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Tajikistan: Placing pressure on political exiles by targeting relatives

Article by Dr Edward Lemon, Dr Saipira Furstenberg and Dr John Heathershaw

December 4, 2017

Tajikistan: Placing pressure on political exiles by targeting relatives

In September 2016, a crowd of students, teachers and local journalists burst into a school in Kulob, a city in the south of Tajikistan. When they found the nine-year-old girl they had been looking for, they began to shout at her hysterically, calling her the “child of an enemy of the people and extremist”[1]. One day later, another mob gathered outside the small girl’s house, pelting rocks at her relatives. Police stood by and refused to help the family. The intelligence services had been harassing them for a number of months, targeting them because the girl’s mother Shabnam Khodoydodova was accused of being member of the political opposition Group 24[2]. Deemed a threat to national security and accused of ‘extremism,’ Khodoydodova fled from Russia to Poland in the summer of 2015. But the harassment of her family back in Tajikistan only intensified as she continued to criticize the government’s human rights record.

 

Tajikistan’s transnational repression

Since being placed in power by a coalition of warlords at the height of the country’s civil war in November 1992, President Emomali Rahmon has gradually outmanoeuvred his rivals, slowly consolidating his position by jailing, exiling and killing his opponents. In the past three years, the human rights situation in the country has rapidly deteriorated. Following defeat in a rigged election in March 2015, the country’s leading opposition party the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) was blamed for plotting a ‘coup’ in September 2015 and declared a terrorist group.[3] Websites have been blocked by the government and journalists forced to self-censor. A number of human rights lawyers defending political prisoners have been jailed on falsified fraud charges.[4] Fearing for their safety, many former regime insiders, journalists, pious Muslims, members of the political opposition and those accused of ‘terrorism’ have fled the country. Although many of those fleeing the country travel directly to Russia and Turkey, where there are direct flights and visa-free entry, these countries are no longer considered safe for political refugees from Central Asia. As a result, many have sought asylum in the European Union. In 2016, for example, 830 Tajik citizens applied for asylum in Poland, up from 105 in 2014, the second largest group of applicants in the country[5]. Other communities of exiles have emerged in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. But the government has continued to target these individuals even after they have left the country.

 

As part of the Central Asian Political Exiles database project, we have documented 50 cases of citizens from Tajikistan being targeted abroad[6]. The process by which the government targets these exiles usually proceeds in three stages. First they are placed ‘on notice,’ subjected to informal measures such as intimidation and threats, and placed on international wanted lists through Interpol and regional organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Second, exiles are arrested or detained by law enforcement outside of Tajikistan. Lastly, they are forcibly transferred, or rendered, back to their home country, or in some cases attacked and assassinated. These latter cases obviously gain the most publicity with 14 incidents recorded in the 2016 edition of the database – 12 in Russia and two in Turkey. Within the territory of the European Union, stage two and stage three measures are far less likely to be successful. At least two political opponents have been temporarily detained based on arrest warrants issued by the government of Tajikistan through Interpol within the EU[7]. But both were subsequently released based on concern that their refoulement to Tajikistan would result in mistreatment. Faced with these restrictions, the security services have resorted to using stage one measures, routinely harassing and intimidating exiles and their families, as the opening example indicates.

 

Our ongoing research suggests that one of the main reasons why harassment and intimidation succeeds against many exiles is the credible threats made against their loved ones at home. While we have at least 50 publicly documented cases of citizens of Tajikistan being targeted by the government beyond the country’s territorial borders, this appears to be the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of their family members have suffered reprisals as a result of their political activities. These activities are aimed at forcing the exiles to return home and face trial, or coercing them into stopping their political activities. This kind of activity by Central Asian security services has long been common practice. But pressure appears to have intensified in recent years in Tajikistan as highlighted by a number of Human Rights Watch reports[8].

