The leadership of what was once Tajikistan’s last surviving genuine opposition party has been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, ending a trial that has sealed the country’s inexorable descent into full-fledged authoritarianism.
The Supreme Court in Dushanbe sentenced Mahmadali Hayit and Saidumar Khusaini, deputy leaders of the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, to life in prison, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Ozodi, reported on June 2.
IRPT faced accusations that it was involved in an alleged attempted coup in September that authorities say was mounted by a disaffected deputy defense minister.
Another 12 leading party figures were handed sentences of between two and 28 years in jail at the end of the closed-doors trial, according to lawyers and relatives of the accused.
The mildest sentence, two years in jail, was reserved for Zarafo Rahmoni, the only woman on trial. The others senteced were Rahmatullo Rajab, Kiemiddin Avazov, Abdukahhor Davlat, Sattor Karimov (28 years), Zubaydulloh Roziq (25 years), Fayzmuhammad Muhammadalii (23 years), Rustam Sadiddin (20 years), Vohidkhon Qosiddinov (20 years), Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda (16 years), Mahmadsharif Nabiev and Abdusamad Ghairatov (14 years). All were members of IRPT political council, except for Ghairatov, who led the party cell in the southern Kulob region.
The sentences are in line with what had been expected and reflect the rapid decline of Tajikistan’s political freedoms and human rights.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are betraying a note of panic ahead of planned nationwide demonstrations by rounding up activists and sticking them behind bars.
Activists reported on social media accounts that police on May 17 barged into several homes of hopeful meeting participants and took them into detention.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, reported that at least five people were detained in Almaty. One of the people held by police was Yermek Narymbayev, who was recently convicted, but later given a suspended sentence, on charges of incitement to ethnic strife.
Narymbayev wrote on his Facebook account that another two Almaty activists, Suyundyk Aldabergenov and Bakytzhan Toregozhina, had been ordered to serve 15 days in jail. In an indication of the authorities' determination to keep as many potential rally organizers off the streets, the court passed its verdict against Aldabergenov and Toregozhina after 10 p.m.
The rallies planned for May 21 were scheduled ahead of a government decision to shelve proposed land auctions that had sparked widespread discontent. Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced subsequently that a state commission was to be set up to discuss privatization of land and that talks would include prominent opposition figures. Critics of the authorities have insisted, however, that it is necessary to keep up the tempo of public demonstrations to ensure that the government keeps to its word.
In the wake of fresh arrests in Kyrgyzstan of would-be coup plotters, President Almazbek Atambayev indulged in another surreal tirade on May 15 against opposition politicians and nongovernmental groups.
The remarks came three days after the arrest of several prominent government critics — former Agriculture Minister Bekbolot Talgarbekov, ex-Finance Minister Marat Sultanov, one-time presidential candidate Torobay Kolubayev — on charges of plotting to seize power. Evidence provided by the authorities for the supposed coup scheme dreamed up by Talgarbekov, Sultanov and Kolubayev consists so far of a recorded conversation that left many skeptical. In a separate case, inveterate troublemaker and businessman Nurlan Motuyev is in hot water over his repeated and downright bizarre praise for the Islamic State group.
But Atambayev is in no mood to wait for due process and quoted eccentrically at an event at his presidential residence from a well-known poem, Quartet by early 19th century Russian writer Ivan Krylov, to deride the jailed foursome. The brief satirical poem tells the story of a group of animals — a monkey, a donkey, a goat and a bear — who try in vain to form a musical ensemble, much to the mockery of a nightingale.
“You, my friends, no matter what your positions, will never be musicians,” Atambayev noted gleefully, quoting the nightingale.
The caustic irreverence sounds an odd note against what the government has sought to cast as the mounting specter of potentially violent sedition. Another three opposition figures from an unrelated faction were arrested in March on the basis of similar accusations of plotting the “violent overthrow of power.”
A state prosecutor in Tajikistan has demanded life sentences for opposition figures on trial for their supposed involvement in an alleged coup in September.
The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan’s official website, Payom.net, reported on May 11 that four of its leading members could be sentenced to life in jail, while members of the party’s political council face terms of between 16 and 30 years.
