Category Archives: In-Depth

What “Britannica” says about IRPT and dictator Rahmon

What Britannica says about IRPT and dictator Rahmon

After his electoral victory in 1999, Rahmonov sought to establish the authority of the central government throughout Tajikistan, arresting some regional warlords and carrying out a campaign to disarm non-state militias. He also began what many observers saw as a drift toward authoritarianism, using the presidency to increase his personal power and steer the country away from the political pluralism called for by the 1997 peace agreement. The U.S.-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 provided Rahmonov with a favourable climate for a crackdown against the Islamic opposition in Tajikistan. He accused the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT)—which under the peace agreement was one of the opposition groups entitled to a percentage of government posts—of extremism and began dismissing members of the party from their official positions. The party itself, however, remained legal in Tajikistan. Meanwhile, Rahmonov began to install his extended family and personal associates in dominant roles in politics and business in Tajikistan.

In 2003 Rahmonov’s position was strengthened when voters approved a referendum on a package of constitutional amendments that Rahmonov had requested as necessary to modernize the country. These included an amendment loosening presidential term limits, which made it possible for Rahmonov to hold the presidency until 2020.

The suppression of opposition parties and the muzzling of independent media intensified in the run-up to the legislative elections held in February 2005. Independent newspapers were closed, and opposition parties reported that local election boards had refused to place many of their candidates on the ballot. The final result was a lopsided victory for Rahmonov’s People’s Democratic Party, which won 52 of the 63 seats in the Assembly of Representatives.

Rahmonov himself was easily elected to another seven-year term as president with nearly 80 percent of the vote in November 2006. The IRPT, the largest opposition party, had not to fielded a presidential candidate after longtime party head Said Abdullo Nuri died earlier in year. Several other opposition parties nominated candidates, but the parties were too small and poorly known to pose a threat to Rahmonov.

In March 2007 Rahmonov dropped the Russian suffix (-ov) from his surname as an acknowledgment of Tajik identity. The change initiated a trend of “Tajikization” of surnames that was followed by many senior members of the government.

Rahmon won another term as president on November 6, 2013. A coalition of opposition parties and groups, including the IRPT, had attempted to nominate a candidate, but harassment by the authorities prevented her name from reaching the ballot. Five other parties were able to get their candidates on the ballot, but none were well-known enough to receive significant support.

In September 2015 the government banned the IRPT—until then the only legal Islamist party in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia—and placed it on a list of extremist and terrorist organizations. Several of the party’s leaders were later charged with having orchestrated a coup attempt in 2015 and were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2016 in a case that IRPT supporters and human rights groups denounced as politically motivated.

In May 2016 voters in Tajikistan approved a referendum on a package of constitutional changes that included lifting term limits for President Rahmon and lowering the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30. The amendments further strengthened the Rahmon family’s already tight grip on power; the amendment concerning presidential term limits had been written to apply only to Rahmon, based on his special status as “Leader of the Nation” granted by the Assembly of Representatives in 2015, and the amendment concerning the age of presidential candidates was widely seen as a way to clear a path to the presidency for Rahmon’s son Rustam, who would be in his early thirties at the time of the 2020 presidential election. Another amendment in the referendum banned all political parties based on religion.

Britannica

https://www.britannica.com/place/Tajikistan

“Czech Bonanza of Amonullo Hukumov, Ex-Tajik Railways Chief”- OCCRP

Amonullo Hukumov, the former head of Tajik Railways, has told the media that neither he nor his wife own any real estate abroad. But records obtained by OCCRP show that his family has spent over $10.6 million on luxury real estate in two of the Czech Republic’s most popular tourist destinations. The hefty price tag raises questions about the source of the family’s wealth.

Neither scandals nor forced retirement have slowed down the Hukumov family’s real estate purchases.

The wife and children of Amonullo Hukumov, once the powerful head of Tajik Railways, own six properties in Karlovy Vary and Marianske Lazne, Czech resort towns known since the Soviet era as exclusive vacation spots for the elite.

Since buying their first property in December 2012, the Hukumovs have spent about US$ 10.6 million on two houses and four other buildings, including apartment and rental properties, according to sales contracts obtained by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The family’s only other known foreign property is a Moscow apartment valued at $1.1 million.

Hukumov, 66, who also goes by the Tajik version of his family name Hukumatullo, retired from his position in February 2014, following controversy surrounding the arrest of one son for trafficking heroin and a speeding accident involving the second son that resulted in the death of others.

He has denied that he or his wife own properties in the Czech Republic, and their ability to acquire such impressive assets is hard to explain, given Hukumov’s role as a public official. According to governmental sources, state officials generally do not earn more than 5,000 Somoni ($625) per month.

His wife, Amina Musaeva, 57, owns a company that distributes Russian weapons and a construction service company in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, but little else is known about either of her businesses.

In June 2016, Hukumov denied that he or his wife own any real estate in Karlovy Vary.

“I’m not in the Czech Republic … I’m in Tajikistan”, he said in an interview with Radio Ozodi, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik Service.

The building on the hill above the downtown of Karlovy Vary bought by Amonullo Hukumov’s family in 2015.
Credit: Pavla Holcova
Hukumov’s Rise

Hukumov’s political career began in 1995, a few years after President Emomali Rahmon came to power. Hukumov is variously referred to in Tajik media as either a relative of Rahmon, or a family friend or close friend to the President but OCCRP could not confirm. He became a member of parliament and the later head of Naftrason, a state owned oil import company. In 2002, he was appointed head of the Tajik Railways. He received a disability pension from the state after his resignation claiming he suffered from diabetes.

While the salary of Tajikistani public officials is not considered public information, the size of Hukumov’s pension became household gossip in the country in early 2015, when President Rahmon criticized inflated disability pensions received by some disabled state officials.

As it turned out, Hukumov was receiving some of the highest pensions in the country – 8,400 Tajik Somoni ($1,200) per month, or more than 37 times higher than the country’s average pension.

During Hukumov’s reign as head of the railroad, it was well known as a major drug smuggling conduit for heroin travelling from Afghanistan to Russia according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In 2010 and 2011, more than 500 kilograms of heroin and other opiates were been found on trains originating in Tajikistan. A number of railroad employees have been arrested starting in the 1990s.

Representatives of the Hukumov family declined to comment for this story.

From Moscow Prison to Czech Luxury

The Hukumov family’s shopping spree for Czech property began in December 2012 with the purchase of a two-story house in a residential neighborhood of Marianske Lazne, a picturesque spa city in West Bohemia, surrounded by mountain forests, mineral springs, and green parks.

His son Rustam bought the house, which includes a private swimming pool, an outdoor fireplace, a garage, a garden house, and a large backyard for €440,000 ($572,000).

No one was home when reporters visited the house this past summer. There was no name on the doorbell or mailbox, no car parked outside, and the venetian blinds were shut. But the lawn was freshly cut and the roses well-tended.

Living in a luxurious home in a Bohemian spa town would have been a stark contrast for Rustam from his previous year which he served in a high security prison in Russia for the illegal sale of drugs.

