On 16 June 2014, my friend and colleague Alexander Sodiqov was arrested and detained while working on a research project, under my supervision in the Republic of Tajikistan. Since then he has been held without charge, under suspicion of espionage and treason under article 305 of the Tajik criminal code. Conviction under this article carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
I was in Tajikistan at the time of the arrest. I left within 48 hours of Alex’s detention as I was advised that the absurd allegations against Alex put me under threat of arbitrary arrest myself. Since then, I have been working with colleagues at the University of Exeter to make sure Alex, a researcher contracted by the University, receives full support. We have provided a large amount of evidence to the Government of Tajikistan and the defence lawyers, which show that our research project, Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia, is purely academic.
I have also worked with hundreds of colleagues all over the world to launch a campaign for Alex’s release. However, I have refrained from writing on the matter to give time for the investigation to conclude and the evidence of Alexander’s innocence to accumulate. I have chosen to break my silence now as Alexander has been held for over a month without any formal announcement of charges.
What has happened is devastating for Alex’s family including his wife Musharraf and young daughter Erica (please read this poignant article by Mrs Sodiqova). Each day of Alex’s detention is a day of pain for them, and a day of injustice. However, Alex’s case also matters for Tajikistan and the wider region.
The most immediate issues raised by the detention are those of international scholarly cooperation with Tajikistan and the apparently diminishing space for civil society in the country.
The end of academic freedom?
Tajikistan has never before been a no-go area for academic research. Alex’s detention is unprecedented. In arresting a young researcher and one of its brightest citizens the country has effectively sent a message that all researchers are under threat.
What I had failed to understand was how much academic research is an object of suspicion for some in the security services.
Perhaps naively, I had previously felt that my research was not important enough for me to be considered a threat even if my conclusions were sometimes inconvenient for the Government of Tajikistan and its international partners. What I had apparently failed to understand was how much academic research is an object of suspicion for some in the security services. Such people, it seems, do not accept researchers operating in Tajikistan without express permission of the government (despite article 30 of Tajikistan’s constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and association).
The suspicion that foreign academics are adjuncts of foreign intelligence services, demonstrates a failure to understand the culture of the academy in the West. Western academics, such as myself, are often some of their own governments’ most outspoken critics. The merest glance at both our research project and our public profiles, would show that Alex and I spend so much time on teaching and research that we barely have the time, yet alone the inclination, to engage in political activity. Indeed, much of our writing and teaching is critical of Western foreign policies towards Tajikistan.
However, in the shadow of the division between ‘West’ and ‘East’ that has emerged in Ukraine, it seems it is no longer possible to be accepted as independent. A viewpoint rises to the fore saying that you are either with us or against us. It is such a mind-set that seeks to justify Alex’s detention, and which makes social research in Tajikistan impossible in current circumstances.
A threat to civil society?
The atmosphere that quickly engulfed Tajikistan after Alex’s arrest made it difficult for all but the bravest citizens of Tajikistan to speak of the absurdity of the allegations against Alex. Most of our campaign activities were published by independent media in Tajikistan, and the international press. That the campaign was able to generate international media attention was interpreted by some as evidence that this was an official campaign against Tajikistan.
This is a terrible tragedy. In some of the state media, the allegations of a ‘foreign plot’ were repeated to justify the detention of an innocent man despite the lack of any evidence to support their claims. My friends in Tajikistan speak of conspiracy theories coming to dominate over rational debate, and of the misrepresentation of Alex as disloyal to Tajikistan.
I know that nothing could be further from the truth. Alex loves Tajikistan and is committed to improving our understanding of its politics, economy and culture. He is fluent in Tajik, Russian and English, and is one of the most talented young professionals in the country. He has taken on positions of responsibility in the media and children’s healthcare there at a young age.
Since Alex’s arrest, many other civil society activities have been put on hold or meetings relocated to other countries.
Since Alex’s arrest, I have heard how many other civil society activities have been put on hold or meetings relocated to other countries. The very international and local programmes that young people like Alex benefit from and work for are now placed in jeopardy by the consequences for civil society of his detention.
The end of international educational cooperation?
International educational cooperation relies on the willingness of all partners to accept basic freedoms of speech and association. Why should talented Tajik researchers and students want to return to the country if this is how they are going to be treated simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Scholarship opportunities and educational cooperation programmes are untenable in these circumstances. Many young Tajiks will lose out unless Alexander Sodiqov is freed, and Tajikistan remains open to research and civil society. Alexander has been painted in some sections of the Tajik press as part of a privileged elite, when he is actually a scholarship award holder with a modest background.
However, many of the children of the privileged elite of Tajikistan – government ministers and businessmen – do study at Western universities. These persons value the banks, legal systems, schools and universities for their children. The question arises, why leading academics should teach the children of members of a government which imprisons one of their colleagues under false allegations.
At the University of Exeter we have hosted many scholars from Tajikistan – from universities in Dushanbe, Khujand and Badakhshon – under international programmes. We have educated several Tajikistani scholars to doctoral level. We have undertaken cooperation agreements with universities in Tajikistan, and were about to arrange a placement for one of our PhD students to teach at a state university in Garm. The arrest of one of our members of staff makes ongoing and future cooperation very difficult.
Academic associations representing almost 100,000 scholars have now issued statements of concern about Alex’s detention, and calling on the Government of Tajikistan to release the young researcher.
The shocking detention of Alexander Sodiqov has undermined Tajikistan’s reputation as a country which values scholarship, and risks placing it alongside Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as states effectively closed to research in the social sciences.
It is unlikely that new partnerships for educational cooperation and the development of civil society can be launched or continued while an innocent young researcher, who is a respected member of the global community studying Central Asia, is detained under specious accusations.
But these worrying consequences of Alex’s detention are reversible. I still hope for a just conclusion to the investigation into our research project, which will allow Alex to be released.
Please sign the petition at: http//:freealexsodiqov.org
Alexander Sodiqov was released on bail on 22 July, 2014 subsequent to the publishing of this article.