the President of Tajikistan, appeared on national television condemning the opposition activists who attended the Dortmund conference. He stated that their attempts to unite into a coordinated opposition movement posed a “serious threat” to Tajikistan’s national security.

Earlier incidents of retaliation occurred in September and December 2016, when activists abroad engaged in peaceful protests.

IRPT activists provided detailed accounts to Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee about violations against their families committed by authorities between July 7 and July 10 in the capital, Dushanbe, and seven other villages and cities across the country. In each case, security services officers explicitly linked their visits and abusive actions to the participation of the people’s relatives in a peaceful political conference in Dortmund, Germany.

The United States, the European Union and its member states, and other international partners should urgently address the growing pattern of retaliatory attacks in Tajikistan as part of the wider deteriorating human rights situation there and publicly condemn the abuses, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said. Washington, Brussels, and other actors should consider asset freezes and visa denials to Tajik officials and government entities that take part in these abuses.

“The catalogue of retaliatory abuse in Tajikistan simply for exercising freedom of expression is staggering,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “No one should be publicly shamed, pressured to divorce their spouse, or be threatened with having their child raped or property arbitrarily confiscated under any circumstances, let alone for the exercise of basic human rights.”

Dangara

On July 7, 2017, police and security services officers in Sebiston, a village in Tajikistan’s southern Dangara district, went to the home of the parents of Jannatulloh Komilov, an IRPT activist now based in Germany. The officers berated Komilov’s elderly mother, Saima Kulova, for her son’s opposition activities, and questioned and intimidated his brothers, Zubaidulloh and Ubaidulloh Komilov. The officials threatened to confiscate the family’s home and adjoining land unless Jannatulloh Komilov ceases his participation in opposition activities abroad. Two days later, officials returned, detaining Komilov’s father-in-law, Zubaidulloh Atovulloev, overnight.

Kulob

On July 7 and 8, several security service officers in the southern city of Kulob threatened the Turkey-based IRPT activist Bobojon Kayumov’s mother and father at their family home. The officers stated that unless Kayumov ended his opposition work and specifically refrained from participating in the Dortmund conference they would “demolish” the family’s home. The officers then forced the two to record a videotaped statement condemning their son’s activities. On July 9, officers detained Kayumov’s father, holding him at the Kulob city security services facility until nighttime, and repeatedly interrogated him.

Vahdat

Jamshed Yorov is a Germany-based lawyer and the brother of Buzurgmehr Yorov. a lawyer imprisoned in Tajikistan since September 2015. He is serving a 25-year sentence following a flawed trial on politically motivated charges after publicly announcing he would represent jailed IRPT members. Jamshed Yorov participated in the Dortmund conference and made a public statement on July 9.

The next day security services officers went to his family’s home in Vahdat, Tajikistan, and told Yorov’s wife, Dilbar Zuhurova, that she and her children were barred from leaving Tajikistan and would be imprisoned if they tried to leave. Yorov told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that officers pressured Zuhurova to divorce him, promising to supply her with food and money if she agrees. They also threatened to rape Jamshed’s 15-year-old daughter.

Pandovchi Sari dasht Village, Nurobod District

On July 8, security service officers detained Asomuddin Saidov, father of Poland-based IRPT activist Islomiddin Saidov, in the village of Pandowchi Sari dasht in Tajikistan’s central Nurobod district. The officers took the father to the Dushanbe security services detention facility for interrogation. They showed Saidov pictures of his son taking part in peaceful demonstrations in Warsaw in September 2016 and threatened to take “necessary actions” against his son if he would not cease his political activism. The officers also visited Islomiddin’s sister’s home in Dushanbe seeking to interrogate her.

On July 9 and 10, Pandowchi Sari dasht village officials summoned the father in front of a group of “concerned citizens” while officials and others denounced his son and the entire family for their “treacherous” political activities against the government. Officials and other people publicly shamed Saidov and exhorted him to bring his son back to Tajikistan to face justice.

Pakhtakor Village, Jayhun Village Council, Khatlon Region

On July 8, security service officers in the village of Pakhtakor in Tajikistan’s southern Khatlon region visited the home of Abdumuslim Rustamov, brother of IRPT activist Iftikhor Rustamov, as well as the separate homes of Iftikhor’s sisters Sabohat Khodjaeva and Zarnigor Rustamova, interrogating them about Rustamov’s political activities. They threatened further problems if he continues his opposition political activity.

