The Tajik scholar whose June arrest on espionage charges ignited an international outcry has been allowed to leave Tajikistan.
Alexander Sodiqov arrived in Canada on September 10, his thesis advisor at the University of Toronto, Edward Schatz, has confirmed. Sodiqov’s wife and infant daughter joined him late on September 11.
“He and his lawyer made a formal appeal that he be allowed to travel. Surprisingly, this was granted. In fact, the authorities urged him to depart as quickly as possible,” Schatz told EurasiaNet.org. Describing Sodiqov’s state after almost three months of uncertainty about his fate, Schatz continued, “He was, as always, reasonable, lucid, astute, and forthright.”
Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB) detained Sodiqov on June 16 and promptly accused him of “subversion and espionage.” Without elaborating, the GKNB said the celebrated researcher – who was studying conflict prevention in a restive eastern town where locals have clashed with government forces in recent years – was spying for an unnamed “foreign government” with “hostile intentions.” The charges can carry up to 20 years in prison.
Sodiqov and his colleagues have consistently maintained he is innocent, that he was conducting legitimate scholarly research, and called the accusations absurd. From the beginning, the case has had a chilling effect on freedom of speech and scholarship in authoritarian Tajikistan.
Amid an international outcry, and as it became clear the authorities were embarrassing themselves abroad, in late July Sodiqov was allowed to leave his pre-trial detention cell for his family home in Dushanbe, but forbidden from exiting Tajikistan.
In recent weeks supporters had become increasingly concerned that authorities had not dropped the case even though the initial period for investigation had expired. With the spotlight on Tajikistan this week as it hosts a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a club that mostly includes regional autocracies, many feared the authorities would quietly put his case on ice.
“No one expected him to be allowed to travel during the run-up to the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but perhaps with the Tajik media focused on the SCO his departure would go unnoticed,” Schatz said.
John Heathershaw of the University of Exeter, who was working with Sodiqov on a British-funded project examining conflict prevention in Central Asia, welcomed the news. “I am delighted that Alexander has been allowed to returned to his studies in Canada and the case against him has effectively been dropped. I look forward to the legal confirmation of this decision by the authorities,” Heathershaw told EurasiaNet.org.
Permission to leave Tajikistan was granted suddenly, friends and colleagues who had campaigned for Sodiqov’s release said in a message posted September 12 on Facebook. “Formally, Alexander remains under investigation, but the fact that the Tajik authorities saw fit to let him travel abroad strongly suggests that they are also convinced of the need to exonerate him,” the statement said.
The academic year at the University of Toronto, where Sodiqov is pursing his PhD, began this week.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.