Fatima Davlyatova. Source: Shabnam Khudodoydova. It was one of the most beautiful days in the life of ten-year old Fatima Davlyatova. She woke up in the morning full of hope and vigour, although the journey she was about to undertake was meant to be long and arduous. At 5pm on 3 August, together with her 65-year-old grandmother and 18-year-old uncle, Fatima got into a taxi, thinking that she was leaving her hometown of Kulob in Tajikistan forever.
With passports in their hands, the family headed to Dushanbe, the capital, to board the 6:50 morning flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan. There, they were meant to collect visas to Poland in to reunite with Fatima’s mother, Shabnam Khudoydodova, an exiled human rights activist, whom they have not seen since June 2011.
But Fatima and her family never made it to Kazakhstan. Before takeoff, Tajik security agents walked onto the plane and asked the family to come with them. The three were then locked in a closed, hot room for eight hours without water, food or access to a bathroom, unaware of the reason behind their detention. Only later did they discover that their journey was interrupted because their names featured on a list of wanted persons. Upon the release, the three were forced to sign documents acknowledging this fact.
Holding children and families of exiled regime critics hostage in Tajikistan has become one of the cruelest methods in the Tajik security services’ repertoire of repression. It is also one of the most common. Unable to fully control the actions of the opposition abroad, Emomali Rahmon’s regime has resorted to various forms of oppression against the family members of political exiles, including the confiscation of passports and property, questioning, direct threats and arbitrary detention.
“In the past few years, the government has detained family members, publicly humiliated them, removed them from their jobs, confiscated their property and taken their passports to prevent them leaving the country”
“One method the government has increasingly used is harassing their relatives back in Tajikistan. This practice is rooted in the Soviet concept of collective punishment, by which the families of dissidents were also considered guilty by association,” Edward Lemon, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the department of political science, Columbia University, tells me.
“In the past few years, the government has detained family members, publicly humiliated them, removed them from their jobs, confiscated their property and taken their passports to prevent them leaving the country. Children have also been targeted as part of this cruel campaign.”
Repressions strengthened in the autumn of 2015, when the government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the only real opposition group in the country, and included it in the list of terrorist organisations. Following the ban, hundreds of party members fled the country seeking refuge in Russia, Turkey and the European Union, while others were sentenced to long years of imprisonment in notoriously biased trials.
Shabnam Khudodoydova. But repressions were not only confined to the IRPT. Foreign-based critics of the government, including members of the oppositionist Group 24, have also experienced the long arm of Tajik security services. Shabnam Khudoydodova was one of them. In 2015, having realised that the Tajik security services were after her for her criticism of the government, she left St Petersburg, where she lived, and took the well-travelled route through Belarus to Poland. On 13 June, she asked for asylum in Brest, but the Polish border guard did not allow her entry.
Shortly after, Khudoydodova was arrested by the Belarusian security services — Tajikistan placed her name in the INTERPOL list of persons wanted for extremism. She spent nine months in a Belarusian prison. Only with the help of the US State Department and human rights groups did Khudoydodova manage to get out of prison and claim asylum in Poland. She received refugee status in June 2017.
But Khudoydova’s path to safety did not end with crossing the Polish-Belarusian border. In Tajikistan, she left her young daughter and mother, who were then to accept the punishment for their beloved mother’s and daughter’s political activism.
“There were protests against my daughter, people went into the classroom, beat her up,” Khudoydodova recalls. “They pointed at my daughter and said: ‘meet a terrorist’. Then they brought her home, my mom took her from them, they threw eggs, stones, apples at her, beat her with their hands, broke a window, the door.”
“They said to my mother: ‘if your daughter doesn’t stop, we will kill you.’ Then they said they would burn the house down. Of course, it was horrible for me. My niece wrote me on Viber: ‘please do something, your daughter keeps crying, she’s afraid, we all are.’”
According to Saipira Furstenberg, project manager of the University of Exeter’s Central Asia Political Exiles Database, humiliation plays a central role in the psychological pressure exerted on family members. “The authorities frequently remind local residents about the ‘shame’ that the exiles have brought on their family members. Relatives of the exile activists are often treated with hostility and blamed by their communities for the political activities of their exile family member.”
When Khudoydodova entered Poland, the Tajik authorities confiscated the passports of her family members to prevent them from leaving the country. In 2017, she hired a lawyer and in January 2018 the security services returned the passports to her relatives. For her activism, Khudoydodova’s brother was expelled from university. Her mother now suffers from hypertension.
“The travel ban placed on this ten year old girl, her grandmother and brother are entirely politically-motivated, have no basis in Tajik or international law”
In 2018, Khudoydodova finally received a positive decision on her application for family reunification. She immediately sent her relatives money to buy plane tickets to Almaty, where they could obtain a Polish visa in a local consulate. She did not expect, however, that for the Tajik regime, her case was far from closed.
“The travel ban placed on this ten year old girl, her grandmother and brother are entirely politically-motivated, have no basis in Tajik or international law, and are designed to cruelly retaliate against an activist for exercising her fundamental right of free expression,” Hugh Williamson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, told me.
“A daughter should be with her mother and this action by the Tajik government truly shocks the conscience. All of Tajikistan’s international partners, including the US and EU, should articulate their strong concerns with this practice both publicly and privately, signaling that their bilateral relationships with Dushanbe will suffer as a result of this policy of retaliating against family members,” Williamson added.
The family of Shabnam Khudoydodova are further awaiting the possibility to reunite with her. But they are not the only ones. The relatives of a well-known Tajik lawyer, Jamshed Yorov, who is awaiting asylum decision in Poland, were stopped by the security services at their doorstep in February 2017 and prevented from leaving the house. That day they were planning to flee to Russia. Security services have also threatened to rape Yorov’s 15-year-old daughter.
Last week, the Tajik authorities allowed Ibrahim Hamza Tillozoda, the grandson of IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri, and his mother to leave the country. Hamza suffers from an advanced form of cancer which requires specialist treatment abroad. It was only thanks to international pressure that the authorities decided to issue passports for the boy and his mother.
“The Tajik security services are psychologically torturing the relatives of the regime’s political opponents. I’m not the only one,” Khudoydodova said. “When I called my daughter, [before the flight] she was so happy. She said: ‘Mum, they separated us for no reason’. I will raise the case with international organisations and diplomats to help my family. My daughter should be next to me.”