As news trickled out of Taijkistan on July 22 that the government was releasing, albeit with some restrictions, international scholar Alexander Sodiqov after five weeks in jail, a group of scholars and activists gathered at New York University to discuss the long-term effects of his detention. The case, panelists cautioned, could signal on-going trouble for academic freedom for scholars focusing on Tajikistan.
Sodiqov, a political science doctoral student at the University of Toronto and a Tajik national, first traveled to his home country in June as part of a University of Exeter (UK) research project on conflict management strategies. He was detained in Khorog on June 16, before being brought to the intelligence agency headquarters in Dushanbe, where he remained until July 22, accused of espionage.
“Tajikistan was never a no-go area for academic research,” commented John Heathershaw, a lecturer at the University of Exeter who was working with Sodiqov at the time of his arrest. “Alex’s detention is unprecedented… and it sent a message that research is under threat in Tajikistan.”
Sodiqov and others have vehemently denied any connection to espionage, which Heathershaw called “simply untrue.” Disseminating his story and his denials, however, has proved a challenge in Tajikistan, where pro-government media dominate.
“The region thrives on conspiracy theories. Having knowledge – having data – is extremely threatening to these governments,” Alexander Cooley, a political science professor focusing on Central Asia at New York’s Barnard College, affirmed. “Alexander’s detention has had an effect: it’s going to deter research. It’s making this muddled environment even worse.”
The new conditions, several of the panelists noted, require a new response, acknowledging that withholding support for travel may now be “the path of least resistance.” An online tool that could log accounts of researchers’ short- and long-term detentions would help those planning trips to the region gauge its safety environment, Heathershaw suggested.
Speaking from her experience as the former director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Anne Nelson of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, advised academics to be prepared for questioning, and worse, at a time when their research is quickly disseminated internationally on the internet. Nelson also advised researchers to continue to build up advocacy organizations like IFEX and Scholars at Risk (SAR), the organizer of the NYU-held panel, working to protect academic freedom.
“If I had your job, I would ramp up the analysis,” Nelson addressed SAR’s director, Rob Quinn, the moderator of the event. “This may not be about spying. This may not be about Toronto… Until you have a way of reading these tea leaves, you don’t know where the pressure points are.”
For now, Sodiqov, remains in Tajikistan, having signed a statement promising not to leave the country while the investigation continues.
“These things can turn on a dime, but I think it’s all moving in the right direction,” Sodiqov’s academic advisor at the University of Toronto, Ed Schatz, commented. “[Alex] is a scholar, his daughter is a Canadian citizen. His place is in our PhD program,” Schatz, who has spearheaded an online campaign to draw awareness to Sodiqov’s detention, re-affirmed.