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The long arm of the despot

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Tajikistan’s government doesn’t hesitate to go after its critics abroad. Intimidation, beatings and murder — this is Central Asia’s authoritarianism without borders.

 

Edward Lemon
24 February 2016

Suhrob is a follower of the Tablighi Jamoat movement from a village near Vanj in Tajikistan, a mountainous state of some eight million people in Central Asia. Like many pious Muslims from Tajikistan, Suhrob moved to Russia to escape persecution from the authorities back home. He set up a shop selling perfume at a bazaar in the Moscow region, and dedicated much of his time to proselytising among the central Asian migrant community and setting up a prayer group with around 20 followers. 

In June 2015, some Tajik-speaking men visited Suhrob’s perfume stall. They told him to cease his activities or else his family back in Tajikistan would suffer the consequences. The next day, Russian police visited Suhrob to check his documents. A week later he received a call from his parents: they had been visited by the village rais (chief), who told them that their son was spreading “extremist” views.

“Tajikistan may be 4,000 kilometers away. But I can still feel its reach!”

Suhrob no longer holds his prayer meetings, but maintains links with the Tablighi. “Tajikistan may be 4,000 kilometers away. But I can still feel its hand!” Suhrob told me shortly after the incident.

Human rights come cheap 

Tajikistan has been ruled by Emomali Rahmon since 1992. The state media credits Rahmon with lifting the country out of the post-independence civil war that lasted from 1992 to 1997. The conflict pitted a coalition of Islamists and democrats from the east of the country, against Rahmon’s regime, which had support from warlords from the country’s north and south as well as Russia and Uzbekistan. 


Since 1997, Rahmon has solidified his grip on power. He relies on a mixture of patronage and coercion to maintain control, filling ministries and state-run enterprises with family members and allies and gradually purging them of potentially disloyal individuals. Rahmon’s ruling People’s Democratic Party dominates parliament. His regime has arrested opposition activists, blocked websites and waged a widespread campaign against unsanctioned expressions of Islamic faith. 

Paranoia about the role of elusive “foreign powers” in destabilising the country drives the regime’s heavy-handed response to dissent

Analysts and activists have drawn attention to the erosion of human rights in Tajikistan in recent years. In August 2015, the government banned the leading opposition Islamic Renaissance Party. Last December, long-serving president Rahmon became “leader of the nation,” effectively making him above the law.

Tajikistan’s authoritarian reach does not end at the county’s borders, and Suhrob’s case is not an isolated incident. Significant Tajik diaspora groups exist in Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, with over one million Tajik citizens in the former. With remittances sent by seasonal migrants comprising half the country’s GNP in recent years, it is one of the most migration dependent countries in the world. For the Tajik government, migrants form a potential threat to regime security. 


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Residents of Dushanbe walk under a giant poster of Tajikistan's president Emomali Rahmon, 2006. Photo (c): Sergei Grits/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Most Tajiks who joined the Islamic State are recruited in Russia. Opposition groups like the democratic movement Group 24 and the recently banned Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) are most active in migrant communities. The Islamic proselytising movement Tablighi Jamoat and the fundamentalist Salafis also actively spread their message among labour migrants.

Each of these groups pursues a different agenda. Whereas Group 24 has called for the overthrow of the Rahmon regime, Tablighi Jamoat focuses on Islamising society and the IRPT follows a moderate Islamist agenda, consistently stating its support for the secular state.

Nevertheless, the Tajik government has labelled all of these groups “extremist,” adding them to a list that includes Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. By tarring these disparate Islamic and secular groups with the same brush, the regime aims to discredit them and legitimise measures against their members.

To bring the “extremist” threat under control, the government deploys a range of extraterritorial security practices aimed at stifling the opposition. These range from torture and rendition to everyday harassment and surveillance, in order to intimidate and neutralise political opponents based abroad.


Tajikistan is not alone in pursuing its critics overseas. From the attempted assassination of an Uzbek cleric in Sweden in 2012 to Kazakh attempts to extradite former BTA bank chief Muhtar Ablyazov, central Asian politics increasingly takes place offshore. In the words of researchers John Heathershaw and Alexander Cooley, they have become “dictators without borders.”

The long arm of the despot


According to information available publicly, the Tajik government has deployed exceptional security measures beyond its borders at least 35 times since 2000. All but four of these incidents have happened in the past five years. 


Like in Tajikistan, the government relies heavily on informal, extrajudicial measures. Ten people have been rendered — forcibly removed without any reference to legal process — back to Tajikistan. Another 16 have been detained in Russia, Moldova and Belarus, regimes that are sympathetic to Dushanbe’s authoritarian measures and signatories of the Minsk Convention, which governs extradition in the former Soviet Union. 


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Activists of exiled opposition organisation Group 24 protest in the name of their murdered colleagues outside Tajikistan's embassy in Berlin, April 2015. Video still: Group 24 / YouTubeJust one individual, leader of opposition movement Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan, Maksud Ibragimov, was legally extradited from Moscow in January 2015. But even Ibragimov fell victim to extrajudicial measures: he had his Russian citizenship stripped from him just days before he was extradited. 