On July 11, security service officers in the same village took Masnavikhon Faizrahmonova, the mother of the Austria-based IRPT activist and spokesman Mahmudjon Faizrahmonov, to the local security services building to be interrogated about her son’s activities. The authorities held a public meeting where various village residents condemned Faizrahmonov and his brothers for their political activities. Faizrahmonov told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that the community had ostracized his family and that his mother’s health markedly deteriorated following the public shaming.

Khujand

On July 7 security service officers in the northern city of Khujand summoned relatives of IRPT activist Ilhomjon Yakubov to their facility, where the officers interrogated them for hours about his activities and threatened them with further unspecified “consequences” if he continues his political activism.

Rudaki

On July 8, authorities in the Rudaki district went to the home of Muhammadi Teshaev, the former head of the IRPT’s chapter in this area. They interrogated his family members and threatened to confiscate their house if Teshaev does not stop his political work.

Dushanbe

Before the Dortmund conference, security service officers in Dushanbe went to the family home of Poland-based IRPT activist Gulbarg Saifova, a relative of the exiled IRPT chairman Muhiddin Kabiri, who is also based in Europe. Officers forced Saifova’s parents to videotape a recording denouncing Saifova’s and Kabiri’s activities. Saifova ran for parliament in the March 2015 elections but was forced to flee the country and seek refuge in Poland due to persecution for her association with the IRPT.

On July 7, police in Dushanbe’s Firdavsi district visited the home of Europe-based IRPT activists Mijgona and Sayriniso Amonova and interrogated their father. Police officers called the women “traitors” and pressured their father to seek their return to Tajikistan so they could ask forgiveness of President Emomali Rahmon.

 

Human Rights Watch

July 18, 2017

Opendemocracy: “Tajikistan: so close, no matter how far”

From humanitarian aid to desperate refugees, Tajikistan and Europe are more closely connected than you might think. How will international organisations react as Emomali Rahmon’s regime entrenches itself further? RU

 

 

My country is a small, mountainous place on the southern fringe of Central Asia, sharing a 1,400 km long border with restive Afghanistan. Europeans generally know little about where I come from, although it’s regularly received financial and technical assistance from the European Union over 25 years of independence.

I’m talking about Tajikistan, a faraway partner to the west. In my last essay, I told the story of Tajikistan’s brutal, and often forgotten, civil war, which tore our country apart from 1992 to 1997. It led to mass civilian casualties, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to neighbouring states, and finally the peace accords of 1997, which are now being violated by the regime of president-for-life Emomali Rahmon.

The civil war, alongside the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan by the late 1990s, led to close ties between Tajikistan and various European institutions. Tajikistan is the poorest of all the former Soviet states; according to the World Bank, its GDP per capita last year was a mere $1,022 (£790). Overall, the amount of aid transferred to the country by western organisations over the last 20 years could be as high as €1.5 billion.

The political motivations for European aid to Tajikistan vary: from preventing a post-conflict humanitarian catastrophe to guaranteeing European security in a state that neighbours Afghanistan.

Since 2004, the Tajik capital of Dushanbe has hosted a representative office of the European Commission (which since 2009 has functioned as a plenipotentiary of the European Parliament), dozens of embassies of European states, together with representative offices of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Recent years have seen the introduction and implementation of a multi-year indicative programme for 2014-2020, under the auspices of which the EU has allocated some €251m to Tajikistan. At the same time, the trade turnover between the EU and Tajikistan is now two times lower than it once was. Why does Europe need this distant partner — seemingly so close, yet so far away?

In the name of security

The presence of European institutions in Tajikistan can of course be explained through the prism of security. That’s why the largest OSCE mission in Central Asia is based there, with five field offices and over 200 employees. From the very beginning, officials in Dushanbe were very pleased with this European presence — it helped legitimise a weak government, indirectly helped attract wider financial, humanitarian and technical support, and also allowed the Tajik authorities to manoeuvre between the biggest players in the region: China, Russia, the US, Iran and Uzbekistan.

