Tag Archives: Human Rights Violations

U.S. puts Tajikistan in 10 countries of particular concern. Another big defeat of dictator Rahmon

Press Statement

Heather Nauert
U.S. State Department Spokesperson
Washington, DC

January 4, 2018

In far too many places around the globe, people continue to be persecuted, unjustly prosecuted, or imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. Today, a number of governments infringe upon individuals’ ability to adopt, change, or renounce their religion or belief, worship in accordance with their religion or beliefs, or be free from coercion to practice a particular religion or belief.

In accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State annually designates governments that have engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom as “Countries of Particular Concern”. Today, the Department of State announces that the Secretary of State re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as Countries of Particular Concern on December 22, 2017. The Secretary also placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom.

The protection of religious freedom is vital to peace, stability, and prosperity. These designations are aimed at improving the respect for religious freedom in these countries. We recognize that several designated countries are working to improve their respect for religious freedom; we welcome these initiatives and look forward to continued dialogue. The United States remains committed to working with governments, civil society organizations, and religious leaders to advance religious freedom around the world.

U.S. Department of State

January 4, 2018

The Diplomat: Attacks on Press Freedom Show Central Asia’s Authoritarian Side

Media freedom continues to be a weak point in Central Asia.

In the past few weeks and months, a staggering number of attacks on press freedom has dotted Central Asia, exposing the hypersensitive disposition of the authorities toward critical voices.

One of the most worrying cases involved independent journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov. He was arrested after he penned an open letter to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon denouncing a request for a bribe that he received from a public official. The official denied the allegation and sued Mirsaidov for defamation. Mirsaidov was arrested immediately after being interrogated on December 5 and was charged with embezzlement and forgery, which could land him 21 years in jail.

Michael Andersen, a journalist who has collaborated with Mirsaidov for almost two decades, told The Diplomatthat he was an example of independent and rigorous journalism in Tajikistan.

“Mirsaidov has written several articles about the corruption and brutality of the authorities in Tajikistan. And yes, he has had several ‘clashes’ with these authorities when he has taken up the cause and problems of people who have been robbed or mistreated by the authorities. The authorities in Tajikistan do not like people who speak up about corruption and brutality,” Andersen said.

Katie Morris, head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19, a freedom of speech and information group, said this could be part of a government campaign to silence critical voices.

“In Tajikistan, the situation has dramatically deteriorated over the past few years. The government seems to be trying to arrest all dissident voices and scare others into silence,” Morris told The Diplomat via email.

One week later, the Tajik government cracked down on telecommunication services that use foreign IP addresses and new generation networks (NGN), mostly used by migrant workers, thus shuttering several messaging applications, such as Viber, WhatsApp, and Telegram, which could further restrict freedom of expression.

In Kyrgyzstan, a number of libel lawsuits against the investigative outlet Zanoza.kg in the summer of 2017 resulted in hefty fines for the publication, accused of having offended the reputation of then-President Almazbek Atambayev. Once the sentence was final, the president said that the event would serve as a precedent.

“This should be a lesson for some journalists,” Atambayev said.

Weeks later, Zanoza.kg and its publisher chose to revive the editorial venture through another name, Kaktus.media.

In another worrying sign of abuse against journalists, on December 9, the border police refused entry to Chris Rickleton, a British journalist who has been living in Kyrgyzstan for almost a decade. In his work with Agence France PresseEurasianet, and Global Voices, Rickleton had impartially covered politics, economy, society, and sports across Central Asia. Despite calls from MPs to disclose the Security Service’s rationale for Rickleton’s deportation upon arrival, authorities have failed to produce an explanation.

On December 19, police seized equipment at the NTS TV channel in Bishkek and banned broadcasting as they are investigating a complaint filed by Grexton Capital Ltd., subsidiary of an offshore entity which opposition media linked to Maksim Bakiyev, son of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Omurbek Babanov, owner of NTS, lost a presidential election in October, when he ran against Sooronbai Jeenbekov, the candidate supported by former President Almazbek Atambayev.

Political games and attacks on press freedom are increasingly intertwined in a country that most observers hold up as an island of democracy and freedom in Central Asia.

“In Kyrgyzstan, generally, journalists face fewer legislative threats, but impunity for violence and selective application of the law has created an environment in which journalists self-censor on certain topics. This has been a constant under successive governments, although recent governments do seem to be considering the introduction and application of increasingly repressive laws. The Law on Guarantees of the President, used to harass Zanoza, is a major concern,” Morris told The Diplomat.