The regime does not rely on rendition alone. Opposition journalist Dodojon Atuvulloev was stabbed in Moscow in 2012. One year later, academic Bakhtiyor Sattori suffered the same fate. Maksud Ibragimov was also stabbed just a month before he was extradited. 


“The Tajik and Russian security services are like fingers on the same hand”


Likewise, the security services use threats to intimidate dissidents into voluntarily returning. Young Group 24 activists Umedjon Solihov and Sherzod Komilov both returned to face sentence in Tajikistan after the security services threatened their families. Following repeated Tajik government attempts to have him extradited from the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, leader of Group 24 Umarali Quvvatov was assassinated by in Istanbul in March 2015. While the circumstances of Quvvatov’s death may never come to light, many suspect the regime’s hand in his killing.

Human rights groups have drawn attention to these practices, highlighting Dushanbe’s multiple violations of international law. Occasionally, the Tajik authorities actually admit to travelling into Turkish and Russian territory to remove wanted criminals.

For instance, on March 10 2015, medical student Shahnoza Bozorzoda was arrested by officers from the Tajik Ministry of Internal Affairs in Istanbul after she phoned a friend telling him of her intention to join the Islamic State. Officers from the Ministry of Interior of Tajikistan arrested a man accused of membership of the terrorist organisation Jamaat Ansarullah in St Petersburg in June 2014.


In times of terror


The lengths to which the security services have gone betray their deep-seated paranoia about potential threats to national security. None of the groups, whether Islamist or secular opposition, poses a credible threat to Rahmon’s government.

Despite having an active presence on the social media, Group 24 has limited support. Calls for protests in Dushanbe in October 2014 largely fell on deaf ears. In spite of this, the government’s reaction — blocking dozens of websites and declaring Group 24 an “extremist” organization — indicates how dysfunctional the Tajik state has become. Any public criticism of the regime is met with extraordinary measures. 

“In times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everyone will be in a situation where he has to play detective”

The IRPT, which fought the government during the civil war, is a shadow of its former self. The existence of the only legal faith-based political party in Central Asia had always been useful in Dushanbe’s relations with Islamic countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In 2015, though, the government banned the party, blamed it for organising attacks in Dushanbe in September, and classified it as a terrorist organisation. Having arrested approximately 200 party activists, the regime is still pursuing members outside of the country, most notably party leader Muhiddin Kabiri who is currently in Europe.

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Since 1997, Rahmon has solidified his grip on power, relying on a mixture of patronage and coercion to maintain control. CC BY-NC 2.0

Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Paranoia about the role of elusive “foreign powers” in destabilising the country drives the regime’s heavy-handed response to dissent. But these tactics may have the reverse effect: they make people feel insecure. Walter Benjamin said that “in times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everyone will be in a situation where he has to play detective,” and all responsible Tajik citizens are expected to play detective and monitor one another for suspicious behaviour.

Suhrob, the Tablighi Jamoat member, said that his prayer group must have been reported to the authorities by one of its members. A new member of the group who joined a month before the closure of the group was conspicuously absent from their final meeting and has not made contact since. 
All responsible Tajik citizens are expected to play detective and monitor one another for suspicious behaviour

The lives of pious Tajik Muslims and opposition activists in Russia are beset with insecurity. While pious Muslims can practice religion more freely in Russia than at home in Tajikistan, they face other dangers. Not only do the Tajik authorities pose a threat to them, neo-Nazi groups and the Russian police also loom over their daily lives. “The Soviet legacy remains. The Tajik and Russian security services are like fingers on the same hand,” an Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) member told me. The Russian security services collaborated in the detention and rendition of opposition activists.

In 2011, Savriddin Juraev, a 27 year old cleric seeking asylum in Russia was snatched from a Moscow street. Taken to the airport in a car with Russian government plates, he was handed over to Tajik agents and flown back to Tajikistan where he was sentenced to 26 years in prison. Many Tajik opposition and religious activists fear suffering a similar fate, adopting a range of measures to protect themselves from the security services.

Where to run? 

Abdurahmon, a young qori (Qu’ran reader) from the Rasht valley, has established his own unofficial prayer group in a bazaar in Moscow region. The group involved ten or more Tajik men sitting around talking about the Qu’ran and how to live a moral life.

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Due to fear of being discovered by the local authorities or infiltrated by the Tajik security services, they changed meeting locations on a weekly basis, using online communications app Viber to confirm the location of each meeting on the day itself. Suhrob also practised such a rotating policy for his prayer group. Streets of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, 2009. Photo: Veni / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Opposition activists and pious Muslims like Abdurahmon are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they act openly, they risk harassment and possible arrest. But if they act clandestinely, they only feed the security services’ fear that their activities pose a threat to the Tajik state. “We are not extremists,” Abdurahmon told me. “We are interested in living our lives in the way of Islam. And are not interested in politics. But the government does not see it that way.”

These are only a few examples of the Tajik government’s extraterritorial reach. With most opposition groups having been forced into exile and the Islamic State still recruiting migrants in Russia, 2016 will likely see that reach grow, both in boldness and in scope.

Editors' note: some names have been changed to protect identities.

Standfirst image: billboard of president Emomali Rahmon, Nurek, Tajikistan, 2015. Photo: Prince Roy / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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