Relations between the EU and Tajikistan are troubled. Our state media have started openly accusing the EU and OSCE of supporting the opposition

By 2010, these economic and political ties culminated in the ratification of the Agreement on Partnership and Cooperation between the EU and Tajikistan, which had been prepared for as early as 2004. In 2011, Tajikistan received its first credit from the European Investment Bank, and the following year European institutions aided Tajikistan’s entry into the World Trade Organisation. Dushanbe also received the right to export goods to EU member states with lower tariffs and and import duties.

A government armoured column during Tajikistan’s bloody 1992-1997 civil war between supporters of the central authorities and the United Tajik Opposition. Photo (c): R. Mangasaryan / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

But in 2012, the Tajik authorities felt strong enough to start sweeping competitors out of the political arena. Opposition parties, independent media outlets, human rights activists, lawyers and civil society actors were all punished for “disloyalty”. The partnership which with western organisations was now on shakier ground.

State media have started openly accusing the EU and OSCE of supporting the opposition. Negotiations on extending the OSCE’s mandate in the country beyond 2017 did not go smoothly, and it soon became crystal clear exactly what Tajikistan’s authoritarian leader wanted in return.

An unavoidable ultimatum

From the end of 2016 until spring this year, the OSCE’s office in Dushanbe awaited a decision on the continuation of its work in Tajikistan. In early March, the Tajik authorities gave the green light on extending the mandate — but only for six months. At the same time, there were already rumours afoot that the eventual downgrading of the OSCE mission in Tajikistan was being discussed in government circles in Dushanbe.

The decision in March was taken unilaterally by Tajikistan’s 65-year old president Emomali Rahmon, a former collective farm chairman who has ruled the country for 24 years. Ironically, Rahmon benefited the most from the presence of the OSCE and other European organisations in the country — they helped broker the 1997 peace accords which kept him in power after the civil war. The outbreak of peace helped Rahmon cement power, instituting a cult of personality and dictatorial regime on a nearly North Korean scale, ruthlessly crushing any sign of dissent.

This is Rahmon’s ultimatum — he is prepared to work closely with the EU and other European institutions in exchange for refusing to protect basic human rights and liberties

President Rahmon and his security services, which have also received financial and technical assistance from the west, staged a protest on 19 May last year outside the EU’s representative office in Dushanbe. That same autumn, more aggressive protests occurred outside the embassies of a number of European countries. For example, in September 2016, a group of “outraged young people” burnt portraits of Tajik opposition leaders outside the gates of the OSCEin the capital. They then attempted to break into the compound (Russian link).

Emomali Rahmon and Catherine Ashton, the European Commission’s high commissioner for foreign affairs meet in Dushanbe, 2012. Photo CC: European External Action Service / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Then, in October 2016, the public council of Tajikistan’s presidential administration spoke out, in finest Soviet tradition, “in the names of and on the request of” 60 civic organisations, issuing a “condemnation of the OSCE’s activities.” The declaration was signed by representatives of six pro-government puppet parties, all of whom had taken part in programmes run and financed by the OSCE’s social partnership.

As the declaration makes clear, the Tajik authorities were enraged by the presence of Tajik human rights defenders, journalists and refugees at the OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting held in Warsaw in September 2016. Among their number were several relatives of political prisoners behind bars in Tajikistan. Little wonder that Dushanbe then refused to take part in the OSCE’s regional conference on criminal justice several weeks later.

These events reflect Rahmon’s ultimatum — he is prepared to work closely with the EU and other European institutions in exchange for refusing to protect basic human rights and liberties. He’ll accept financing for reforms, without guaranteeing to carry them out. This is all despite the fact that the activities of the EU’s representative office in Tajikistan are based on the 2015-2019 action plan for supporting human rights and democracy, 2012’s EU strategic framework on human rights and democracy, and the EU-Central Asia strategy for a new partnership. And as Tajikistan’s government violates the human rights of its citizens with abandon, the EU now faces the challenge of defending them within its own borders.

New refugees

In recent years, Tajiks fleeing persecution have started to seek safety in EU member states. Although they are many in asylum seekers’ camps in Austria, German, and Poland, their stories rarely make it into the European press, eternally indignant about the “tide of migrants”. No official Europe-wide statistics on their numbers exist, but there are national data. Poland alone recorded around 1,300 Tajik refugees in the country in 2016 alone. Various estimates place their number across Europe at between three and five thousand.