Rustam was arrested with three others in June 2008 and charged with attempting to sell 9.3 kilograms of heroin in Moscow. Two years later, he was sentenced to nine years and six months in prison and fined 250,000 rubles (almost $8,100 at the time).

Rustam was found guilty of being one of two organizers of a criminal group. The court found that he had provided the group with mobile communications and transportation.

A higher court confirmed his verdict in December 2010. But a year later, the verdict was unexpectedly reversed and he was set free. According to RosPravosudiye, the Russian registry of court cases, the cases against his accomplices were not reconsidered.

Hukumov’s acquittal mirrored a similar decision made in Tajikistan at around the same time. One month prior, a Tajikistani court freed a Russian and Estonian pilot who had been sentenced to eight-and-a-half-years in prison for smuggling and illegally entering the country. Tajikistani and Russian media speculated that the two countries had traded the criminals, though the Russian Foreign Ministry denied any links between the two cases.

The Hukumov’s house in Marianske Lazne was not the first property the family bought abroad. Two years before Rustam’s arrest in Russia, in May 2006, they bought a 100-square-meter apartment in a new building near a massive Soviet-built exhibition center in northern Moscow. Rustam was registered as the owner.

In December 2009, a year and a half after his arrest, Rustam sold the apartment, worth 34 million rubles ($1.1 million at the time) to his sister Zarrina.

The family’s main house in the Czech Republic sits in a large garden in Olsova Vrata, a district on the outskirts of the spa town of Karlovy Vary. The house is located near an airport with scheduled flights to Moscow. A statue of Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut and the first man in space, greets visitors in the parking lot.

The main house of Amonullo Hukumov’s family located in the outskirts of Karlovy Vary bought by Amina Musaeva in 2013 for $1.1 million.Credit: Pavla Holcova

The house was bought by Hukumov’s wife Amina in April 2013 for $1.1 million. It came fully equipped with antique furniture, gold framed paintings, a porcelain statue, curtains brought from Italy and surveillance cameras.

When OCCRP reporters visited the property, it was not being use, and the mailbox was full of advertisements.

Neighbor said the family is not permanently living here. “I barely know them, I am not even sure, what is their name. I only have their phone number for cases something would happen.”

Amina bought the house at a what was likely a stressful time in her life.

In October 2013, her son Rasul, who was 16 at the time, caused a car accident in Dushanbe while driving his BMW without a driver’s license, which left three people dead and three injured. The police initially claimed that he had been speeding and had caused the accident. Nine months later, however, the police changed their mind, saying that, after conducting seven expert examinations of the accident, they had found Rasul innocent.

Instead, his parents were charged with a “lack of responsibility in upbringing and teaching of children.” The mother was ultimately found guilty of negligence in fulfillment of her duties of raising underage children for letting her son outside the home at night and unchaperoned at 2:30 am, when the accident took place. The court in Dushanbe found her guilty and fined her 120 Tajik Somoni ($25 at the time).

Millions in Retirement

Not long after Amonullo Hukumov’s retirement from the railroad following his sons’ scandals, the family bought a historical building located directly in the heart of the world-famous spa town of Karlovy Vary, on the iconic Hot Spring Colonnade on the banks of the river Tepla.

The Colonnade, one of five in the city, is a famous tourist attraction where hundreds of visitors come daily to enjoy the alleged curative benefits of the 15 mineral springs Karlovy Vary is well known for.

His wife Amina bought the building in May 2014 for 88 million CZK ($4.4 million).

The five-story building with 10 apartments is rented by the EA Hotel Esplanade, a hotel operated by the EuroAgentur Hotels & Travel, which claims to be the Czech Republic’s largest hotel company.

The Hukumov family also bought another building on the slope above the center of Karlovy Vary in May 2015 for 4.5 million CZK ($184,000).

The building was renovated and features a bright yellow facade, newly painted windows and walls.

Almost two years ago, the Hukumov family bought two additional properties in Karlovy Vary. In March 2016, Amina bought two buildings in the business district of Karlovy Vary for €4 million (at the time $4.3 million). The two ornate five-story buildings were built in a neoclassic style and decorated with floral reliefs, balconies and columns.

Two decades ago, one of the buildings was used as a bank, according to the receptionist. These days, the offices are rented to attorneys, a furniture shop, a plastic surgery clinic, and a fertility clinic with its own operating theaters and inpatient department.

In July of 2016, Amina gave the building to her daughter Zarrina, but with a clause that read: “The recipient is aware of the fact that the donor can appeal (the donation) in case of need or in case of ingratitude.”

In June 2013, Hukumov’s wife Amina established a real estate business in the Czech Republic. Originally, it was called MUS.AMINA and later renamed to Goldpari s.r.o.

Since its establishment, the company has seemed to have been used to buy three cars – a SUV Skoda Yeti for $19,000, a Ford Raptor for $32,000 and a Bentley for $116,000. The annual report for 2016 shows that Amina loaned 15.5 million CZK ($600,000) to the company. In 2014, she transferred 50 percent of the company to her daughter Zarrina.

It is not known how much the family is now earning from the rent on their properties.

OCCRP
by Pavla Holcova, Vlad Lavrov and OCCRP Tajikistan

04.01.2018

Additional reporting by Olesya Shmagun.

Crisisgroup: “The Rising Risks of Misrule in Tajikistan

1`With his seven-year term set to end in 2020, uncertainty is growing over whether Tajikistan’s long-time ruler President Rahmon will handpick a successor or continue his reign. Growing troubles at home and abroad ensure both scenarios are fraught with risk and must be managed prudently, lest the country become another source of regional disorder.

I.Overview

Tajikistan’s 25 years as an independent state have been marred by poverty, endemic state corruption and the steady narrowing of political power to a single family. Its patriarch is President Emomali Rahmon, 64, who has ruled the country since 1992 through a carefully calibrated system of patronage and brutality. With Rahmon’s current seven-year term set to end in 2020, many observers believe he is now planning to hand over power to a close family member, probably his eldest son, Rustam, 29. This transition plan is fraught with risk, however, and will play out in a country riven by internal frailties and external vulnerabilities. The outside world has few levers in this Central Asian state of 8.7 million people. But its pivotal position in Central Asia, where it borders on both Afghanistan and China, should prompt external actors, especially Russia, to engage as far as possible to avoid a new source of regional disorder.

Over the past two years, President Rahmon has cleared the political space, removing any group or individual, ally or adversary he considered a potential threat. This provides him with a powerful argument against any international or domestic political actor tempted to call for change. Other than the president and his family, there are no organised, functional political forces left. It is his regime or nothing, with even parts of his own traditional powerbase increasingly marginalised. The resentment this produces could lead to a destabilising and potentially violent internal backlash. The fallout likely would be felt throughout Central Asia.

The international community has few options. Central Asian neighbours, including Russia and China, should focus on securing the vulnerable Tajik-Afghan border and China in particular should take steps to help revive Dushanbe’s failing economy. The European Union (EU), an important donor to Tajikistan, should push for an orderly transition even if devoid of democratic credibility. In taking these steps, all parties need to bear in mind the one overriding factor that constrains their influence: for now, Rahmon’s own personal interests dominate the country’s agenda.

