The US Ambassador to Tajikistan this week attended the launch of a new printing press intended for the use of the country’s would-be independent media, which has in fact almost all but disappeared.
If one recently published article is anything to go by, however, the only things to be printed freely in Tajikistan these days are anti-opposition screeds.
Ambassador Elisabeth Millard unveiled the press on April 27 alongside Munim Olamov, the secretary general of the Media Alliance, which is comprised of 12 media organizations, and the general director of Imruz News daily newspaper.
As Millard explained, US financial support for creating the press was intended to promote a free media.
“Freedom of expression is one of our country’s core values, and one that we promote in Tajikistan. We sincerely hope that through the use of this printing press, your news agencies will prosper and access to information in Tajikistan will increase as more people are able to regularly read your newspapers,” Millard said, according to a US Embassy press release.
And what sort of information will the public be able to access exactly?
One article that appeared in a supplement inside an edition of Imruz News only days before the printing press opening is highly indicative.
In the piece, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda launches a phenomenal tirade against the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which has been liquidated and had almost its entire leadership stuck behind bars.
Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Russian officers take place in the opening ceremony, in Tajikistan, for the CSTO joint exercises "Poisk 2016" (photo: CSTO)
Russia and several of its allies have wrapped up their first-ever joint military reconnaissance exercises in Tajikistan where they "eliminated" a make-believe ISIS commander who was plotting to seize power in Central Asia.
The exercises took place in Tajikistan's Romit Gorge, where -- incidentally -- Tajikistan security forces last year killed a rogue general who had mutinied and whom Dushanbe (unconvincingly) claimed was part of ISIS. They involved 1,500 military intelligence officers from Russia and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
The primary purpose of the exercise seemed to be to work out joint operations of the CSTO countries' reconnaissance units and equipment (i.e. the forces that allow armed forces to locate and target enemy units). In one phase, for example, helicopter crews dropped paratroopers close to enemy formations and cut off their lines of communication. In another, they used their electronic reconnaissance equipment to target enemy communications points.
Tajikistan industry’s visiting card: That was how President Emomali Rahmon once described aluminum producer TALCO.
But things are looking a bit grim for the company at the moment with the news that it has had to lay off 607 employees, equivalent to 7 percent of the entire workforce, because of low global prices for its product.
Reuters news agency on April 19 cited TALCO press secretary Igor Sattarov as saying that 8,200 workers would be left at the company after the cutback.
Although the loss of employment will come as a massive blow to the laborers affected, the cutback is still quite a bit short of the 2,000 job cuts called for international consultants. Sattarov said TALCO instead opted for a “mitigated plans for the staffing optimization” and has put a number of people on unpaid leave.
International aluminum prices are currently hovering around $1,600 per ton, which marks something of a recovery from the lows seen last year, but still falls short of a figure that would make TALCO seriously profitable.
Wanting to help TALCO out of a tight spot, the government in November granted the company licenses to develop two gold deposits in the northern Sughd province, Konchoch and Chulobi. Usage rights over the deposits will extend to 25 years.
Tajikistan has slipped 34 places in the media rights group Reporters Without Borders annual index in a stark reflection of the country’s intensifying assault on political freedoms this past year.
Tajikistan now stands 150th out of 180 positions.
“On the pretext of combatting terrorism, the government has eliminated the political opposition and is stepping up pressure on the remaining independent media. Interrogation by intelligence officers, intimidation and blackmail have become part of the daily fare of independent journalists. Surveillance of communications is now routine, while the blocking of the main news websites and social networks is virtually permanent.” RSF said in a commentary on Tajikistan to go with the index.
By virtue of the state pressure against reporters, few instances of intimidation gain public attention as even the few remaining independent-minded outlets increasingly exercise robust self-censorship.
Little appears to have improved since the visit in March of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to freedom of expression, David Kaye, who spoke of his concern that instability in Afghanistan was serving as a smokescreen for repression.