Activists of Tajikistan’s outlawed Islamic Renaissance Party believe that roughly the same number are spread throughout Belarus, Turkey and Ukraine. Due to the significant number of Tajik labour migrants in Russia (who number anywhere from 800,000 to 1.5 million), nobody knows how many political refugees may be living there, though it is hardly a safe destination for them. Their road to the EU, and to safety, lies through Belarus.

For several years now Tajik dissidents have been fleeing west, seeking security in the EU. This small but steady flow won’t stop any time soon

The authorities in Tajikistan had started attacking dissidents and oppositionists in earnest in 2003-2005, to the deafening silence of European institutions. Few Europeans paid attention to the arrest of former interior minister of Tajikistan and founder of the Republican Party, Yaqub Salimov, in Moscow in 2003 at the request of the Tajik authorities. Two years later, when the exiled chairman of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan was kidnapped in Moscow and sent back to Dushanbe, the international community was also silent.

Just before presidential elections in 2006, European institutions confined their criticisms to voicing concern about the closure of opposition publications such as Ruzi NavOdamu Olam, and Nerui Sukhan. These declarations, as well as a demand of the European Court of Human Rights to “restore justice” to Tajikistan’s media landscape, were ignored by the authorities.

Tajik opposition activists protest against political repression in their homeland outside the OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Summit in Warsaw, 2016. Photo: Group24. All rights reserved.

This situation repeated on the eve of presidential elections in 2013. Constitutional amendments made in 2003, opposed by Salimov and Iskandarov, allowed Rahmon to run as a candidate (of course, he won). Attempts by the famous dissident and journalist Dodojon Atovulloyev to unite oppositionists behind one candidate during these elections resulted in an attempt on his life in Moscow in January 2012. Atovulloyev miraculously survived and fled to Germany.

This relentless campaign against the opposition culminated in the banning of the country’s most potent opposition force, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), in 2015. A leak recently emerged on the Russian-language internet of an allegedly official document known as Protocol 32/20, which mandates Tajikistan’s security services to destroy all remnants of the party (Russian link). Although the authorities have refused to acknowledge the existence of the protocol, state television continues to present the ban against the IRPT as necessary, accusing the party of “threatening peace.”

Tajikistan’s state media have also broadcast a number of secretly-recorded pornographic videos featuring spiritual leaders denounced by the authorities as Islamists and members of the IRPT. In a sarcastic nod to the party, the series has been named “Nuri Nahzat” (“light of the renaissance” in Tajik). Neither the interior ministry nor the state committee for national security have denied nor even hidden their involvement in producing these video clips.

On 24 June 2012, a riot broke out involving high-ranking, criminal officials of the security services in Khorog, the capital of the mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region in the east of the country. In response, the army launched an assault on the town in an apparent attempt to get rid of the region’s remaining opposition leaders. Locals took up arms in response, and it was only after the intervention of the Aga Khan (the spiritual leader of the Shi’a Isma’ilis, the confessional group to which many in Badakhshan belong) that the bloodshed ended.

Imumnazar Imumnazarov, a disabled local opposition leader, was killed in his own home, as were several civilians. It later transpired, during the presentation of the report on Tajikistan before the UN’s committee for human rights, that 23 civilians were killed during the assault on Khorog, alongside 18 soldiers and state employees. Experts described the events as an act of intimidation against the disgruntled civilian population (Russian links).

The arrests continued. In May 2013, chairman of the New Tajikistan Party, Zaid Saidov, was arrested and sentenced to 26 years’ imprisonment, being suspected of presidential ambitions. Local media believed all the charges against him to be falsified (Tajik link). Meanwhile, the leader of the Group 24 opposition force Umarali Quvvatov was labelled “insane” by the authorities, who urged Interpol to issue a warrant for his arrest. In March 2015, Quvvatov was shot dead in the streets of Istanbul in front of his wife and children. The murder was never solved.

An activist from Group 24 gives a speech on camera beside the grave of the movement’s assassinated leader Umarali Kuvvatov in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo CC: YouTube / Group24. Some rights reserved.