II.Internal Uncertainties

A.Family Feuds

A key question for Tajikistan today is whether President Rahmon will forego power in 2020 and, if he does, whom he will choose as a successor. Rahmon, still relatively young at 64, is putting a transition plan in motion, if not for 2020 then later. Constitutional amendments passed in 2016, particularly one that lowers the president’s minimum age, suggest Rahmon’s son Rustam is the favourite. Rahmon has been pushing Rustam into high-profile, powerful posts, such as that of mayor in the capital city of Dushanbe. If Rustam joins the senate as its chairman after he turns 30 in December 2017, as analysts and media have speculated, he could become president should his father die or became incapacitated.

This scenario is far from certain, however. Rustam faces internal competition and is hampered by his own lack of skill as a government administrator and manager of patronage networks. But he has consolidated informal power over the security services, which ultimately will be the decision-makers in the event of a contested succession.Moreover, although Western observers and members of the urban intelligentsia often describe Rustam as reckless, aggressive and lacking leadership qualities, the pool of potential successors is small.

 [A]lthough Western observers and members of the urban intelligentsia often describe Rustam as reckless, aggressive and lacking leadership qualities, the pool of potential successors is small. 

That pool consists of family members. Media speculation focuses on internal rivalries, mentioning Rustam’s sister Ozoda, 39, who runs the presidential administration and is reputed to be competent. She and her banker-businessman husband Jamollidin Nuraliyev at times are mentioned as a possible power couple, though Tajikistan’s patriarchal society works against her. Conflicts involving members of the extended family and could also trigger instability in the context of a succession. Rustam has struggled with his uncle (the president’s brother-in-law) Hasan Asadullozoda for control of revenues from the Tajik Aluminium Company (Talco), which provides up to 70 per cent of the Tajikistan’s foreign currency earnings. Other family members feature in local conflicts over state resources. Without careful management, these internal family feuds could be destabilising, especially at a time of uncertainty over the presidency’s future.

B.Local Rivalries

The president’s regional power base is showing signs of disaffection. President Rahmon’s winning faction during the civil war (1992-1997) was based in Kulob, part of the cotton-growing area of Khatlon, on the country’s southern border with Afghanistan. Kulobis consequently dominate the most lucrative businesses and hold the most important positions in security structures, at the expense of those from other regions who feel they occupy subservient positions. That circle of power has narrowed, however, as money and resources have dwindled. The effect has been to sharpen fault lines among Kulobis, undermining the political unity that had allowed them to prevail. For example, Kulobis from other parts of Khatlon are losing out to Kulobis from Rahmon’s hometown, Danghara. This is feeding anger among many previously loyal supporters, who may not need much persuasion to take a stronger stance against the Rahmon clan.

 The trouble brewing in Rahmon’s loyalist heartland is a bellwether for ten-sions in Tajikistan’s politically peripheral regions. 

The trouble brewing in Rahmon’s loyalist heartland is a bellwether for tensions in Tajikistan’s politically peripheral regions. Any perception that President Rahmon’s power is about to weaken could tempt areas suspicious of Dushanbe’s central power – such as the eastern area of Rasht and the mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) – to take further steps toward autonomy. Rasht has long been known for its distrust of Dushanbe’s authority. Former United Tajik Opposition (UTO) members there have used force to retaliate against efforts by Dushanbe to enforce its writ, leading to killings of Tajik security and military forces. In GBAO, too, infringements on local autonomy resulted in bloody flare-ups in 2012 and 2014.

Clashes in both Rasht and GBAO have embarrassed Rahmon, demonstrating the limits of his power. His response to the unrest in both regions was to cut deals and co-opt leaders by granting access to resources and other forms of patronage. Given Tajikistan’s weak finances, this is far from sustainable. Moreover, Rahmon’s successor may not have the skills required to navigate a fraught political environment.

C.Economic Troubles

Tajikistan’s systemic economic problems are part of the reason government resources are shrinking. Many sectors are suffering: confidence is low in Tajikistan’s currency; remittances from Russia decreased in 2016; the real-estate market is crashing; and half of all bank loans are non-performing. The Tajik government this year issued high-yield bonds to raise revenue, which has allowed them to avoid working with international financial institution or donors who ask for reforms.

The government points to the Russian economic crisis as the primary cause of its woes, but fiscal mismanagement and predatory economic policies have also played a significant role over the past decade. Diplomats say the lack of accountability remains a major hurdle for international financial support. In 2016, the Tajik government declined an offer of up to $200 million in the form of grants and loans from the World Bank, because of the pre-conditions attached, which involved reform of the banking sector, currently largely controlled by Rahmon family members and associates. Nor did the EU or International Monetary Fund (IMF) provide financial support to the Tajik budget in 2016. Tajikistan’s successful foray into the bond market arguably has weakened the leverage of donors seeking to impose political conditionality on aid and loans.

The public bears the brunt of these persistent economic difficulties. A third of Tajikistan’s population is undernourished and malnutrition is the underlying cause of about one third of child deaths, a higher proportion than in any of the other former Soviet republics. But the economic crisis also affects the corruption and patronage networks behind Rahmon’s rule. Citizens and private businesses increasingly are unable to pay bribes to law enforcement officers and government officials. These officials, in turn, have become increasingly aggressive as they struggle to pay debts incurred to finance the bribes they had to pay to obtain their jobs. In short, economic realities are placing an increasingly fragile power structure under strain, raising questions about its long-term viability.

D.Migration

Migration is the main outlet for Tajiks suffering from social, political and economic tensions. More than a million Tajiks live and work in Russia, which helps defuse a potential source of instability by absorbing working age men who might otherwise be under- or unemployed at home. But there is a flip-side as Moscow could force the migrants to return, which gives it important leverage over the Tajik president and serves as a considerable constraint on his dealings with Russia.

 Moscow’s priority is to have a compliant partner and an ongoing military presence in Tajikistan. 

Moscow’s priority is to have a compliant partner and an ongoing military presence in Tajikistan. A senior member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), an opposition party banned in October 2015, said, “Russia tolerates, not supports, Rahmon, because there are no other options really … whether Russia will support his eldest son, Rustam, [in his succession bid] will depend on how Rustam behaves”. Although it seems unlikely at this stage, Moscow could threaten to expel Tajik migrants should bilateral relations deteriorate, presenting the current or incoming president with an enormous crisis.

Emigration from Tajikistan also concerns the EU as the number of Tajik asylum seekers is rising. In 2016, 3,230 Tajiks applied for asylum in EU countries, up from 1,160 in 2015 and 605 in 2014. An IRPT member living in Europe said, “if something happens in Tajikistan, Tajik refugees will come to Europe. It is cheaper and easier for Tajiks to get to Europe than for Syrians”. European officials express fears that Russia could use an influx of Central Asian migrants to heighten tensions over migration in Europe.

III.A Jihadist Threat?

A.Afghanistan

For years Tajikistan has confronted the risk of jihadist spillover from across its 1,400km border with Afghanistan. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province or the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), an affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has led both Russian and U.S. officials to express concern that the movement may reset its priorities northward and attempt to make inroads into Central Asia. The presence of Central Asian militants within IS-K ranks, albeit as a minority, aggravates such fears. So too does increasing instability in Afghanistan’s north east, close to the Tajik border.