“I recognize that there is a serious security problem in this part of the world, in particular in Tajikistan and in this neighborhood. But I’m afraid that the security situation has been used as a pretext, as an excuse, to crack down on freedom of expression, whether in the media or in civil society,” Kaye told a press conference at the conclusion of his visit in Dushanbe.
With Tajikistan now in the midst of its spring conscription drive, the country’s top defense official has given to worrying out loud about the state of discipline and morale among the armed forces.
Asia-Plus last week reported that Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo addressed senior defense personnel to discuss a series of problem areas, including the rampant and often deadly scourge of hazing. There is no reason to believe this problem will be tackled with any vigor, however.
Authorities say they have already enlisted 50 percent of the required number of conscripts this season. The techniques used to hit targets strike terror into the hearts of young Tajik men and for many they amount to little more than legalized mass kidnapping.
Pictures have appeared on social media showing young men being rounded up directly from the streets of the capital, Dushanbe. Social media has also served as a platform in the past for anonymously spreading alleged photographic evidence of hazing among conscripts. Media reported last year on four deaths in Tajikistan as a result of hazing: Firdavs Rahmatov, Abduvahhob Kayumov, Parviz Dustmatov and Azam Ubaidulloev.
In an unhappy piece of timing, a court in Dushanbe has just heard the trial of 22-year old man Umedjon Amrohon, who is accused of involvement in the fatal attack in November on a group of military mobilization personnel. Two of the officers were killed in the assault.
Prosecutors have asked that Amrohon be thrown behind bars for life.
The United States has for the first time formally designated Tajikistan as a "country of particular concern" with respect to religious freedom, while at the same time waiving any potential sanctions that could entail because the country is of "important national interest" to the U.S.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which annually reviews countries' religious freedom practices, has determined that Tajikistan violated the rights of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Since 2012 the commission has recommended Tajikistan be placed on the list of the worst violators of religious freedom around the globe. For the first time this year the State Department agreed, adding Tajikistan to a list that also includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It's unclear what pushed the State Department to finally lose patience this year, but no doubt the dramatic crackdown on the country's only significant opposition political party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, contributed.
By law, this designation could require the U.S. to curtail various forms of aid to Tajikistan, including military aid. But the law in question gives the president significant latitude as to exactly what sorts of sanctions to apply -- they could be limited, for example, to a "private demarche" or the "delay or cancellation of one or more cultural exchanges."
An ugly dust-up in Moscow, seemingly provoked by racial hatred, has landed a migrant laborer from Tajikistan in the hospital and threatens to leave him blind in one eye.
On the evening of April 8, Tajik citizen Sulaiman Saidov was targeted in an apparently unprovoked assault that culminated in him being shot four times with an Osa traumatic handgun.
Saidov’s cousin, Dilshod Abdurahmonov, told EurasiaNet.org that the incident started when the attacker approached Saidov on a metro train and made a threatening remark: “Either you disappear or it will be the end of you.” Judging the man to be drunk, Saidov, who was in a metro carriage with another one of his cousins, 19-year old Muhammadjon Hakimov, ignored the warning.
“But then suddenly the man pulled out a pistol and fired one shot. This all happened inside the carriage. And then he wanted to shoot another guy — Muhammadjon Hakimov, who ran away in fear. When Sulaiman stood his ground, he was shot again twice in the head. When he left the carriage, the [attacker] followed him and in the fight that ensued he shot [Saidov] one more time in the stomach,” Abdurahmonov told EurasiaNet.org.
Abdurahmonov said his cousin’s is serious but stable, but doctors have confirmed that Saidov will likely be blind in one eye.
“We have to have an operation that will cost 120,000 rubles ($1,800). But there are no guarantees they can save his eye. His parents don’t know what has happened. They are elderly and constantly unwell,” Abdurahmonov said.
Saidov has received some support from the embassy of Tajikistan and a pledge of further help from Civic Assistance Committee, a Russian nongovernment organization that assists migrants.