Neighboring Uzbekistan seemed to have shown signs of a thaw one year after the death of strongman President Islam Karimov. His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, freed some political prisoners, including opposition journalists, prompting optimism among international observers. However, the day-to-day harassment of journalists suggests that change is yet to comeFergana News contributor Bobomurod Abdullayev was arrested in late September on charges of “attacking the constitutional order.” Weeks later, Hayot Nasriddinov, a freelance journalist for Fergana and RFE/RL, was also arrested, but the charges against him were not disclosed. In December, freelance journalist Sid Yanyshev was detained for six hours, while the authorities questioned his rights as a reporter.

Meanwhile, on December 4, Kazakh authorities freed the former president of the National Press Club, Seitkazy Matayev, after 14 months in prison. His son Asset remains in jail.

Last year, two Kazakh news outlets, Nakanune and Pravdivaya Gazeta, suffered the government’s heavy hand, with fines and lawsuits against their editors. In February 2017, Zhanbolat Mamay, editor at the Tribunaopposition newspaper, was jailed for seven months on charges of money laundering and was only released after another sentence banning him from leaving the country and from working as a journalist. In April, the popular Radiotochka website stopped publishing news due to financial difficulties and political pressures.

In 2017, Freedom House ranked all five Central Asian states among the bottom 40 countries for press freedom. In April, Reporters Without Borders showed either stable or slightly worsening statistics for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Their records will now have to be updated to account for more recent abuses, some of which are listed above.

Harassment, imprisonment, financial, and political pressure are experiences that journalists face every day in Central Asia. Dozens currently sit in jail and international observers have grown increasingly worried about their fate.

“It is vital that the international community steps up now and acts to protect and defend Khayrullo [Mirsaidov]. For a critical journalist in Tajikistan it is extremely dangerous to be sitting in detention,” Andersen said, in a call for help.

The Diplomat

CPJ: Tajik journalist arrested after alleging official corruption

New York, December 13, 2017–Tajik authorities should immediately release journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov and drop all charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Tajik authorities arrested Mirsaidov weeks after he published an open letter to the country’s president, Emomali Rahmon, the general prosecutor, and the governor of his native Sughd region asking them to crack down on corrupt local authorities.

“We call on the Tajik authorities to drop the charges against Khayrullo Mirsaidov and release him,” said CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney. “In a place where free media and critical voices are nearly non-existent, journalists like Mirsaidov should be recognized for the important work they do, not locked up on bogus charges.”

The Tajik authorities did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment.

In the letter, which was published in local media on November 8, Mirsaidov alleged that the sports and youth department head for the Sugh region, Olim Zohidzoda, requested $1,000 in kickbacks from the local comedy troupe Mirsaidov manages.

Zohidzoda denied the allegations and accused the journalist of defamation.

The regional prosecutor general’s office in the journalist’s native city of Khujand on December 5 summoned Mirsaidov for questioning related to the letter and then arrested him.

On December 8, a local judge charged Mirsaidov with embezzlement, forgery, false reporting to police, and inciting ethnic and religious hatred, and ordered the journalist to remain in detention for two months, local and regional media reported.

The investigation against Miraidov is ongoing; the charges carry a penalty of 21 years in jail.

The journalist’s father Khabibullo Mirsaidov told the Tajik-language service of the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that his son denied the charges.

Mirsaidov has covered politics, human rights issues, rights of ethnic minorities, and environmental problems in Tajikistan and Central Asia since 2000. The journalist has contributed to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, regional news websites Fergana and Asia-Plus, and has also worked as a media trainer on projects sponsored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Department for International Development (DFID), and the Index on Censorship.

Committee to Pretect Journalists (CPJ)

December 13, 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

“Tajikistan’s Rahmon lords over a fiercely nepotistic system”- RFERL

In a country so steeped in poverty that many young Tajik men migrate to Russia to find jobs, Rahmon lords over a fiercely nepotistic system while his extended family and inner circle benefit from decades of entrenched corruption.

It is a system where a short conversation with the ruler has led to orders securing jobs at state institutions, granting admission to universities, or resolving housing issues.

Increasingly, Tajiks praise and glorify Rahmon at his public appearances in the hope that, with a casual remark to his henchmen, he will solve their personal problems. ​

Tajik President’s Order: ‘Find This Man A Wife’

ZARGHAR, Tajikistan — Arranged marriages of couples who have never met are common in rural Tajikistan. But the August 27 wedding of village schoolteacher Saidsho Asrorov’s to Marjona Hudoidodova is highly unusual.

Their marriage was arranged in less than one week on orders of the country’s autocratic ruler.