Only one person on trial, IRPT deputy chairman Zarafo Rahmoni, faces a slightly less draconian sentence of five years in prison.
IRPT stands accused of financing and organizing a purported attempt to overthrow the government that officials say was led by disaffected deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda in September.
The startling severity of the proposed sentences appears to be an attempt to frighten anybody even vaguely contemplating any form of dissent in the future. The most severe term handed down to a political opponent to date was reserved for Zaid Saidov, who was in 2013 sentenced to 26 years in jail, a term later extended to 29 years.
Nazarzoda was reportedly killed in a gunfight with government forces on September 16. Senior IRPT members were arrested later that same month.
The trial was held behind closed doors, journalists were officially denied access to the hearings and informally warned to avoid even referring to the case. Even lawyers for the IRPT members were themselves jailed after taking up the case.
Earlier this month, Nazarzoda’s 28-year old son, Bahtiyor Nazarov, was sentenced to 22 years in jail, also for alleged involvement in attempts to overthrow the government.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has had two big wins to celebrate in recent times in a part of the country where his popularity is debatable.
Still, he has much to occupy his mind, as the increasing number of arrests of no-name, non-parliamentary opposition figures appears to indicate.
Last week brought good news for the government, dominated by Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), as a week-long border standoff with Uzbekistan came to a conclusion on March 26 with no shots fired.
The following day, SDPK edged out rival parties to claim most of the seats in the the council of the southern city of Osh, the most important of several municipal councils elected Sunday. The party can expect to form a majority with one or more parties.
Both victories should taste sweet. Regarding Uzbekistan, the executive can claim it turned a precarious situation into a diplomatic triumph without publicly losing face. Authorities have noted that the negotiations that led to the drawdown of forces reportedly came at Tashkent’s request and Uzbekistan pulled back its military first.
In the local politics of the country's second-largest city, which saw major ethnic conflict just six years ago, SDPK can be confident of calling the shots. It polled twice as much as any of the other parties, with 30 percent of the vote, while the stalking horse pro-government Kyrgyzstan Party finished second.
But beyond the formalities of border negotiations and local elections, the security services, which are directly controlled by the the president, have been inexplicably busy.
While the likelihood of an imminent border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan may be dimming, the tension has been ably exploited by Bishkek to head off opposition forces in the act of gathering their strengths.
On March 24, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) announced that it had detained two individuals on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. No full names were provided, but the initials of the suspects, B.A. and K.K., have been reported as being those of Bektur Asanov and Kubanychbek Kadyrov, both figures associated with the emergent southern-based opposition.
Moves against the pair followed the leak of recorded phone conversations — allegedly among Asanov, Kadyrov, another prominent and veteran opposition figure and seasoned rabble-rouser, Azimbek Beknazarov, and a former top government official, Duulatbek Turdunaliev — about purported plans to sow instability and seize power.
Kadyrov, for one, has called the recording a crude edit and complained that his constitutional rights were violated when his phone conversations were recorded.
Whether the recording is indeed fake or not, Kadyrov may be onto something.
The GKNB has claimed that the recordings were obtained through a court order related to a criminal investigation. The security services have not been forthcoming about the nature of that investigation, however, and the sudden timely appearance of the recording online suggests this intercept was part of an orchestrated effort to discredit the opposition.
Kyrgyzstan’s opposition has reportedly nixed plans to hold a large rally in the southern city of Osh amid stewing tensions on the border with Uzbekistan and an escalating public relations war with the government.
One opposition figure, former Jalal-Abad governor Bektur Asanov, told local media the decision to call off the Kurultai, or people’s assembly, on March 24 was taken amid fears of a government “provocation.”
Prior to the announcement, the government had announced plans to bolster security in Osh for the event with a deployment of 3,000 police and 2,000 volunteers.
The show of force indicated Bishkek was taking the opposition more seriously in light of the standoff between Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops at a disputed section of the border.
That is understandable following a March 22 rally in Kerben, a Kyrgyz settlement very close to the elevated territory where both Tashkent and Bishkek have stationed troops and armored vehicles.