The immediacy of the threat remains open to debate, however. Although the situation in northern Afghanistan is deteriorating, most incidents along the Tajik-Afghan border appear to be related to smuggling rather than incursions into Tajik territory or attempts to attack the Tajik state. Though its emergence is worrisome, the IS-K is still dwarfed by the Taliban, which remains by far the largest armed opposition group and whose leaders express no territorial interest beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The Taliban arguably has been the main check on ISIS’s growth in Afghanistan, often moving quickly to crush IS-K factions. Moreover, the core of the IS-K remains in eastern provinces closer to Pakistan than Central Asia. Whether the small militias in the north that claim to be part of IS-K have direct operational ties to forces in the east is unclear. Nor is it clear, for now, that the Central Asian militants fighting alongside the Taliban, including in the north east, have Tajikistan in their sights.

Tajikistan’s inherent weakness and porous borders make it vulnerable, however. Traffickers have been moving large volumes of drugs across the Afghan border for over two decades, providing revenue to security officers who, in turn, support Rahmon and his inner circle. The governing elite’s role in cross-border narcotics smuggling may help it manage the border informally for now, but in the longer-run such activities undermine efforts to secure it. So long as corrupt officials have an interest in keeping the border porous, there is a danger that militants – not just drugs – will spill over from Afghanistan into Tajikistan.

B.Radicalisation

Under the guise of combating jihadists, authorities in Dushanbe have quashed internal dissent and repressed Islamic practices. The government restricts its citizens’ ability to display piety and publicly adhere to Islamic norms. Police have forcibly shaved men’s beards, and registered or even arrested women who wear hijabs. The government also forbids anyone under the age of eighteen from attending a mosque and prohibits anyone under 35 from making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Tajiks resent these policies, which apply only to certain citizens. The economic or political elite faces few such restrictions. Young members of criminal gangs and the sons of government officials are seen wearing beards and the wives of government officials wear hijabs, sometimes because their husbands order them to. While the security services claim the bulk of militants travelling to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of ISIS come from the opposition IRPT – thereby linking Islamism in Tajikistan to jihadism abroad – a prominent Tajik expert on radicalisation disputes that:

We have this stereotype that people who leave for Syria are usually from areas that were pro-opposition during the civil war, but it is not true. It is actually the opposite. People from the areas known for being pro-communist [pro-Rahmon] during the war leave more. A lot of Uzbeks leave, a lot of Ku-lobis leave. Even Gulmurod Khalimov who left, is Kulobi, always fought on the government’s side and was never in the opposition.

The government’s refusal to distinguish violent jihadists from non-violent individuals who are visibly devout or hold anti-government views risks making all of them enemies. This contributes to popular frustration, which with the right trigger could bubble over into street protests, other types of resistance – or even violence.

IV.Conclusion

Tajikistan’s current trajectory is cause for concern. In less than three years, the country’s president is – in theory – obliged to transfer power. Whether President Rahmon will do so is uncertain, but either continuation or succession could result in turmoil. Feuds inside the ruling family and rivalries among Tajikistan’s various regions, including those that have previously supported the president, form a turbulent political backdrop. The regime’s margin for manoeuvre is narrowing in the context of a troubled economy, institutional dysfunction and growing instability in Afghanistan. The next president will inherit a fragmented state with low levels of trust in government if not deep hostility toward the state. Many constituencies possess a capacity for violence.

Foreign powers have little leverage over Rahmon’s government, which is hostile to any external criticism. Western powers appear reluctant to expend limited political capital pushing for reforms that might over time strengthen Tajikistan’s institutions but whose prospects for now appear remote.

Russia and China hold more cards, but have decided so far not to play them. As the main outside power engaged in Tajikistan, Russia has a major interest in securing the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border and ensuring Tajikistan does not become a victim of jihadist violence. Yet despite occasional signs of impatience, Moscow tolerates Rahmon if only for lack of a viable alternative. China, which holds over half of the country’s debt and wants to protect its growing economic assets, is also concerned about Afghanistan and has therefore stepped up security cooperation with Tajikistan. Most of all, China seeks to counter Islamic extremism, separatism or terrorism in its restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders Tajikistan and is home to a small minority of ethnic Tajiks. Yet despite these interests, Russia and China are even less likely than Western powers to press for meaningful political or institutional reform.

Foreign powers have few good options, but they share an interest in a smooth transition whenever it occurs. Central Asian countries, Russia and China, with help from the EU and U.S., should focus in the interim on bolstering vulnerable borders to prevent violence from spilling throughout the region. With the limited leverage they have, EU and U.S. political engagement should stress the risks of political exclusion urging Dushanbe to refrain from repressive measures that could undermine the transition, triggering instead instability and violent conflict.

Crisisgroup

Bishkek/Brussels, 9 October 2017

ODR: “Meet Tajikistan’s embattled Islamists”

Tajikistan is trying to persecute what was once Central Asia’s only legal Islamist party out of existence. But is this really about countering terrorism, or just cracking down on dissent in any form?

A campaign poster from the Islamic Renaissance Party for Tajikistan’s 2015 parliamentary elections. Ten of the party leaders depicted here are currently behind bars.

On a rainy day in March, I met Ilhomjon Yaqubov in a town I will not name. In a nondescript socialist-era apartment block, we drank tea from ceramic bowls, and ate dried fruits.

Two years ago, Ilhomjon was detained by the Tajik authorities, beaten, and made to renounce his membership of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) on camera. Yaqubov is a prominent member of the party and use to lead its branch in Sughd, Tajikistan’s northernmost province. For more than six hours, his captors forced him to literally swallow articles he had written against Tajikistan’s authoritarian regime.

Since 2015, party members have begun to flee to Europe after IPRT, the sole legally operating Islamist party in Central Asia, was banned as an “extremist organisation” by the Tajik authorities. In September that year, the authorities received the perfect pretext: Tajikistan’s former deputy defence minister Abdulhalim Nazarzoda broke ranks and staged an attack on a police station in the Vahdat region. Blame fell on the IRPT, and the authorities arrested 13 high-ranking party functionaries and detained over 150 ordinary members. Dushanbe accused the IRPT of plotting a terrorist coup, and of links to so-called Islamic State.

After torture, Ilhomjon Yaqubov is made to renounce his membership of the IRPT in this video circulated by Tajikistan’s authorities. Image still via YouTube / Human Rights Watch. Some rights reserved.The Nazarzoda affair was the tip of the iceberg. Tajikistan is facing one of the worst crackdowns on dissent since independence. Emomali Rahmon has ruled the place since 1994, and thanks to constitutional amendments last year, he can run for as many presidential terms as he pleases.

Fears over terrorism both globally and in the region has put Central Asia’s Islamist parties in the security spotlight. But Islamism is a broad school of thought, and its causal links to violent extremism are far from established.

Under cover of counter-terrorism, the Tajik authorities have cracked down on the country’s most potent opposition force — and they’ve gotten away with it.

Blessed are the peacebuilders

You can’t understand the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan without the country’s brutal civil war, perhaps the most forgotten post-Soviet conflict. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the signing of Tajikistan’s peace accords in 1997. The agreement ended a conflict which led to as many as 157,000 deaths and 1.5m people being displaced in their own country alone.