President Emomali Rahmon was visiting Tajikistan’s southwestern Khatlon region on August 16 when Asrorov, a 23-year-old history teacher, gave a speech praising “the leader of the nation and founder of peace in Tajikistan.”

Asrorov expressed gratitude to Rahmon for his role in “supporting education and the upbringing of the young generation” and recited his own verses of Tajik poetry (see video below) to honor Rahmon, a former Soviet apparatchik who has governed Tajikistan since 1992.

Duly impressed — and notwithstanding the kowtowing that routinely flows from his hold on power — Rahmon asked Asrorov if he was married.

Asrorov, who would struggle on his paltry teacher’s salary to pay a traditional “bride price” to the parents of a future spouse, responded that he was single.

“I was worried and excited during my speech,” Asrorov told RFE/RL on August 22. “The president asked me about my life and family. He asked if I was married. I answered ‘no.’ Then he instructed the district leadership to decide on my marriage. And in just days, my wedding will take place.”

Rahmon also ordered district officials to pay the costs of the wedding.

That set off an immediate search by the district government, which formed a committee of matchmakers led by Dilafruz Mahmadalieva, the deputy chairwoman of the Bohtar District’s Department of Ideology.

Matchmaker Dilafruz Mahmadalieva is the deputy chairwoman of the Bohtar District's Department of Ideology.

Matchmaker Dilafruz Mahmadalieva is the deputy chairwoman of the Bohtar District’s Department of Ideology.

When the matchmaking committee asked Asrorov if he had a candidate for his spouse, he said he would like to marry Marjona Hudoidodova — a recent medical-school graduate and daughter of a physical-education teacher in Zarghar.

Asrorov told the matchmakers he had seen Hudoidodova only once when she was studying at medical school in Khatlon’s regional capital, Qurghon-Teppa.

He said he was immediately attracted to the 22-year-old Hudoidodova, who has never seen Asrorov.

On August 19, the matchmaking committee visited Hudoidodova’s family home in the nearby village of Gulzor.

“The matchmakers communicated with my parents,” Hudoidodova told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service. “My parents agreed to allow me to marry the man on the condition that I am allowed to continue to work.”

“I want to continue working as a nurse in a hospital,” Hudoidodova said, adding that she has always dreamed of marrying a man who would not interfere with her professional career.

The bride, Marjona Hudoidodova, "a trained, educated, and worthy girl from the village of Gulzor," wants to continue working as a nurse.

The bride, Marjona Hudoidodova, “a trained, educated, and worthy girl from the village of Gulzor,” wants to continue working as a nurse.

The bride’s mother, Savlatbi Hudoidodova, told RFE/RL that many young men have come to ask for the young nurse’s hand in marriage.

But she said that when previous suitors heard the condition that the young nurse must be allowed to continue working after the wedding, the men “disappeared.”

The mother said Asrorov is the first suitor to agree to let her daughter continue working.

Mahmadalieva told RFE/RL that her matchmaking committee was happy to be able to offer Asrorov “a trained, educated, and worthy girl from the village of Gulzor.”

“[Asrorov] is from a low-income family and his parents are retired,” Mahmadalieva said. “We organized the traditional matchmaking for him and we bought gifts for the bride and her family.”

“We are covering all the expenses for the wedding celebration, and we will help the girl’s family, ” Mahmadalieva said, referring to the Tajik tradition in which the groom’s family offers a “bride price” to the parents of the woman he is about to marry.

Mahmadalieva said the district administration has given more than 16,000 somonis — about $1,800 — to Hudoidodova’s family in order to “purchase everything necessary for the bride.”

Hudoidodova told RFE/RL that she is sewing herself a “national dress” for the wedding ceremony in Qurghon-Teppa, which will be the first time she sees Asrorov.

In accordance with legislation from 2007 that the government says is aimed at discouraging extravagance, the wedding ceremony and party will last no longer than three hours and will have a maximum of 150 guests.

Although it is the first known marriage arranged by presidential order in Tajikistan, short encounters with Rahmon have been life-altering for other Tajiks.

In a country so steeped in poverty that many young Tajik men migrate to Russia to find jobs, Rahmon lords over a fiercely nepotistic system while his extended family and inner circle benefit from decades of entrenched corruption.

It is a system where a short conversation with the ruler has led to orders securing jobs at state institutions, granting admission to universities, or resolving housing issues.

Increasingly, Tajiks praise and glorify Rahmon at his public appearances in the hope that, with a casual remark to his henchmen, he will solve their personal problems. ​

RFERL

August 23, 2017

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service correspondent Orzu Karim in Zarghar, Tajikistan

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

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