The rally organized by regional opposition figures targeted perceived government negligence over the border issue and gathered 700 people according to the Interior Ministry. The opposition claimed the crowd was as large as 2,500 people.
Prime Minister Temir Sariyev flew down to address the Kerben gathering, while nationalist opposition leader and all-round troublemaker Kamchibek Tashiyev, who donned military fatigues for the event, was warmly welcomed by the crowd after issuing calls to resolve the standoff with Tashkent through “people’s diplomacy.”
As explained by news website Zanoza.kg, government and opposition offered competing narratives vis-a-vis the mood at the Kerben rally. One painted Sariyev as a timely pacifier, the other as a sore loser who escaped with the microphone in his hand having been poorly received by angry locals.
Spring has come early in Kyrgyzstan and so the ragtag, non-parliamentary opposition is clamoring for attention. The government does not look like it is going to lose much sleep.
Since early March, southern politicos have been staging rallies demanding the resignation of the northern-dominated government. Issuing such ultimatums at political rallies has been a recurrent feature of Kyrgyz politics for more than a decade.
A March 14 meeting in Jalalabad city hinted these meetings were merely the rehearsal for a bigger March 24 demonstration in the southern city of Osh backed by the recently formed United Opposition Force (UOF).
Speaking at the Jalalabad event, opposition figure Bektur Asanov issued vague ultimatums.
“In ten days in Osh a national Kurultai [people’s gathering] will be held. Atambayev has ten days to resign. Otherwise, he will be removed, in a legal way,” blasted Asanov, a former governor of the Jalal-Abad province.
The timing of the March 24 event is no accident. The date marks the 11th anniversary of a northern-led government's overthrow in what was Kyrgyzstan's first post-Soviet revolution in 2005. Elections for the Osh city council are set to take place three days later, on March 27.
The UOF’s seven-point demands include an appeal for the elections to proceed “without the use of administrative resources.” They are also calling for the formation of a new Cabinet and a freeze on electricity tariffs.
The exiled opposition to President Emomali Rahmon’s rule in Tajikistan has enjoyed a rare reprieve with the news that Belarusian authorities have refused to extradite activist Shabnam Khudoydodova back to her home country.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported that Khudoydodova was released from custody on February 22.
Authorities in Tajikistan has successfully obliterated most political opposition to the government inside the country, but have latterly been attempting to silence critics based abroad.
Khudoydodova was living in St. Petersburg, in Russia, when she learned in July that her government might seek her extradition in reprisal for her online posts calling for democratic reforms. She fled into Belarus on the way to Poland, hoping to obtain asylum there. Instead, she was turned back by Polish border guards and was detained on July 15 by Belarusian police, who were acting on an international request for arrest filed by Tajikistan.
As Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow told EurasiaNet.org in a recent interview, 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,” Swerdlow said.
Opponents of the government appear undeterred, however, and continue to organize protest rallies outside Tajik embassies in several countries.
A political activist recently jailed on charges of inciting ethnic strife has been released pending appeal after issuing a grovelling public recantation for his purported offense.
Serikzhan Mambetalin was freed on January 31 after serving just over a week of his two-year sentence.
“I am at home… How happy I am!” he wrote on his Facebook page on February 1.
Mambetalin’s Facebook page was regularly updated, presumably by his supporters, throughout his trial and incarceration, which began in October.
A court ordered Mambetalin’s release until the appeal is heard, but the activist has been made to sign a written undertaking not to leave his hometown, Almaty.
Mambetalin’s release came after he posted a contrite statement of repentance on his Facebook page on January 29 — a week after he was jailed along with another political activist, Yermek Narymbayev, who remains behind bars.
“The investigation gathered exhaustive evidence of my guilt,” the statement said. “Therefore I fully admit my guilt over the proof presented to me and actively repent.”
Mambetalin has changed his tune since his trial, when he strenuously denied any guilt and denounced the trial — which was condemned by international human rights watchdogs — as a “political order” motivated by his activism and his opposition to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.