The IRPT played a key role in the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), a motley alliance of democrats and Islamists from the central and eastern regions of the country. They faced off against the Popular Front, an alliance of former Communist apparatchiks who tacitly enjoyed Russian and Uzbek support.

The peace accords guaranteed the IRPT a presence in Tajikistan’s public life, providing an outlet for the more conservative-minded, at first mostly rural electorate. It became the country’s go-to opposition force. But as Rahmon started to renege on his commitments to the peace accords, the IRPT came into the authorities’ crosshairs. In September 2010, a group of militants unaffiliated with the IRPT attacked government soldiers in the Kamarob Gorge. Tajikistan’s authorities cracked down hard, introducing a whole raft of anti-religious laws.

Emomali Rahmon and Abdullo Nuri of the UTO and IRPT sign the peace accords which ended Tajikistan’s bloody civil war, December 1996. Photo (c): Alexander Makarov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

In early 2012, talk of a certain Protocol 32-20 arose online — allegedly an order to Tajikistan’s security services to put pressure on IRPT members to leave the party, offering financial incentives if necessary. Tajik state media soon launched a hate campaign against the party. “State newspapers even declared that 60% of all Tajik ISIS fighters had once been members of the IRPT,” sighs Yaqubov.

Despite rising harassment, in March 2015, the IRPT was the largest opposition party in parliament, counting over 40,000 members. The party received 8.2% of the vote in the rigged 2010 elections (Rahmon’s rubber-stamp People’s Democratic Party won 71%), and just 1.6% in the even more outrageously rigged 2015 elections, losing its only two seats in Tajikistan’s parliament. IRPT politicians insisted to me that their share of the vote in 2015 was significantly higher.

It’s difficult to emphasise quite how widely this hunt for dissent has spread. Even the legal profession is not immune: in October 2016, two lawyers representing IRPT members in court were sentenced to 23 and 21 years’ imprisonment respectively (one of them now faces an extended sentence). One of the charges is “supporting extremist activity.”

You say you want a renaissance

Islamism is an elastic term, with wide-ranging applications and understandings. The IRPT’s version has a post-Soviet pedigree, tracing its lineage to the Revival of Islamic Youth of Tajikistan, founded in 1972 as an underground organisation in the Tajik SSR.

Two key Islamic scholars at the time of the Soviet collapse were Muhamadsharif Himatzoda and Abdullo Nuri. Like many people of faith in Soviet Central Asia, they chose to pursue law or technical sciences, using their free time to attend clandestine Islamic study circles under the tutelage of Hanafi Islamic scholar, Muhammadjon Hindustoni. For Hindustoni, the Soviet repression of religion was a test to be solved with fortitude and patience, rather than political violence.

Indeed, Nuri and his comrades took inspiration from the the Jadid movementduring the waning years of Tsarist rule, and saw the Islamic reformist movement as an indigenous liberalising tradition rudely interrupted by the Soviet experiment. In 1986, he was imprisoned for “spreading religious propaganda”, and later led the IRPT through the Tajik civil war. Muhiddin Kabiri succeeded Nuri as leader in 2000, and his leadership marked a more liberal shift of IRPT policy, which was met with strong scepticism by some more conservative party members. The death of the revered Abdullo Nuri also emboldened president Rahmon, who now faced a younger competitor.

The party’s level of organisation, rather than its Islamist teachings, made it a threat to Emomali Rahmon’s regime

Reading through a Russian translation of the party’s most recent (2015) manifesto, I found many policy proposals fairly social democratic in origin. Its populist language denounces elite-level corruption and decries the “moral decay” it brings. The document describes Islam as the catalyst for the party’s policies, but also stresses its commitment to parliamentary democracy and freedom of expression. Even the IRPT’s first manifesto in 1991 speaks more strongly of anti-colonial Tajik nationalism than of strident Islamism. When interviewed for this article, Tajikistan scholars such as Edward Lemon and Human Rights Watch’s Steve Swerdlow do not doubt the party’s commitment to democratic and pluralist values, seeing the crackdown as expressly political in nature.

Kabiri’s liberal shift brought a move toward gender equality, too. In 2013, the IRPT put its support behind a female presidential candidate, lawyer Oynihol Bobonazarova, in conjunction with the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan (under the Alliance of Reformist Forces of Tajikistan).

Central square in Khujand, Tajikistan, 2008. Photo CC BY-NC 2.0: Steve James / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Indeed, increased political repression led to an unexpectedly greater representation of women in the IRPT. As one exiled Tajik journalist told me on condition of anonymity, an estimated 45-50% of all party members are women. It’s partly a tactical approach, which allows some families to continue their party links without fathers and husbands putting their careers in jeopardy.

Abdullo Nuri advocated making Tajikistan an Islamic state, albeit within the framework of the country’s secular constitution and “in accordance with popular wishes.” As one party member recalled to me, in a telling but perhaps apocryphal quote that hints at the country’s fragile peace, “Ustod Nuri famously said that he didn’t want to create an Islamic state on a cemetery.” Exiled party leader Muhiddin Kabiri expanded on Nuri’s vision in an interview earlier this year. “After many years of study,” began the IRPT leader, “I concluded that the idea of an Islamic State is a modern phenomenon — many parties across the Islamic world have declared their support for one, but never explained exactly what that meant. It’s not an idea with solid religious justification — religion should play an important role in society, but government should be technocratic and non-ideological. Islam doesn’t demand state-building on its own behalf, but to build a society where people are fulfilled and free.”

“After all,” he continued “how can there be an Islamic state without an Islamic society?”

In the service of the motherland

Millions of Muslims find themselves living under secular nationalist dictatorships, and Central Asia is no exception. The war on terror was a boon for the region’s autocracies. By 2005, US embassy cables from Dushanbe already 2005 described Kabiri as “walking a tightrope” — Rahmon wanted to marginalise him, and the more traditionalist Islamist wing in his party distrusted him.

Kabiri, who fled Tajikistan in March 2015 in anticipation of the crackdown, described the president’s Machiavellian reasoning. The IRPT, he told me, became Rahmon’s “pro-democracy business card” in meetings with western officials — a token gesture to political pluralism. In response, the party began to consider rebranding itself as early as 2004. Leaders even proposed removing “Islamic” from its title, though Rahmon himself allegedly advised Nuri against doing so. A more official move to “de-Islamise” the party in late September 2015 was also stymied by Tajikistan’s authorities.

A legal Islamist party of any shade was of great political use to Rahmon. As his regime began violating the 1997 accords with impunity, Tajikistan’s authorities began a smear campaign against the IRPT. Rahmon was able to hold up the spectre of the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan (not to mention Tajikistan’s own brutal civil war) in order to smear the opposition. The fact that elements of the IRPT leadership had sought safety in Afghanistan during the civil war (albeit with ethnic Tajik anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud) hardly helped the perception.