 

Types of targeting

Repressive measures against opponents or individuals perceived as a threat to the regime are gradually becoming normalised in Tajikistan. As one of the exiled members of Group 24 reports:

 

“In Tajikistan there are two categories of crime: the first one concerns the real act of committing a crime. This can be murder, rape or involvement in the narco-trafficking business. The second category is the worst one and the most frightening one. This is when the individual hasn’t committed any crime, but simply does not agree with the regime of Rahmon. Then this is the end of your destiny and your career. All the members of your family are under pressure from the regime. The government’s apparatus will attack you and all the members of your family and will tear you apart and take everything that you possess. This is the worst crime that an individual can commit; expressing his dissatisfaction with the regime of Rahmon.” [9]

 

Most of those whose family have been targeted by the government in recent years are guilty of the second crime: opposition to the regime. In trying to place pressure on the relatives of political exiles, the government has resorted to a number of tactics, including arbitrary detention, threats, humiliation and confiscation of passports and property. In at least one case, law enforcement officers have physically assaulted the relative of an exile. Rahmatulloi Rajab, a member of the IRPT who was sentenced to 28 years in prison in June 2016 for his involvement in the party, was kept in solitary confinement and severely beaten as a result of the activities of his son Shukhrati Rahmatullo, a journalist at Payom.net, an opposition news outlet based in Turkey[10]. The officers told Rahmatulloi that “if your son stays quiet, we will stop.”

 

More frequently the relatives of opposition members are subject to arbitrary arrest and intimidation. On 22 September 2016, an estimated 200 protesters descended on exiled IRPT member Ilhomjon Yaqubov’s house in Khujand, chanting and holding banners declaring him to be a ‘traitor’[11]. His sister’s apartment was targeted the next day. The security services detained his brother Alijon and father in law, threatening to confiscate the family’s property if he did not force Ilhomjon to stop his activism. In the following months, many of his relatives fled the country and his elder brother, Farrukh, disappeared[12]. To punish them further, the government has seized their property. Seizing the property of the exile’s family members not only places pressure on them, but forms another way for the corrupt law enforcement agencies to enrich the regime. Assets seized as part of the crackdown include the Islamic Renaissance Party’s headquarters, and a paper napkin and toilet roll factory, and construction firm owned by Kabiri’s brother[13].

 

In addition, the government has exercised economic pressure on the family members of banned opposition groups by denying them access to employment and healthcare[14]. One former member of the Special Forces and businessman fled the country in 2007 after having his business seized by a member of the presidential family[15]. After his departure, his sister lost her job at the State Committee for Investment and State Property Management. Her colleague informed her that she was fired because of her brother’s criticism of the government.

 

To prevent relatives from joining family members outside the country, the government has started to confiscate their passports. The mother and daughter of dissident Shabnam Khudodoyeva, for example, had their passports seized, preventing them from travelling beyond Kulob. Relatives of Muhiddin Kabiri have also had restrictions placed on their freedom of movement. His sister, brother, daughter-in-law and grandchildren remained in Dushanbe. Kabiri’s 95 year old father Tillo was removed from a flight to Istanbul in January 2016 and subsequently had his passport confiscated. As well as losing their passports, his relatives are banned from speaking with or visiting each other[16].

 

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[17]. On 10 July 2017, local government officials in Samsolik, Nurobod, organised a local meeting. Former resident Islomiddin Saidov had participated in an opposition-organised conference in Dortmund to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Peace Accord which ended the civil war in 1997. At the meeting, the local officials called Islomiddin a ‘traitor’ and forced his father to stand up as they made their accusations. In other cases, the government has not been content humiliating and stigmatising family members in front of their neighbours, and has resorted to making them denounce their exiled relatives on national television. Ahead of the conference in Dortmund, for example, the security services coerced the parents of Gulbarg Saifova, a relative of party leader Muhiddin Kabiri, to appear on camera condemning their daughter and Kabiri.

 

Finally, the violence against family members has taken on a sexual nature. After the brother of jailed human rights lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov spoke at a conference organised by the opposition in Dortmund in July 2017, the security services visited his wife Dilbar. They pressured her to divorce her husband and threatened to rape her 15 year old daughter[18]. In another case, journalist Haramgul Qodir, a friend of Kabiri, was subjected to months of harassment from the authorities who accused her of having a sexual relationship with him. Bowing to pressure, Qodir allowed doctors to subject her to a ‘virginity’ test to disprove the allegations and demonstrate her honour[19]. Such sexual violence constitutes the most severe form of humiliation that the government can level against the relatives of political exiles.

