The government’s persecution in Tajikistan of its domestic opposition in recent months has been relentless and systematic. Now a briefing paper issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee documents how the hunt for critics of Tajik authorities is extending far beyond the country’s borders.
The typically young and tech-savvy activists who have dabbled in online discussions about the shortcomings of President Emomali Rahmon’s administration have faced a range of reprisals, from extradition and arbitrary trials to physical intimidation and threats leveled at their families.
In one notorious case, a disaffected former Rahmon associate was gunned down in Istanbul, Turkey.
Political opposition inside Tajikistan has long been associated almost exclusively with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT). Until 2015, the party was tolerated by the government — if only barely. Things began going downhill in March, when a violation-ridden election resulted in the IRPT losing its only two seats in parliament. The IRPT’s demise was sealed in September, when the government accused it of plotting to seize power in a violent uprising.
“What remains now is the opposition abroad. Everybody at home has been put away, and the IRPT has been outlawed,” said Marius Fossum, a researcher with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Activists are spread widely, mainly across the former Soviet space, in countries like Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, while others are based in Turkey.
The individuals highlighted by HRW and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee are linked with several loosely structured groupings, such as Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan, Group 24 and Congress of Constructive Forces of Tajikistan.
Group 24 was so named for the number of its founding members and used to be led by Umarali Quvvatov, a businessman who had ties to Rahmon’s son-in-law before being forced to go into exile in 2012. Last March, Quvvatov was shot dead in Istanbul in a killing that his associates have said was motivated by the Rahmon government’s desire to silence a figure with inner knowledge of the presidential family’s various financial machinations.
There is little certainty what real influence Group 24 has ever had to mobilize the public inside Tajikistan, particularly since its activities have been confined to online social media sites and other virtual forums like Internet radio messaging system Radio Zello.
All the same, Group 24 managed to deeply worry authorities in October 2014 when it disseminated calls through social media for followers to gather for anti-governments rallies in the center of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe.
The reaction has been exhaustive, and repression extended to even those loosely connected to Group 24, which does not even maintain a membership list. “If you consider yourself a member, then you might be a member. But some people who are not considered members, and do not consider themselves members, have still been charged with membership,” said Fossum.
The HRW and Norwegian Helsinki Committee paper lists numerous cases, but some are particularly egregious.
In March 2015, Firdavs Mukhiddinov, 25, and Farhod Karimov, 20, were sentenced to 16-and-a-half years in prison each for belonging to Group 24, which Tajik authorities have designated an extremist organization. Karimov denied even belonging to the group, but did confess to having an “insulting” image of Rahmon on his computer. Mukhiddinov’s parents said the young man’s dealings with Group 24 were limited to one-off participation in a rally against the Tajik government held in the Russian city of Novosibirsk.
In some cases, opposition activity consisted of mere critical posts on websites like Facebook, as happened to Group 24 member Shabnam Khudoydodova.
After learning that she might face deportation from St. Petersburg, where she lived, Khudoydodova fled for Belarus on the way to Poland, hoping to obtain asylum there. Instead, she was turned back by Polish border guards and is now in detention in Belarus battling Tajik efforts to have her extradited.
Khudoydodova “dabbled in what any normal young person who operates on social media does, which is vent about reflections about their own society, and not necessarily engage in any systematic platform. That is enough in the current environment to incur the wrath of the authorities,” said HRW researcher Steve Swerdlow.
The case of Maqsood Ibragimov, the now-imprisoned founder of Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan, highlights how fellow authoritarian former Soviet states often abet repression. Ibragimov has Russian citizenship and had lived in Moscow since the mid-2000s, which he must have imagined would keep him safe. And yet in January 2015, he was grabbed off the streets of Moscow, forced onto a plane and flown to Dushanbe, where he was arrested on arrival. He was sentenced to 13 years in jail on extremism charges in July.
That appears to have been a fairly straightforward example of kidnapping, but sometimes Tajik authorities try to play it by the book. “Tajik security services are abusing extradition and hunting everybody and anybody,” Swerdlow said. “Russian security services, and many of the security services of the other countries where perceived government critics are located are willingly complicit.”
The ambivalent stance of countries ostensibly supporting democratic freedoms further deflates those hoping for change in Tajikistan.
It emerged earlier in February that the United States plans to disburse an additional $40 million in military aid, with much of it earmarked for Tajikistan. Washington’s security agenda typically trumps considerations about political or religious freedoms.
In addition, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov, who traveled to Brussels for talks with the European Union, batted away reporters’ queries about human rights issues and managed to walk away with a pledge of 251 million euros ($279 million) in fresh development funding.
The wave of intimidation is having a palpably chilling effect on online public discourse among Tajiks. Yet, the nature of social media is such that yet more people may fall prey to random reprisals, even those who believe themselves safe and out of reach.
“Young people are young people. Especially for those on social media, it’s very hard to change your social media DNA and not be yourself,” Swerdlow said. “A lot of people are so used to using social media that they have a hard time censoring themselves, and they’re not able to do it, so we are going to continue to see people being targeted by the government in this arbitrary and irrational way.”