“Thank you for our country’s independence!” reads this billboard depicting president Emomali Rahmon in Nurek, Tajikistan. Photo CC BY 2.0: Prince Roy / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“We were being presented as a ‘radical’ party — so I asked people in the government what we could do to comply with their wishes, to ‘deradicalise.’ But they just told me it would be worse for me if we changed the party’s name” – recalls Kabiri.

Members stuck by their party. As exiled IRPT members in the EU told me, the party simply represented an alternative. Tajik citizen Massud fled to Russia in 2015 after after heavy fines and harassment by the police on various pretexts. He’s an elderly, intellectual type, and joined the IRPT in 1999, and is eager to tell me why. “I knew something wasn’t right in the Soviet period, when students had to be sent into the fields to collect cotton rather than study, and were told to shut up when they complained.”

 “The IRPT was the only party which really talked seriously about corruption and social inequality. The attraction wasn’t strictly because it was Muslim”

While he was never the most pious Muslim, says Massud, the IRPT told the truth about the corruption ravaging the country. “When I noticed that all the other deputies appeared to hate them, I was intrigued. So I joined — simple as that.”

Rostam, a small business owner, is another IRPT party member who entered the EU via Ukraine in 2015. He’s a man of fewer words, punctuated by sighs, but says much the same: “The IRPT was the only party which really talked seriously about corruption and social inequality,” he tells me. “For me, the attraction wasn’t strictly because it was Muslim.”

Ilhomjon Yaqubov makes the same argument. Simply put: the party’s level of organisation, rather than its Islamist teachings, made it a threat to Emomali Rahmon’s regime.

Crackdowns driving radicalisation?

Emomali Rahmon’s Tajikistan presents its citizens with a loaded choice; better the devil you know than the Wahhabi fundamentalists you don’t. As bloodshed continues in the Middle East, that binary has left little room for the IRPT.

These days, Dushanbe seems terrified of any overt signs of religiosity. In July, the government established a commission to combat “improper clothing” (the country’s relentless anti-hijab campaign has continued for two years.) But religious men aren’t off the hook — last January, Tajik police boasted that they had shaved 13,000 beards across the country “to combat radicalism.”

Kabiri despairs of these moves, arguing that their motivation cannot solely be anti-extremist. “The authorities in Tajikistan are not interested in promoting any ‘good’ form of Islam. It’s not even about Islam per se: they’re not interested in any strong opposition or autonomous social movement, whether secular or religious!” he exclaims.

Party spokesman Mahmudjon Faizrahmonov and Muhammadjon Kabirov, head of the IRPT’s mass media department and cousin of Muhiddin Kabiri, are convinced that the ban of their party has led to an increase in radicalisation among young Tajik Muslims. “When the party was active, the youth had a chance to use their religious insight for social and political activities. But now, young people don’t even believe in elections anymore,” Faizrahmonov tells me. “Just look at the numbers: before 2015, there were around 250 Tajik ISIS fighters. Now, it’s over 1,000.”

It’s understandable why the Tajik authorities are worried. But employing ham-fisted methods at home can hardly help social stability

Indeed, Faizrahmonov fears it is political nihilism, not religious piety, that will breed violence in Tajikistan. An increasing body of research on countering violent extremism, whether from the US military or European scholars of Islam such as Olivier Roy, bears this out — many ISIS recruits from overseas are hardly pious in their former lives, having superficial religious knowledge.

However, the IRPT’s view of radicalisation may be missing something. While the Islamic State’s threat to Central Asia itself has been massively overstated in English-language media, Tajiks are by and large not actually radicalised in Tajikistan. Instead, most people from Tajikistan who join terrorist organisations were radicalised while working as labour migrants in Russia, where they live in precarious and often denigrating conditions.

It’s understandable why the Tajik authorities are worried. That said, employing ham-fisted methods at home can hardly help social stability — especially when some Tajik migrants began to return home from Russia after the crash of 2008.

One grund for concern is the fact that Tajik militants have found their way to Iraq and Syria, where they’ve risen quickly up IS’ ranks. Among their number was Gulmorod Halimov, a former Tajik security forces chief who had even received counter-terrorism training in the USA. Once the terrorist organisation’s commander in Mosul, Halimov then came to serve as IS “Minister of War”. Halimov’s death has been reported on several occasions, but his influence on IS military strategy is undoubtable. A report in February found that last year that Tajiks were disproportionately represented on the among IS’ suicide bombers — likely Halimov’s doing.

Gulmorod Halimov, IS “Minister of War” (right), was once a high-ranking official in Tajikistan’s security forces who received counter-terrorism training in the USA. Image still: CATV News / YouTube. Some rights reserved.

Reliable figures on Tajiks in IS ranks are scarce, though the country’s Interior Ministry told RFE/RL that 1,141 Tajik nationals had gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. As the tide has turned against ISIS in Iraq, around a hundred of these Tajik militants have returned home. Half of them have been pardoned, though they still face suspicion. IRPT members have not failed to notice the bitter irony, given that they must still conduct party activities from abroad, or clandestinely at home.

Kabirov shares another bitter irony: during the final years of the IRPT’s legal existence in Tajikistan, state media lowered its bar to surprising depths in its search for anti-IRPT guest speakers. They allege that these broadcasts even included hardline Salafis who denounced the party for participating in a formally democratic system.

There’s a logic here, too: while they may be intolerant and fundamentally opposed to democracy, Salafists are not necessarily violent extremists — many are quietists, and see the political oppression of Muslims as divine punishment for their sins. In this worldview, austere piety unsullied by politicking is the path to salvation. From the perspective of a post-Soviet autocrat, one might even see them as useful bedfellows.

In 2014, Tajikistan’s chief mufti issued a fatwa against criticising president Emomali Rahmon

It’s maybe unsurprising that, as Central Asia scholar Tim Epkenhans wrote, Tajikistan’s state-sanctioned Islam “embraces an idea of Islam that almost resembles a Salafi interpretation, excluding Muslims who follow a broader Islamic tradition or emphasise the political relevance of Islamic thought.”

In 2014, Tajikistan’s chief mufti Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda even issued a fatwa against criticising president Emomali Rahmon and his regime. The government’s Islamic Centre has imposed its own examinations on all imams, which highlight regime loyalty. Tellingly, it issued a Friday khutba (sermon) the day before the 2015 elections arguing that “Islam is no political party, and if Islam needed a party, the Prophet Muhammad would have established one.” It was a veiled, but pointed reference to the IRPT.

Making a run for it

The IRPT members interviewed for this article live in a number of countries across the European Union. Kabiri estimates that there are round 500-600 IRPT members living in Europe, around 80 to 100 of which have received political asylum.

Poland is the most accessible EU state, a point of access for Tajik and Chechen refugees crossing from Belarus. But now, asylum seekers are encountering more problems entering the country and having their claims heard.

Slowly but surely, the road to Europe is closing. Many post-Soviet states are not safe for Central Asian political exiles. According to IRPT members, Rahmon has ordered his team to try and sign an separate extradition treaty with Ukraine as soon as possible — perhaps spurred on by Kyiv’s refusal to extradite former prime minister Abdumalik Abdullajanov in 2013.

