Emomali Rakhmon likes dazzling figures: the height of Tajikistan’s newest flagpole; the record-breaking weight of the latest cotton harvest; and the number of small hydroelectric power projects popping up around his country.
Last month, the Tajik president boasted that 250 small- and medium-sized hydropower plants have opened “in recent years” and another 190 are on their way, the state-run Khovar news agency quoted him as saying. In fact, 23 have been built so far in 2011, according to government figures released last week.
These figures may help ease the pain of earlier-than-normal electricity rationing. In September, authorities announced rolling blackouts, not only for remote areas, but also for Dushanbe, the capital. The blackouts are common in winter, when water levels drop in rivers, leaving some areas with only 2-4 hours of electricity per day. But they usually start in October or November.
On October 14, courts in northern Tajikistan found two journalists guilty of crimes related to doing their jobs, local news agencies reported.
BBC reporter Urinboy Usmonov was sentenced to three years for not tattling on his sources. He was then released under amnesty. Makhmadyusuf Ismoilov, who has spent the last 11 months in prison on charges of “insult,” slander and inciting hatred after publishing a series of articles exposing local government corruption in his home district, was fined over $7,000 and forbidden from reporting for three years.
Their ordeals and guilty verdicts are a warning to other journalists. Both plan to appeal.
Ismoilov had faced 16 years for his reporting in Nuri Zindagi, a weekly with a circulation of about 2,000. His fine is several times the average annual salary in Tajikistan.
In June, Usmonov, a reporter with the BBC’s Uzbek service, was arrested and held for a month on suspicion of belonging to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamist extremist group. After intense diplomatic pressure, authorities lessened his charges to contacting radicals without ratting them out (i.e. interviewing them).
Both cases have received extensive international attention, which appears to have paid off. It is rare for charges to be reduced in Tajikistan, where acquittals are almost unheard of.
Officials in Tajikistan have been promising to build Central Asia’s biggest mosque for years, celebrating each step as if they had already set another Guinness record. Yesterday, they finally broke ground. For the second time, that is.
President Emomali Rakhmon laid a foundation stone back in 2009, the BBC reported at the time, when the project was expected to take five years.
The mosque in the Tajik capital will accommodate 115,000 worshippers, according to press reports, and cost $100 million. Dushanbe will pay $30 million; the rest is financed by Qatar.
Part of a large Qatari development that will include luxury-housing towers, Dushanbe’s chattering classes suspect the grand mosque is a sweetener that has allowed the Qataris to proceed with their other building plans. Dushanbe’s luxury building boom, which has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, has done little to alleviate rapidly rising housing prices, RFE/RL reported recently.
Of course, many in Tajikistan, where roughly half the working-age male population travels abroad seeking employment, are asking if the government might not kick a little more cash into social services, rather than more architectural bling.
Dushanbe will no longer send its citizens on the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca wearing the humble white robes of pilgrims from all corners of the Islamic world. Instead, according to RFE/RL, starting next month pilgrims from Tajikistan will look more like Olympic athletes representing their homeland.
It seems Tajik pilgrims will stand out from the crowd when the annual hajj pilgrimage begins in Mecca next month.
A new hajj uniform has been designed by Tajikistan's Committee for Religious Affairs and will soon be distributed to the country's 5,500 prospective pilgrims.
Men will don two-piece suits, while women wear long-sleeved dresses complete with head scarves, committee officials told local media.
The Tajik hajj uniform is embroidered with the country's symbols, possibly the nation's flag or coat of arms, religious officials said.
The inscription of the country's name, in Latin letters, will be prominently seen on women's head scarves and men's shirt pockets.
The garments come with matching suitcases.
The uniforms cost $50 per person (teachers in Tajikistan only make about $70 per month). The underlying question, however profane, is: Who is profiting off this scheme?
Tajik authorities are usually reluctant to trust Islamic extremists -- except when they’re ratting out others.
Just two months ago, Dushanbe dropped troublesome charges that a BBC reporter was a member of a banned Islamic radical group.
But this week a court in Khujand read a letter by an imprisoned “Hizb-ut-Tahrir leader” claiming that Urinboy Usmonov is indeed a supporter of the group, the Asia-Plus news agency reported on September 20.
Usmonov, who works for the BBC’s Uzbek service, was disappeared in June and later charged with being a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. He spent a month in jail, where he was denied legal counsel and claims he was tortured until a chorus of international opprobrium embarrassed Dushanbe into releasing him. He still faces charges of not informing Tajikistan’s security services about his meetings with Islamists, however – meetings he says he held as a reporter. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists say the sham charge “criminalizes journalism.”