A citizen of Uzbekistan has been sentenced to 16 years in jail for spying for Tajikistan in fresh reminder of the unabated tensions between the two countries.
The way in which the news was revealed is also telling as each side seeks to sharpen its weapons in a long-standing information war.
On April 4, Uzbek state television aired a documentary titled “Traitor” (“Sotkin” in Uzbek) explaining how Sharifjon Asrorov purportedly collaborated with Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security to pass on classified information.
The information in question was related to the situation in prisons, refugees, and military bases and personnel in the Uzbek regions of Surkhandarya, Kashkadarya and Bukhara, the documentary explained.
The film stated that Asrorov, who it said is married to a woman from Tajikistan, confessed to spying.
Traitor was shown at 9 p.m. local time on the main state channel, although the station’s logo was not featured on the screen during the broadcast.
As a station employee explained, these type of programs are rarely advertised in advance, even to the channel’s management, and regularly bump scheduled shows off the running order at the last minute.
“The film was made by the television production unit of the National Security Service [SNB], which has lately taken to producing a lot of films and television programs about terrorism, drug-trafficking and espionage. In the jargon, this is what we call ‘unscheduled programing,’” the station worker told EurasiaNet.org.
As the television station employee said, editorial staff are never informed about the content of SNB films before they are aired. The feature on Asrorov will likely be repeated.
Tajikistan may be about to get a new day off if lawmakers get their way: President’s Day, or to be more exact, Leader of the Nation Day.
This is more personality cult-building in operation here, since the latter title was bestowed on President Emomali Rahmon only last year.
Asia Plus news website reported on April 6 that parliamentarians have already teed up the text for the required legislation.
There are a few candidate dates. One is November 19, the date in 1992 when Rahmon was appointed chairman of Tajikistan’s Supreme Council, one of the first formal steps taken toward him becoming president. Or it could be November 6, which was the date for the presidential elections in 1994, 1999, 2006 and 2013.
But since November 6 already marks Constitution Day, there is also the possibility that a compromise date of October 5 could be agreed upon. That is Rahmon’s birthday.
Ozodagon suggests another possibility: November 6, which marked the start of the 16th session of the Supreme Council of Tajikistan in 1992, which culminated in the historic decision on Rahmon’s chairmanship.
Member of parliament Abduhalim Gafforov told Ozodagon that deputies proposed calling the holiday President’s Day.
“But then again it would be better to call this day Leader’s Day, since there are also other kinds of presidents in other structures, like the Academy of Sciences, for example. But there is only one Leader of the Nation,” Gafforov said.
This is far from the first initiative in creating the burgeoning cult of personality around Rahmon. The last year has seen a particular intensification of this process.
For the first time in Tajikistan, mosque prayer leaders have been arraigned on terrorism charges.
The six people on trial are accused of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization banned in Tajikistan.
This marks a departure from the norm since prayer leaders, or imam khatib, are more commonly targeted with charges of sexual molestation or even witchcraft.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Ozodi, reported on April 5 that the group was arrested in March and have since been in pre-trial detention. Authorities have declined to provide any further information, arguing that it could interfere with the course of investigations.
A lawyer for one of the accused told EurasiaNet.org that the men were detained at various locations around Sughd and that all of them were graduates of the Islamic University of Madinah, in Saudi Arabia.
“The detention of other imam khatibs and spiritual leaders belonging to this group is carrying on. At the moment, their detention has been sanctioned by the court and they are facing official charges,” the lawyer, Faizinniso Vohidova, told EurasiaNet.org.
Vohidova said that investigators argue that the group was recruited to the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s.
The Muslim Brotherhood was banned in Tajikistan in 2006 and declared a terrorist group. That created some discomfort in the period following the revolution in Egypt, when Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was ushered into power through elections in 2012.
Despite implicitly considering Morsi the leader of a terrorist group, Tajikistan demurred from severing diplomatic relations with Egypt.