On 22 September 2016, over 200 people protested outside the home of Ilhomjon Yaqubov’s mother in Khujand, Tajikistan, chanting “Ilhomjon is a traitor”. The act was possibly in retaliation for Yaqubov’s presence at the OSCE’s HDIM meeting in Warsaw. Photo courtesy of Ilhomjon Yaqubov.

With its large number of Tajik migrant labourers, Russia is the most obvious destination. But it’s more dangerous for other Tajik opposition groups than for the IRPT, says Faizrahmonov. Many are well aware of the close cooperation of the Russian and Tajik security services — even dissidents holding Russian passports such as Maksud Ibragimov have been spirited back home by the FSB. Understandably, many would rather not take the risk.

Many Central Asian political exiles have long called Turkey home, though an increasingly unsafe one. In 2015, Umarali Kuvvatov, leader of Group 24 (another Tajik opposition group), was shot dead in downtown Istanbul. Indeed, amid Ankara’s own human rights crackdown, the situation for IRPT members has rapidly deteriorated.

In October last year, the Istanbul offices of Payom, an IRPT-affiliated publication, were closed down by the Turkish authorities at the request of Dushanbe. The party’s council members conclude that an informal was reached on the sidelines of the Turkish deputy prime minister’s visit to Dushanbe in February.

Wherever they run, Tajikistan’s authorities have another way of getting at critics — namely, their families. After senior opposition activists including Muhiddin Kabiri spoke at a conference in Dortmund last month, a new round of intimidation began against the participants’ relatives back home.

This has become standard practice for Tajikistan’s authorities — and was last deployed on this scale following speeches by Tajik dissidents at the OSCE’s HDIM conference in Warsaw last September. This year’s conference ended last week — though the Tajik government never sent a delegation. Safar Kabirov, father of Muhammadjon, was detained and tortured by Tajik authorities on 6 September, threatened with imprisonment if his son attends. Dushanbe has even threatened to expel the OSCE mission in Tajikistan (the largest in Central Asia) should IRPT members speak up.

But Tajik dissidents have done more than speak up — in an open letter with 23 NGOs including Human Rights Watch, they’ve requested that Rustam Inoyatov and Saymumin Yatimov, heads of the security services of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, be added to the USA’s Global Magnitsky List.

The number of imprisoned IRPT members across Tajikistan is unknown. Last June, the 13 high-ranking party officials arrested in September 2015 received prison sentences ranging from two to 28 years. Four months later Zarafo Rahmoni, the only woman among the 13, received a presidential pardon. IRPT deputy chairman Mahmadali Hayit remains behind bars amid rumours of rapidly deteriorating health. Faizrahmonov says that as remaining IRPT members in the country fear pervasive surveillance, it’s difficult to get reliable information on his condition and that of other political prisoners.

The IRPT’s story reminds us that, far from being a product of isolation, Tajikistan’s authoritarianism is deeply globalised. As John Heathershaw and Alexander Cooley have written, Central Asian rulers launder their money in western offshores, fight their legal battles in western courts, and use Interpol arrest warrants to pursue critics (Muhiddin Kabiri remains on an Interpol wanted list to this day). It should also remind us, in the current political climate, to be more discerning in how we understand Islamism and those who, however elastically, adhere to that set of beliefs.

Those like Shamsuddin Saidov, an exiled member of IRPT’s supreme council. For a short while, Saidov was the youngest political prisoner in the Soviet Union, and was freed shortly before its collapse. We drink tea, from cups and saucers, with Janatulloh Komilov, a party organiser in Germany. Saidov knows all one would want to know (at least, Komilov’s polite silence seems to suggest so).

He tells me about the days of Nuri, the exile in Afghanistan, and what Europe really doesn’t get (and ought) about the Islamic world and democracy. About the west and the rest.

To sum it all up, he adds, with palms aloft: “We can rule. We could even implement the secular constitution — a hundred times better than Emomali Rahmon.”

Opendemocracy

MAXIM EDWARDS

28 September 2017

The Economist: “Tajikistan’s crackdown on observant Muslims intensifies”

Beards, veils, madrassas and Arabic-sounding names are all banned.

THE young Tajik man does not want to leave home, despite his mother’s assurance that he looks fine. The day before he had sported a curly black beard, just like his friends from the mosque. But the police had frogmarched him and other bearded young men to the barber shop, where their beards were shaved off. A few of the onlookers laughed, but, once out of the police’s sight, many more grumbled.

Such scenes have become increasingly common in Tajikistan, a landlocked country of 9m bordering Afghanistan and China. In 2015 an official in one of the country’s four regions reported forcibly removing the beards of 13,000 men. Con men have started selling certificates, complete with photographs and official-looking stamps, permitting holders to grow a beard. Initially, the Tajik government blamed the crusade against beards on local police, but it now admits that it instigated the practice to curb religious extremism.

Shaving beards is just one tool the government uses to suppress Islam, even though more or less the entire population is at least nominally Muslim. In 2015 it closed more than 160 headscarf shops. Last year it outlawed Arabic-sounding names. Earlier this year it prohibited the production, import or export of religious books without permission. Obtaining a permit to set up a religious organisation, publish a book on Islam or go on pilgrimage to Mecca is an arduous process.

In 2010 Tajikistan had 19 registered madrassas and hundreds of unregistered ones. The last was closed in 2016. Anyone providing unofficial religious teaching can be imprisoned for up to 12 years. Even studying in religious schools outside the country is prohibited. Almost 3,000 young men attending religious schools in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and other countries have been coerced into coming home.

There are about 3,700 mosques in the country. They are heavily regulated by the government, down to the subject of the weekly sermon. Using loudspeakers to broadcast the call to prayer is no longer allowed. Children younger than 18 and women are not permitted to attend the mosque. People under 40 are not allowed to go on the haj.

Tajikistan was unique among the former Soviet republics of Central Asia in allowing an Islamist opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT)—the result of a peace deal that ended a civil war in 1997. But Emomali Rahmon, the country’s leader since 1992, was on the opposing side in the conflict and has gradually reneged on the deal. In 2015 he banned IRPT; since then, his campaign against the pious has intensified.

The repression, inevitably, has helped to radicalise devout Muslims. More than 2,000 Tajiks are reported to have joined Islamic State. The former commander of an elite police force, Gulmurod Khalimov, is their most prominent recruit. In a YouTube video he threatened to return to Tajikistan to establish sharia (Islamic law). (Earlier this month Russia claimed that he had been killed in an airstrike in Syria.)

A more effective means to curb radicalism might be to boost the economy. Unofficial estimates suggest unemployment is as high as 15%. In search of work, many young men travel abroad, where some become radicalised. But Mr Rahmon seems more concerned about beards than jobs.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Beardless and jobless”
Sep 21, 2017

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.

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Global Risk Insights: “Under the Radar: Tajikistan on track to be the next Afghanistan”

Tajikistan, the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to ISIS has the potential to become the next terrorist hotspot as a host of factors converge to put the small Central Asian nation at serious risk.

The recent publication of an expanded list of alleged terrorist groups and their sponsors by the National Bank of Tajikistan highlights the country’s growing concern about both domestic and international terrorist threats. The list includes over two hundred individuals as well as fifteen organizations; including the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The inclusion of the IRPT on this list is important as it further highlights the de-legitimization of Tajikistan’s only recognized Islamic political party.