So what to make of the new testimony? Is someone in the government trying to resurrect the case against Usmonov? He is supposedly only being tried for not tattling on his sources. Could members of Tajikistan’s intelligence services be trying to save face, embarrassed at being reprimanded for the investigation and arrest?
Not content with the highest, Tajikistan will now also have the longest flag in the world. Fear not the expense: Tajiks can surely overlook their brutal poverty to take pride in a two-kilometer-long national flag.
“The flag was made by employees of the Dushanbe-based Tajiktekstil [textile plant] and the Dushanbe mayor’s office has already lodged an application to the Guinness Book of Records,” the spokesman said.
Speaking of greatness, Dushanbe Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloyev is feeling especially sycophantic with all these new monuments in his city. Though often considered a rival to President Emomali Rakhmon, Ubaydulloyev, speaking on state television September 6, said the president’s deeds (presumably more than just producing poles, flags and the like) should be “written with golden letters” in that great book of Guinness.
As the world winces at allegations Tajik authorities tortured a BBC journalist, a new cache of Wikileaked US diplomatic cables provides insight into the challenge of even discussing human rights in Tajikistan.
Several of the dispatches date back to an episode in late 2005, when US diplomats tried to organize a roundtable with university students to mark the UN’s Human Rights Day. Why students? Because this is a touchy topic their “government brethren smile at politely and ignore,” then-Ambassador Richard Hoagland writes in a cable, “The Grinch Who Stole Human Rights Day.”
When it comes time to hold the event, behind the scenes officials do everything they can to thwart it. At one university venue, and then the next, Tajik and Russian diplomats used “fabricated excuses that canceled the planned discussions.”
Once Tajikistan’s image is at stake, however, the official tone changes, a cable entitled “The Grinch Changes His Mind” explains. Astutely appealing to authorities’ vanity, an American diplomat dropped word at the MFA that the US embassy was drafting its annual human rights report and “this current development would not reflect at all well in Tajikistan's evaluation.” The Americans were allowed to proceed with their “lecture” – as one Tajik official described it.
“In Tajikistan, we are increasingly convinced that the grade-school lesson of how to react to playground bullies is pertinent: give them an inch and they'll continue to take ten miles,” Hoagland writes.
Life for Tajikistan’s conscripts manning the drug-infested Afghanistan border is dismal. Frequent reports tell us they are cold, hungry and untrained (“recruits fire only nine shots over a 40-day” Russian-led training). But life for their dogs may be even worse, we now have learned thanks to Wikileaked American embassy cables.
Some might find the timing a little offensive. On the second day of the holy month of Ramadan, Tajikistan’s president has banned children from entering mosques.
Ignoring resistance from the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), human rights groups and the United States, Rakhmon signed the law -- which breezed through Tajikistan’s two rubber-stamp chambers of parliament -- on August 2, Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reported.
Rakhmon has overseen a risky set of measures to stem the rising influence of Islam lately. As The Economist recently argued, “driving believers underground” is not the most logical way to combat faith:
Late last year Mr Rakhmon’s government stepped up a campaign to close unregistered mosques, while making it almost impossible for new mosques to register, even though government officials write the sermons. Then he ordered thousands of students of Islam abroad to return home, without offering them an alternative once they arrived. This spring police took to harassing bearded men on the streets. A professional footballer was told to shave or get off the team.
Think Tajikistan’s officials don’t care how their country is viewed abroad? Well, the release of a BBC reporter detained for one month on dubious charges of collusion with a radical group seems to have worried President Emomali Rakhmon. Journalist Urunboy Usmonov was released on July 14 just hours after Rakhmon’s advisor tried to distance the president from the arrest. (Usmonov is out, but still faces charges of not tattling on his alleged sources, members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and cannot leave the country.)
Suhrob Sharipov, head of the Strategic Research Centre under the Tajik President, was quoted by Asia-Plus as saying:
“Rakhmon recently visited Europe, where he had very important meetings with the leadership of various countries and bodies. [He] was trying to improve the republic’s image in Europe. Then he returns and this happens. So the displeasure of European bodies with which the president had just met followed immediately thereafter.”
(They were already displeased, actually, and told him so.)
According to Sharipov, the arrest – which brought widespread international condemnation -- was the fault of the overzealous security services, who may need to weed out incompetent officers from their ranks.