Left behind: Eurasia’s overlooked political prisoners appeal for justice

Many political prisoners are ignored due to their religion or lack of connections. For civil society groups, working collaboratively might help overcome this challenge of representation.

Ismail Djalilov Tamara Grigoryeva
29 March 2018

Kurbon Manonov, a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan who died in prison in 2016. Source: Manonov family. On an August morning in 2015, Kurbon Manonov woke at dawn, rolled out his mat and knelt down, whispering one verse of the prayer after another, thanking Allah for all the blessings. He then went out onto the porch of his house in Sangi Javozak, a tiny kishlak of seven families in Tajikistan’s Khatlon region. Sipping his morning tea, he gazed at the Pamir Mountains surrounding the kishlak.

For the previous two months, Manonov, the 74-year-old leader of the local branch of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), had been just like the mountains that hold the village in their stony embrace – intransigent and unswerving. After an ISIS flag appeared one morning in June 2015 in downtown Nurek, the neighbouring town, the State Committee of National Security (GKNB) started visiting Manonov, interrogating him, taking him into custody and beating him. The officials demanded that Manonov confess that he was responsible for the flag and that he was supposedly conspiring with ISIS to make Tajikistan part of Islamic State. Manonov denied any association with ISIS and told his family and fellow party members not to worry.

But when the GKNB turned up at his door that morning, he knew it was the end. Accompanied by three GKNB officers, Manonov walked down to the highway in Nurek, and was then driven to the GKNB office in Kurgontepe where he had been previously interrogated. That afternoon the officials brought him, in handcuffs, to the house of his children. He was allowed to change his clothes and hand over the IRPT office key to the authorities. As he was leaving with the GKNB officers for the detention facility, he turned to his children and told them this was the last time he would see them as a free man. As his son recalls, before getting into the officials’ car, his father lingered to look for the last time at the Pamir Mountains.

In September 2015, Tajikistan’s General Prosecutor’s Office, in fear of the party’s popularity and its criticism of the authoritarian practices, declared IRPT a terrorist organisation. A few months later, extremism charges were brought against Manonov and over 200 other party members, according to the IRPT representative in Lithuania Ilhomjon Yokubzoda. Kurbon Manonov received a 15-year sentence for membership in a terrorist group. His son Abdushukur says he spent the next year in prison, and whenever his family was able to visit, he complained about being tortured – beaten in the head, cold water being poured over his body, being denied food and medical care. After being finally admitted to the medical ward of the Dushanbe Ministry of Justice prison in August 2016, Manonov died there on the hospital bed. The GKNB brought his body to the family in Nurek and didn’t leave until the hastily arranged funeral was over. Manonov’s body was committed to the ground at a cemetary surrounded by the Pamir Mountains.

In September 2016, Ilhomjon Yokubzoda took the news about Manonov’s death along with other IRPT cases to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s human rights meeting in Warsaw. He says that representatives of the international community, western governments, civil society listened to him, but remained deathly silent.

Deathly silence

IRPT members describe Manonov as a political prisoner – a subject on which western parliaments and NGOs hold hearings, make statements and run public campaigns. These advocacy efforts, with various degrees of success, help release political prisoners or improve their incarceration conditions. Local civil society groups monitor trials and compile lists of those arrested on political grounds. Across Eurasia, authoritarian states crack down on activists (including people with different political opinions or those practicing their right to religious freedom) to stigmatise and intimidate them, as well as to demonstrate to their societies that this kind of pressure can be applied against anyone. The Eurasia region, notorious for imprisoning the likes of Vaclav Havel, Andrey Sakharov and Khadija Ismayilova, is by no means unacquainted with the issue of political prisoners. Some of them become the face of resistance to oppression. Others, like Manonov, barely get mentioned.