In the 1990s, the IRPT was part of Tajikistan’s formal political scene, with the moderate party garnering a place in government as part of the united opposition following the country’s 1992-1997 civil war. Since then President Emomalii Rahmon (who has ruled the country since 1992) and his People’s Democratic Party have slowly marginalized the IRPT, with the party outlawed in 2014, and declared a terrorist group in 2015.

Tajikistan’s anti-radicalization measures backfiring

The fall of the IRPT has been part of the government’s ongoing campaign against Islamism and overt faith in general. Motivated by fears of radicalization, the government’s slew of heavy-handed – and at times, bizarre – measures have only increased resentment among the population and provided ample recruitment material for radicals. In recent years, Tajikistan has: shut down hundreds of non-government sanctioned mosques and preachers, banned Islamic dress in schools and offices, limited public prayers, shuttered 160 stores selling Islamic clothing, banned children under 18 from mosques, restricted students from studying Islam abroad, and made it difficult to register Muslim organizations. In 2015 the government even went as far as to forcibly shave 13,000 bearded citizens.

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These measures have been directly cited by radicalized Tajiks as the motivation for their decision to join radical groups. A major blow to the government came in 2015 with the defection to ISIS of U.S-trained special forces commander Colonel Gulmurod Halimov. Halimov has allegedly become ISIS’ supreme military commander and has been a major influence in encouraging other Tajiks to join the organization. In part due to Halimov’s influence, Tajikistan has become the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to ISIS’s battlefields: 27 Tajik suicide operations were carried out in Syria and Iraq between December 2015 and November 2016.

The irony of the situation is that “when the IRPT was part of the government, one of their main tasks was to educate people not to go to [radicals]. Once [the party was] forbidden we had an enormous increase [in the number of Tajiks joining ISIS] – students, and in one case, 40 people from the same village,” notes University of Heidelberg researcher Sophie Roche.

Around 1,100 Tajiks are believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, with an additional 300 having been killed there in recent years. Two Tajiks were also behind the March 8th Kabul military hospital attack that left at least 49 dead. More recently, a suspected terrorist attack was orchestrated in the Tajik city of Qurghonteppa on March 12th, with an explosion killing one person near the military prosecutor’s office: Qurghonteppa’s outskirts also saw a mysterious explosion on January 30th.

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Only ten days before on January 20th, the Tajik interior ministry announced that the government had foiled 36 terrorist attacks in 2016, with over 400 people detained for suspected terrorist links. Tajikistan is facing a serious terrorism threat, as its citizens become radicalized at home due to the government’s hardline measures, and as hundreds of fighters in Syria and Iraq return home as ISIS loses ground in the Middle East.

Alongside the recent incidents already mentioned, a Tajik native was also arrested in Russia on March 8th after authorities discovered a plan for a suicide attack in Moscow. This incident demonstrates another risk vector for Tajikistan – its large migrant worker population. Over a million Tajiks work in Russia as migrant or seasonal workers, with remittances comprising a major revenue stream for Tajikistan. Poor working conditions, abuse and a sense of hopelessness puts many Tajik workers in Russia at risk of radicalization. The convergence of these risk factors has already led to the radicalization of a substantial number of Tajiks in Russia, with Islamists using Russian social media sites like Odnoklassniki and Vkontakti to recruit followers.

With Tajikistan’s economic growth slowing from 7.4% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2016, combined with an 8.5% annual inflation rate, economic hardship will force more Tajiks to seek work elsewhere, with those who stay not faring much better. Tajikistan’s economic hardship will only continue, especially with the recent cancellation of China’s Line D oil and gas pipeline. The cancellation of Line D means Tajikistan will lose out on millions of dollars in oil and gas transit fees, thus only further weakening the economy.

Stuck in a bad neighbourhood

While these problems would be more than enough for any country, Tajikistan has the misfortune of being situated in the middle of one of the most volatile regions on Earth. With its entire mountainous southern border facing Afghanistan, which at its narrowest point is also only 40 kilometers from Pakistan’s tribal north, Tajikistan faces serious risks. Add to this Tajikistan’s border with China’s restive Xinjiang province and things look grim. China’s Kashgar prefecture is home to 40,000 ethnic Tajiks, and the local government is hiring an additional 3,000 police to reinforce the border as officials increasingly intercept weapons, drugs and extremist media. Moreover, the Pakistani military’s offensive in Waziristan has pushed Central Asian ISIS supporters into northern Afghanistan, with Tajik radicals resettling in Afghanistan and others returning back home.

Tajikistan’s Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda has estimated that there are between 10,000-15,000 militants along the Afghan-Tajik border, many of whom have cross-border connections. Indeed, Asadullah Omarkhail, governor of Afghanistan’s Kunduz provinceargues that “around three thousand Taliban fighters are active in Kunduz [and are receiving] Russian and Tajik support.” While claims about state assistance from Russia and Tajikistan to the Taliban are suspect, the group undoubtedly receives support from individuals in both countries, many of them Tajiks.

Tajikistan’s government takes these cross-border links seriously, and has recently ordered mobile phone providers to re-register all SIM cards in the country in order to thwart terrorists. First deputy head of the State National Security Committee, Mansurdzhon Umarov explained the move, stating that “we have information that on the border with our country, insurgents with the Taliban movement are actively using Tajik SIM cards.” Tajik SIM cards are popular in the region as they are cheaper, and some cases provide better service than those issued by Afghan service providers.

Tajikistan on the brink of multiple insurgencies

While the Afghan-Tajik border presents the greatest security challenge, the situation in neighbouring Uzbekistan holds important lessons, and warnings for Tajikistan. Like in Tajikistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) emerged out of resistance to a long-time leader and vehement anti-Islamist, in this case Islam Karimov. Likewise the IMU has long had cross-border dealings with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Despite this, the leadership of the IMU pledged loyalty to ISIS, with IMU emir Usman Ghasi aligning the group with Daesh in June 2015. This move caused a split in the IMU, with a splinter group retaining the IMU name, and re-affirming its allegiance to the Taliban. The existence of Jamaat Ansarullah, a Tajik IMU splinter group further connects events in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to Tajikistan.

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What happened in Uzbekistan could easily happen in Tajikistan as ISIS supporters return home and continue to push radical Islamist goals. If the government continues its hard-line approach, these radicalized individuals are likely to act against the very government whose actions initially pushed many towards radicalization in the first place. This will create tensions between these returning ISIS expats and established local, anti-government groups. The latter has ties with ethnic Tajiks in the border regions of Afghanistan and China as well as with the Taliban.

Given the existing Taliban-ISIS rivalry, Tajikistan could well see the development of a proxy-war among rival Islamist groups, with ISIS and Taliban-backed groups attacking each other as well as the government. This would in turn transform Tajikistan from an exporter to an importer of radicals, as international supporters of both ISIS and the Taliban heed each side’s respective call for support.

Under the Radar uncovers political risk events around the world overlooked by mainstream media. By detecting hidden risks, we keep you ahead of the pack and ready for new opportunities.

March 19, 2017

Under the Radar is written

by Senior Analyst Jeremy Luedi.