 

Effectiveness of state repression

State repression involves the use of credible threats and intimidation with a view to imposing a cost on the target in order to deter specific activities and/or beliefs perceived to be challenging to state power[20]. In other words, repression is effective if it is successful in deterring undesired behaviour. Academic research on state repression has not generated a consensus as to the conditions in which it succeeds in reducing dissent and those in which it merely provokes activists further[21]. Emerging evidence from the Tajik cases does not provide a firm conclusion regarding the effectiveness of repression. In at least two cases, citizens have returned home after their families were threatened. Suspected Group 24 activists Umedjon Solihov and Sherzod Komilov returned to Tajikistan in early 2015 to be sentenced to 17.5 years in jail[22]. Farrukh, a businessman and IRPT activist based in Moscow, also quit the party in mid-2015, a few months before the Supreme Court labelled it a ‘terrorist’ organisation. He cited pressure on his family still residing in Tajikistan as the major reason he decided to step away from politics[23]. As he recounts:

 

“My brother, who still lives in Tajikistan, called me. He said that the security services had visited him and said “your brother is a terrorist.” He implored me to stop, saying I was being selfish and that “we are paying for your activities.” My mother is sick and the stress is making her worse. I decided at that point to withdraw my support for the party.”

 

Clearly personal ties with their home country hamper the autonomy and freedoms of individuals living in exile. But while a few exiles have been intimidated into retreating from politics, the majority of the 28 we have collectively interviewed remain defiant in the face of government pressure on their families[24]. In spite of the government targeting their relatives after the opposition in exile organised protests and meetings in Warsaw in September 2016, Prague in December 2016 and Dortmund in July 2017, the opposition remains undeterred. One member of the IRPT now based in Poland summarises a commonly held feeling among those in exile:

 

“They have humiliated my family in public, detained my brother, sisters and parents. But if I stop, then the government wins. The world needs people who stand up for what is right.”[25]

 

This statement demonstrates the complex dilemma that activists abroad face. Those willing to express their views against their home government might have all the rights to do so in in their host country in the EU. However, they must weigh the consequences of their political acts, as these have the potential to threaten their families still living in their home state who are punished by virtue of their connection to the activist. Despite facing this pressure, evidence from our ongoing study indicates more often than not that proxy repression is not an effective tool in deterring dissent. The best option for exiles is to help their family members join them in the European Union. Although some family members have managed to leave Tajikistan and join their exiled relatives abroad, the government has responded to this by confiscating the passports of those who have remained. At present, most relatives are trapped in Tajikistan.

 

Concluding remarks

Today, authoritarian regimes are increasingly enmeshed and integrated in the processes of globalisation. As the social mobilisation of protestors during the ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrates, exile communities abroad have the capacity to challenge their home regimes in times of political instability[26]. Improvements in information technology and international financial liberalisation have facilitated the rise and empowerment of the political activities of exiled activists. They have further enabled them, to some extent, to bypass the national authoritarian politics of control and repression[27]. But they have also been manipulated by authoritarian regimes to monitor and target those opponents living in exile. Despite being physically separated from their homeland, exiles have not cut their ties completely. As the analysis above has shown, these ongoing kinship ties are being utilised by the government of Tajikistan to place pressure on dissidents living abroad.  But even as incidences are becoming more frequent, the opposition remains defiant, vowing to fight for sanctions against the government of Emomali Rahmon[28]. Given this situation, we can expect the government to continue to target their relatives at home. Abuse of relatives at home is becoming routine and increasingly violent.

 

These widespread abuses call for a response from foreign governments who need to call for an end to the persecution of family members of exiles and for them to have their passports returned so that they can join their families abroad. This response could take at least three forms. First, foreign governments can publicly call Tajik officials to account in bilateral and multilateral meetings. Reputation clearly matters to many Tajik officials; the Tajik delegation walked out of an OSCE conference in Warsaw in September 2016 following criticism of the country’s human rights record. Second, foreign governments should make continued assistance to law enforcement in the country contingent on an improvement in the state’s human rights record. Third, given the dangers that exiles face, countries within the EU should grant asylum to members of the opposition who have fled Tajikistan and to their family members who also remain in danger.

 

[1] Edwards, Maxim and Khudoydodova, Shabnam, “What Kind of Terrorist am I?” Open Democracy, 12 December 2016,  https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/maxim-edwards-shabnam-khudoydodova/what-kind-of-terrorist-am-i-tajikistan

[2] Group 24 is an opposition group in Tajikistan which calls for the replacement of the current government. It was founded in 2012 by Umarali Quvvatov, a businessmen who had dealings with the president’s family before being forced to leave the country.

[3] Formed in 1990, the Islamic Renaissance Party fought with the opposition during the civil war (1992-1997).  As part of the Peace Accord, the opposition was awarded 30% of government positions. After re-establishing itself as a legal opposition party, it held two seats in the 63-seat Assembly of Representatives (Majlisi Namoyandagon) between 2000 and 2015.

