A band of treacherous radicals will swoop into Tajikistan’s capital and seize power tomorrow at 3 p.m.—at least that’s what senior government officials seem to fear. To thwart their nefarious plans, prosecutors are visiting schools, telling children to avoid provocations; someone in government has shut down a bunch of Internet sites; and with a straight face the nation’s highest court has branded the hazy, little-known Facebook group terrorists.
Last weekend, Group 24, as the proto-opposition movement is known, called on Facebook for supporters to gather in one of Dushanbe’s main squares on October 10 and demand free elections and an end to the rule of long-serving strongman Emomali Rakhmon. Within hours, dozens or possibly hundreds of websites including Facebook and YouTube became inaccessible. Authorities would not say why. Instead, riot police closed off a large patch of Dushanbe, the capital, and, in a rare show of police strength, dispersed a mob – actors they’d brought in for the occasion, as it later turned out.
On October 8, the Interior Ministry deployed armored personnel carriers at entrances to the city. Ministry officials say the troop movements – which are anything but routine – are related to the president’s trip to a CIS Summit in Belarus.
Then, on October 9, the Supreme Court declared the nebulous Group 24 “extremist,” putting it on a par with violent terrorists and banning a platform for people to air grievances about Tajikistan’s incapacitating corruption, terrible schools, and nepotism, among other things.
“Such a move is made possible by the amorphous definition of extremism offered by Tajik law,” writes analyst Edward Lemon of the University of Exeter. “By labeling opposition groups as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists,’ the government legitimizes exceptional measures against them.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling is the latest “exceptional” move toward eroding all opposition activity in Tajikistan. Last month, the nation’s top cleric, who is handpicked by the government, instructed followers that criticizing the government is a “grave sin.” Internet blockades are frequent.
What is the government so afraid of?
It’s the same question sparked by the arrest, on implausible espionage charges, of scholar Alexander Sodiqov this summer.
By all accounts (except the government’s), the men behind Group 24 are minor characters with little support at home. But authorities take criticism seriously. In 2013, when opposition journalist Dodojon Atovulloev released some endearing videos of President Rakhmon singing and dancing (perhaps a little drunkenly) at his son’s wedding, the authorities blocked YouTube.
Exiled businessman Umarali Kuvatov, who claims to be Group 24’s leader, was arrested on a Tajik warrant in Dubai in late 2012. Emirati authorities eventually released him. The fraud charges the Tajiks had issued appear to have been politically motivated.
Opposition to Rakhmon is dangerous business. When another former businessmen went into politics last year, he was promptly arrested. In December, after a closed trial, the Supreme Court found Zaid Saidov guilty of fraud, corruption, statutory rape and polygamy and sentenced him to 26 years in prison. Authorities then began persecuting his lawyer.
Kuvatov used to enjoy close relations with Rakhmon. Could he have taken some kompromat about the president with him into exile?
In case you happen to be in Tajikistan and are tempted to protest tomorrow, beware: The Interior Ministry wishes you to know it has put surveillance cameras all over Dushanbe.