A campaign poster from the Islamic Renaissance Party for Tajikistan’s 2015 parliamentary elections. Ten of the party leaders depicted here are currently behind bars.As Sergey Davidis, head of the Political Prisoners Programme at the Russian organisation Memorial, says, there are cases that easily resonate with the societies in the region, as well as western societies – for example, the cases of journalists and opposition leaders. “People tend to talk more about those whose views are closer to their own,” he says, adding that popular cases can help elevate the overall situation with political prisoners in a given country.

But when it comes to political prisoners, can it really be that some cases are more attractive than others? Why do some cases become known to many, while others are barely mentioned? Turns out that even among the persecuted there is a gradation.

“If something happens to journalists who have worked for western media, their cases get more publicity. Naturally so, because they’d been known in the first place. However, should something happen to those with no such connection, they fall off into oblivion, and working on them isn’t considered particularly ‘sexy’,” says Shahida Tulaganova, an accomplished London-based journalist from Uzbekistan. In her opinion, this is the reason local activists are trying to work with western organisations – it affords them a certain degree of protection.

“If something happens to journalists who have worked for western media, their cases get more publicity”

Barış Altıntaş of the Istanbul-based Media and Law Studies Association echoes Tulaganova’s concern, adding that “The forgotten journalists who don’t have the [right] connections can’t go to the European court, and the same people don’t have access to the western rights organisations, or they don’t have people here who can speak up for them because they’re not part of the [right] ‘tribe’.”

Indeed, IRPT, which played an important role in Tajikistan’s post-civil war reconciliation process, are a good example of those who don’t have a lot of connections in the west and aren’t “part of the right tribe”. “In the past three years, I have travelled all over Europe, met with various officials and human rights groups, explained to them what is happening in Tajikistan and described the atrocities the IRPT prisoners are going through. We have prisoners who received life sentences, prisoners who are very old, prisoners who are being constantly tortured. But we barely see any engagement,” says Ilhomjon Yokubzoda.

Another such outsider group is Azerbaijan’s Muslim Unity Movement (MUM). A number of MUM members and their leader, religious cleric Taleh Bagirzade, were arrested in a 2015 government-orchestrated anti-terrorism operation in Nardaran, a historically conservative village outside Baku. All of the arrested were tortured and received lengthy sentences. Sevinj Huseynova, sister of Abbas Huseynov, a political prisoner of MUM who is serving a 20-year sentence, is frustrated her family member doesn’t receive much attention. Speaking of western governments and international organisations, she says: “They have sold out, they’re beholden somehow, that’s why they don’t want to bring it to the fore, cover it, keep it on the agenda.”


July 2016: family members wait outside as the Baku Court on Serious Crimes opens proceedings against Taleh Bagirzade, members of Muslim Unity and others. Source: Meydan.TV.But a Washington-based Capitol Hill advocacy specialist says the real reason is simply lack of knowledge. “These cases are less known, and, for example, for the U.S. Congress, the connection, and why they should care, is less obvious. Congress people are often very busy, and they just pick something that’s more familiar to them.”

Among other reasons mentioned by those in the field are a lack of concise information in English, lack of legal representation, unwillingness to make an extra effort, anti-Islamic hysteria on an international level as well as class segregation within their own societies and lack of unity among civil societies.

A faceless crowd

But while practitioners describe the obstacles, those with less obvious and comfortable narratives, but yet unjust and politically motivated charges against them, endure extreme hardships behind bars. What’s even more worrisome: these prisoners aren’t seen as individuals, but only as groups. People imprisoned for freedom of religious belief or those who are perceived as such suffer the most. And, according to Norwegian religious freedom outlet Forum-18 editor Felix Corley, the number of people who are being imprisoned for exercising their freedom of religious belief is rapidly increasing in Eurasia.