The IRPT continues to suffer. From September to October 2015, some 12 members of its political council were handed long jail sentences (two were imprisoned for life). The party’s leader Muhiddin Kabiri fled to the EU, where he received political asylum. Even lawyers have faced repercussions for working with victims of political persecution; among them Buzurgmekhr Yorov, who defended imprisoned IRPT party members and their relatives. The lawyer was sentenced to 25 years behind bars on trumped-up charges.

The prospect of abduction and disappearance haunt political exiles from Tajikistan. An activist for the Youth for the Rebirth of Tajikistan movement, Maksud Ibragimov, was abducted in Russia and sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment upon his forced repatriation to Tajikistan. The fate of the young opposition activist and blogger Ehson Odinayev, who disappeared in St Petersburg in 2015, remains a mystery (Russian link).

The authorities’ new approach to troublesome dissidents who have done a runner is now to target their families in Tajikistan

Tajikistan’s regime has started blocking local and international websites, at times including YouTube and Facebook. Last November saw the closure of the independent information agency TojNews, as well as the independent newspapers Ozodagon and Nigoh. According to Reporters without Borders, the Tajik government took five steps in 2016 alone explicitly aimed at restricting freedom of speech in the country.

And even those who do get away may have put their relatives in danger. Many human rights activists stress that the authorities’ new approach to troublesome dissidents who have done a runner is to target their families in Tajikistan. This includes attacks against their homes, as well as discrimination in allocating housing, at study and at work. These events compelled the European Parliament to pass a resolution “on the situation of prisoners of conscience in Tajikistan” on 9 June 2016.

The dear leader and his dear successor

After 25 years of Emomali Rahmon’s rule, over 2.5m of the 8.5m-strong population live below the poverty line, and 1.5m of the 3.9m economically active Tajiks are labour migrants in Russia or Kazakhstan, where they do not enjoy basic rights. Until recently, remittances from this group constituted up to 46% of Tajikistan’s entire GNP.

Other sectors of the country’s economy, from metallurgy to mining, transport to energy infrastructure and cotton to the banking sector, either directly belong to Rahmon or are controlled by his close allies and family members. Tajikistan’s public services are, relative to income, some of the most expensive in the world — getting accredited for a driving licence alone costs €80.

Politics are even bleaker. It’s generally accepted that Tajikistan has not held elections which meet international standards of transparency since 1994. There is no freedom of speech nor assembly. Independent media are suppressed, if not entirely liquidated, and human rights advocacy amounts to treason. Criticism or any “disrespect” towards the Leader of the Nation can land you with a five-year jail sentence.

Products for sale at Dushanbe’s Green Market, 2013. Photo (c): Alexey Kudenko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

Amidst all this, Emomali Rahmon passed amendments to the constitution last May which enable him to run for as many presidential terms as he pleases. These changes also allow his older son, 29 year-old Rustami Emomali, who holds the rank of general but has not served a day in uniform, to run for president in 2018. The president’s son has already held two ministerial positions – chairman of the state committee on customs and, ludicrously, director of Tajikistan’s anti-corruption agency. More recently, Rahmon nominated his son as mayor of Dushanbe, dismissing his long-time ally Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloyev.

Constitutional amendments also guarantee immunity to Rahmon and all the members of his extended family, from his seven daughters and their husbands (and their parents) to his two sons and brother Nuriddin Rahmonov. “The family” or “Oila” as they are known in Tajik, control every sphere of Tajikistan’s economy and hold the highest political posts.

Authoritarian regimes in Central Asia are not isolated Khanates, but are deeply integrated into international legal and financial systems

Many commentators in the west portray authoritarian regimes in Central Asia as isolated Khanates, repressive and insular by virtue of their supposed isolation from the modern world. Yet dictators and those near and dear to them have long used European financial and judicial systems to entrench their positions at home and access institutes and influential networks abroad, providing them with both international legal recourse and symbolic capital.

The “Oila” is no exception. Rahmon and the system he has built is an inextricable part of the relations between Tajikistan and EU member states. With that in mind, what more can we wish from Europe?

Perhaps, all we can do is wish European partners better luck, and a better relationship, in working with Tajikistan’s next Dear Leader, representing a bright new generation of autocrats in Dushanbe.

opendemocracy

BAKHTIYOR SOBIRI 

7 July 2017