[4] On the crackdown, see Edward Lemon, “Tajikistan,” Nations in Transit 2017, https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2017/tajikistan

[5] “830 Tajik Nationals Reportedly Applied for Political Asylum in Poland Last Year,” Asia Plus, 12 June 2017, https://news.tj/en/news/tajikistan/society/20170612/830-tajik-nationals-reportedly-applied-for-political-asylum-in-poland-last-year

[6] For a full list of cases and selection criteria, see the Central Asian Political Exiles Database. https://excas.net/exiles-project/

[7] Group 24-linked activist Sharofiddin Gadoev was arrested in Spain in 2014. Another accused affiliate of the group, Sulaimon Davlatov, was detained in Finland in 2015.

[8] “Tajikistan: Stop Persecuting Opposition Families”, Human Rights Watch, 18 July 2017,

https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/18/tajikistan-stop-persecuting-opposition-families; “Tajikistan: Abuse of Dissidents’ Families,” Human Rights Watch, 20 December 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/20/tajikistan-abuse-dissidents-families

[9] Interview with a member of the Group 24.

[10] “Tajikistan: Abuse of Dissidents’ Families,” Human Rights Watch, 20 December 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/20/tajikistan-abuse-dissidents-families

[11] Ilhom Yoqubov, “Tajikistan Uses My Family Members as Hostages,” Letter to OSCE ODHIR http://www.osce.org/odihr/269711?download=true

[12] “Tajikistan: Abuse of Dissidents’ Families,” Human Rights Watch, 20 December 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/20/tajikistan-abuse-dissidents-families

[13] “Tajikistan Moves to Seize Banned Party’s Property,” EurasiaNet, 15 September 2015, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/75086

[14] Interview with member of the Group 24.

[15] Interview with Tajik businessman, July 2017.

[16] “Muhiddin Kabiri on Interpol, IRPT ban, General Nazarzoda and Exiled Opposition’s Future,” Ferghana News, 17 April 2017, http://enews.fergananews.com/articles/2999

[17] Maintaining honour (nomus) remains important in Tajik culture. Accusations of shameful behaviour can have a detrimental impact on a family’s standing in the community.

[18] “Tajikistan: Stop Persecuting Opposition Families,” Human Rights Watch, 18 July 2017,

https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/18/tajikistan-stop-persecuting-opposition-families

[19] Salimov, Mirzo and Frud Bezhan. 2016. “The Islamic Party, The Reporter, And The Virginity Test”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 7, http://www.rferl.org/content/tajikistan-islamic-renaissance-party-love-virginity-test-reporter-kabiri/27473804.html

[20] Christian Davenport, 2007. “State Repression and Political Order,” Annual Review of Political Science, 10:1-23, p. 2.

[21] See Christian Davenport, 2007. “State Repression and Political Order,” Annual Review of Political Science, 10: 1-23; Dana Moss, 2016. “Transnational Repression, Diaspora Mobilization and the Case of the Arab Spring.” Social Problems, 63: pp. 480-498.  Emma Lundgren Jörum, 2015. “Repression across Borders: Homeland Response to Anti-regime mobilization among Syrians in Sweden, Diaspora Studies, 8:2, pp. 104-119.

[22] See Nadezhda Ataeva. Arrests of the Tajik Activists. In Moscow, Maksud Ibragimov is Missing, Blog, January 2015, http://nadejda-atayeva-en.blogspot.ca/2015/01/arrests-of-tajik-activists-in-moscow.html

[23] Author follow up interview with Farrukh via Skype, June 2017.

[24] Inevitably, exiles who have been successfully intimidated are less likely to want to speak to researchers, placing limits on our knowledge about their circumstances.

[25] Author interview with Tajik exile, Warsaw, May 2017.

[26] See Dana Moss, 2016. “Transnational Repression, Diaspora Mobilization and the Case of the Arab Spring. Social Problems, 63: pp.480-498; Joel Beinin, J., & Frederic Vairel, (eds.). 2013. Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Claire Beaugrand & Vincent Geisser, 2016. Social Mobilization and Political Participation in the Diaspora During the “Arab Spring”, Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 14:3: pp.239-243.

[27] See Marcus Michaelsen, 2016. “Exit and Voice in a Digital Age: Iran’s Exiled Activists and the Authoritarian State.” Globalizations, 1-17

[28] Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska,”Tajikistan: Opposition Beds Down and Plots in Polish Exile,” EurasiaNet, 6 July 2017, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/84261

Footnotes
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