A court in Tajikistan has sentenced an opposition activist to 13 years in jail as the authorities continue to pursue an indiscriminate campaign to stifle all dissent.
The sentencing of Maqsood Ibragimov, 37, which has so far been reported only by France-based human rights activist Nadezhda Atayeva, brings a close to an episode that highlights the extent to which the Tajik government is going to silence its critics.
Ibragimov must have thought his Russian passport and self-imposed exile status in Moscow would keep him safe, but that was not to be.
He began attracting unwanted attention after founding the "Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan" opposition movement last year.
In October, Dushanbe demanded he be handed over to face charges of extremism, which is how it characterises the political activities of staunch government critics.
That same month, Ibragimov was stabbed by an unknown assailant near his home in Moscow. It might have been worse. The handgun that was found on the site of the attack seems to have malfunctioned.
Quite how Ibragimov actually ended up in Tajikistan is subject of confused accounts.
In the latest version outlined by Atayeva on July 15, Ibragimov was confronted in January outside a prosecutor’s office in Moscow by a group of unknown people, who proceeded to confiscate his Russian passport. He was later taken to an airport and flown to Dushanbe. Atayeva said Ibragimov was tortured and forced to confess that he had returned to Tajikistan of his own will.
The Asia-Plus news website offers a slightly different version of events. It says Ibragimov was stripped of his Russian passport and that authorities in Russia, where he has lived for around 15 years, extradited him to Tajikistan.
Ibragimov’s citizenship has indeed complicated the Tajik government’s efforts to nab him. Moscow has in other cases — notably that involving suspects in the murder in London of turncoat spy Alexander Litvinenko — been adamant about upholding a constitutional provision prohibiting the deportation or extradition of Russian citizens from Russia. Atayeva said no written confirmation has ever been provided to confirm Ibragimov had been stripped of Russian citizenship.
Circumstantial evidence points to a degree of collusion between the two countries’ security services aimed at circumventing problematic bureaucratic hitches.
Cooperation between the Tajik and Russian security services runs deep, with the extradition of alleged terrorists and dissidents common. In a July 2013 report, Amnesty International documented the ways in which Russian and Central Asian governments collude to abduct, extradite and torture.
Ibragimov’s supporters have said his movement was about social justice and deny he was pursuing a regime-change agenda. In fact, he was also affiliated with the opposition coalition “New Tajikistan,” which frequently called for President Emomali Rakhmon’s resignation.
Inciting opposition to Tajikistan’s government among the economically vital migrant community in Russia, which is what Ibragimov was presumably suspected of doing, would have been seen as a form of noxious scheming against the state.
New Tajikistan’s former leader, Zaid Saidov, is currently serving a 26-year sentence on charges of statutory rape, fraud and polygamy after a trial widely condemned for irregularities.
The suppression of opposition in Tajikistan is being exercised in all directions. Ibragimov and Saidov were outside the system and may have had some inkling of the risks they were facing.
But the government is now also hounding the last remaining substantial opposition force operating within the country, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, out of existence.
On top of that, the harassment of devout Muslims is commonplace and explained away as an effort to stamp out extremism. Since no scrutiny is allowed into prosecutions against alleged radicals, however, it is unclear if the government is combating actual extremism or just trying to ensure all of society bows to its strictures.
Finally, there are the occasional arrests of government insiders, whose downfall hints at potential behind-the-scenes skirmishes.