Sergey Davidis explains that difficulties around the religious prisoners issue is one of the reasons why his organisation prepares two lists – one of religious prisoners (97 people, vast majority of which are Muslim) and general political prisoners (46). Prisoners from Christian or quasi-Christian background receive more attention in comparison to Muslims both in Russia and internationally. In Russia, the most common victims are members of the pan-Islamic political organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a group that Russian authorities banned in 2003. Dozens of people since have been arrested for simply joining meetings or prayers or discussing the doctrine of a caliphate, but there’s hesitation to advocate for them among the civil society.


December 2017: in Kazan, eight men are sentenced to between 18 and 20 years in prison for alleged membership of a "terrorist" cell of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Source: Memorial.“There’s a fear of Islamic terrorism, there’s ISIS. When Muslims are imprisoned for exercising their religious beliefs, they are often imprisoned on extremism and terrorism charges. And of course, in the west, journalists, officials, societies… they see bearded Muslims, and wonder if they are terrorists or not. Sometimes they don’t care enough to look deeper into these issues,” Davidis says, reminding that people who committed or called for violence are never included on the political prisoners lists. Other political prisoners lists, such as the one created by the Working Group on Political Prisoners in the neighbouring Azerbaijan, have the same criteria.

But despite that criteria, advocates become hesitant when dealing with places where little information is available and where historically extremists have indeed originated before. Davidis reminds us of Chechnya where “in the case of attacks on gay men it was clear: the attacks were related to them belonging to the LGBT community,” but when the arrests happen on terrorism charges, those cases are treated with hesitation by practitioners.

Similarly in Uzbekistan the government cut off all information sources and has been falsely imprisoning hundreds of its citizens for allegedly belonging to extremist groups. Tulaganova recalls that when it became clear that the regime in Uzbekistan was imprisoning many people on “religious extremism” charges, “nobody cared.” Those arrested were mostly Muslims, and they were facing religious extremism charges. While there were, in fact, terrorist groups related to Uzbekistan, such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, one of most violent groups that has fought on the side of the Taliban, Uzbek officials have also on multiple occasions falsely arrested people on religious extremism charges for simply having a beard, or attending the mosque, or reading religious literature.

“They’d be mentioned in the reports of the human rights groups, but we didn’t know them as individuals. Everyone who’s convicted under a religious article falls out of the big picture completely”

But due to fear of violent extremism, as well as a lack of information, these people were a “faceless crowd”, Tulaganova says, adding that “they’d be mentioned in the reports of the human rights groups, but we didn’t know them as individuals. Everyone who’s convicted under a religious article falls out of the big picture completely, and, I think, the main reason is because they are Muslim... Just in case, who knows, maybe they are extremists as well.”

In some cases, it’s simply a problem of image and representation, Washington-based advocacy and legal aid group Freedom Now’s executive director Maran Turner says, adding that the IRPT, for example, isn’t even a religious group per se. IRPT is a political party (and for years the only officially registered Islamic party across the former Soviet republics), and the word “Islamic” was added into the name of the party after the collapse of the USSR, but that word does harm the party’s image. Turner recalls being at a conference in 2017 where a Russian activist suggested to the IRPT to change their name.

Internal divisions

But it’s not just a matter of religion or the way international organisations work on those cases. Sometimes, certain political prisoners get overlooked on local civil society level, according to practitioners in the field. In Tajikistan, due to fear of the GKNB and lack of cooperation between various society sub-groups, little work is done on the IRPT political prisoners. In Turkey, where the government has been rapidly cracking down on its opponents following the July 2016 coup d’etat attempt, is one of the vivid examples of internal segregation.

Barış Altıntaş calls it a “class issue, for the lack of a better word”. She says that out of 152 imprisoned journalists in Turkey, only 13 have applications before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). “This is not a problem of the international community but to go before ECHR you have to have a good lawyer. A lawyer who knows how to do these applications, which in itself is a class issue. It’s costly,” she says, adding that for people who are not well-connected, it’s a “social class and world view issue”.

The second part of the problem, according to her, stems from the Turkish journalists’ lack of solidarity. “You have several journalist organisations, and when someone’s arrested or on trial, everybody tries to protect their own person, not necessarily look out for others.” She sees it as the general tendency: “You have all these groups not wanting to come together. There’s this problem of these Gülenist journalists, there’s a lot of stigma, they’re passionately hated, and in the Turkish journalist community that kind of hate [begets] problems over all other ideals that we share: freedom of speech, the right to express your mind and not go to jail for that no matter what your opinion, so it comes to a point where your opinion really matters. If we don’t like you for what you said then we aren’t gonna be on your side when you go to jail because of what you’d said,” she says.


Banksy's new 70ft mural in New York in support of Turkish artist Zehra Dogan, who has been jailed for nearly three years over one of her paintings. (c) Van Tine Dennis/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved,Partly, Altıntaş blames the journalists themselves who can’t make that distinction very well. “We should defend this person not because we like them, but because they shouldn’t be in prison for not thinking like us, or having horrible ideas, or being an asshole. You shouldn’t be rotting in jail for being a bad person.”

The essence of the fragmentation among the Turkish journalist rights groups is, “those who have means to speak out on behalf of the other journalists, they don’t do that. They do that [only] for their own tribe.”

Search for solutions

The good news is advocates for these voiceless prisoners are looking for ways to elevate their cases and find more sympathisers.


Gobustan prison, Azerbaijan. Source: Wikimapia. Public domain.Former Senior Policy Analyst for the US Commission on Religious Freedom Catherine Cosman says that one effective way to do so is through bringing these cases to ECHR, UN anti-torture mechanisms, Organization for Islamic Cooperation and the OSCE. However, Veysel Ok, a human rights attorney in Istanbul, says to be able to do so, there is a need to increase the capacity of the lawyers who work with these cases and also train them in how to work with supranational mechanisms.

Cosman says it’s also important to have more documents translated into English about these less known cases, and to have more explanatory articles about them. She also points to cooperation within local civil societies.

One such example is the Working Group on Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan, which has been instrumental at putting together detailed descriptions of less popular cases, encouraged trial monitoring and advocacy. When it comes to working within a local civil society, the “most important thing you make sure you talk to everyone, not groups or segments [of the civil society]. You should make sure you talk to many tribes to make sure to find out who’s important and for whom,” Bariş Altintaş says.

All political prisoners’ rights “are violated equally, and attitudes towards them must be equal”

International organisations and multilateral institutions, in their turn, should make an extra effort to look into such cases, according to Baku-based human rights lawyer Javad Javadov. In 2017, representative of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Stefan Schennach visited the high security prison in Gobustan, south of Baku, to investigate prisoner conditions while on a trip to Azerbaijan. In an emailed interview, he said that he had met with prison authorities regarding five prisoners, including religious prisoners Taleh Bagirzade and Abbas Huseynov. However, Javadov says that in future representatives should insist on actually meeting with prisoners during such visits.

In other cases, the persecuted groups should work on their better integration into local civil societies and also should look into rebranding. As good examples, practitioners suggest the cases of a Chinese group Falun Gong that was able to integrate within the Chinese civil society and also elevate its image internationally, as well as Mauritanian group IRA, which had to explain to others that it wasn’t indeed a political group, but an ethnic anti-slavery group.

However, what’s important to keep in mind, according to Tulaganova, is that all political prisoners’ rights “are violated equally, and attitudes towards them must be equal.”

Where’s justice?

While advocates look for solutions, Sevinj Huseynova and Abdushukur Manonov want justice for their family members.

“I want the world to know that there are people who are unjustly imprisoned. Plus, all religious people cannot be the same, the world knows religious people as terrorists, I would want the people to know, this is not true of everybody. Secondly, I want my brother to be freed. He was arrested unjustly,” Huseynova says.

Manonov, says he wants to see those responsible for his father’s death punished: “My elderly father was ill-treated and tortured, and I want the international community and the Tajik government to acknowledge that and to make accountable those involved.”


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