Stay in the loop.

X

Tajikistan: The trans-nationalisation of domestic struggles

Article by Dr Edward Lemon

November 21, 2017

In 2014, Maksud Ibragimov, a 37 year old businessman from Tajikistan living in Russia established an organisation called Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan (Javonon Boroi Ehyohi Tojikiston).[1] He toured Russia criticising the government of Tajikistan and calling on migrants to join his reformist movement. Ibragimov was arrested by the Russian police based on a warrant issued by the government of Tajikistan in November 2014. But, as a Russian passport holder, he was swiftly released. An unknown assailant stabbed Ibragimov near his Moscow home shortly after. Five officers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation arrested Ibragimov in January 2015.[2] They took him to the local Prosecutor’s Office but did not formally charge him. When he left the building, he was detained by unidentified men who took him to the airport and put him in the baggage hold of a plane. The Tajik government did not acknowledge that Ibragimov was back in Tajikistan until June 2015, when he was sentenced to 17 years in prison on a host of charges including extremism.[3]

 

Ibragimov is not alone. Often considered Central Asia’s ‘weakest’ state, Tajikistan has nonetheless created a relatively sophisticated network through which it monitors and targets opponents abroad.[4] Since 2002, the government of Tajikistan has targeted at least 51 of its citizens living abroad, subjecting them to harassment, intimidation, attack, detention, kidnapping and assassination.[5] Such occurrences are becoming more frequent. Whereas just nine cases took place before 2010, since 2014 there have been 33 recorded cases. Legally extraditing citizens has proven difficult.

 

Instead, the government of Tajikistan has overwhelmingly relied on extraordinary rendition, the forcible return of citizens, without legal process. At least eighteen cases of successful extraordinary rendition have occurred since 2002. The majority of cases – 37 in total – have occurred in Russia where over one million Tajik citizens reside, with seven further incidents having taken place in Turkey.[6] These figures, based on publicly available sources, are likely just the tip of the iceberg. There are indications that the scale of this campaign against exiled critics is much larger. In September 2016, Minister of Interior Ramazon Rahimzoda announced that since 2015, 151 ‘extremists,’ including 133 members of Islamic State, had been rendered to Tajikistan, with 75 of them returning ‘voluntarily.’[7] There are currently 1661 citizens of Tajikistan on the INTERPOL wanted list, 1400 of them are accused of terrorism and extremism.[8]

 

This chapter discusses who the government of Tajikistan has targeted, what kinds of measures it has adopted and the ways in which those targeted can resist these extraterritorial security practices.

 

Targets

The government of Tajikistan has targeted six types of opponent living abroad. First, it has targeted members of terrorist organisations, who seek to violently replace the government, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Jamaat Ansurallah, and Islamic State.[9] Second, it has targeted revolutionary Islamic movements, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose members seek to transform the status quo, while denying they will use violence to do so. Third, the government has targeted members of the accommodational Islamic opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, which remains committed to the secular state. Fourth, the government has taken measures against secular opposition movements such as Group 24 and Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan. Lastly, it has taken aim at former regime insiders and commanders who sided with the opposition during the country’s civil war. Sixth, it has targeted journalists and activists, many of whom have criticised the government’s poor human rights record.

 

Over time, the profile of those targeted by the government has changed. Whereas many of those targeted before 2014 were members of the civil war-era opposition or former regime insiders, since 2014, as Tajikistan has transitioned to a post-reconciliation period, most targets have been linked to the secular and religious opposition. In the years following the country’s civil war, which ended in 1997, the regime pursued a number of individuals who had once held positions in the government. Yakub Salimov, who served as Minister of Interior between 1992 and 1995, and was blamed for an attempted coup in 1997, was rendered from Moscow in 2003.[10] Another government opponent, Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, leader of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, was also accused of planning a coup and rendered from Russia in 2005.[11] Businessman and former deputy in the Sughd regional parliament Nizomkhon Juraev was abducted and forcibly returned to Tajikistan in 2012 to face smuggling charges.[12] In 2013, former Prime Minister Abdulmalik Abullojonov who left Tajikistan in 1994 was detained in Kiev based on an Interpol warrant for his arrest.[13] During this period, the government of Tajikistan also targeted other civil war era opponents linked to the United Tajik Opposition, as well as those accused of being members of Islamic extremist organisations Hizb ut-Tahrir and the IMU.

 

Since 2014, the government has mainly targeted members of secular and religious opposition groups. Shortly after Group 24 leader Umarali Quvvatov called for protests in Tajikistan in October 2014, Russian and Belarussian police arrested at least 17 of his followers. The Tajik government has also targeted members of the Islamic Renaissance Party, which was declared a terrorist organisation in September 2015.[14] Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri was added to the INTERPOL wanted list in September 2016.[15] Finally, the government has targeted those attempting to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In May 2016, Minister of Interior Ramazon Rahimzoda claimed that 1,400 citizens had travelled to take part in hostilities in the Middle East.[16] Most are recruited whilst working in Russia.[17] Having discussed those targeted, I will now examine the measures that the government has taken outside of its territorial borders.

 

Measures

The government of Tajikistan has adopted a range of measures against opponents residing abroad, including assassination, physical attack, intimidation, surveillance, and extraordinary rendition. In March 2015, leader of Group 24 Umarali Quvvatov was assassinated in Istanbul. Poisoned and then shot by his friend Suleiman Kayumov, his death came after a two year struggle by the government of Tajikistan to extradite him to his home country. At least three other citizens – academic Bakhtiyor Sartori, opposition leader Maksud Ibragimov and journalist Dodojon Atuvullo – have been attacked by unknown assailants in Russia. Numerous others have been threatened by the security services. Exiled journalist Gulnora Ravshan, who left Tajikistan in 2013 after being accused of spying for Uzbekistan, for example, received a number of threatening calls from the Tajik security services while living in Turkey. In February 2015, she realised she was being followed on a regular basis by an unknown man; she regularly received calls from a Tajik-speaking man asking her about what she was doing in Turkey.[18] In at least two cases, the security service’s threats of reprisals against family members still in Tajikistan resulted in the individuals ‘voluntarily’ returning home to face charges.[19] Indeed, rendering the citizens back to Tajikistan to face criminal charges is the central goal that lies behind the Tajik government’s activities abroad.

At least 49 political opponents have been the targets of attempted extraordinary rendition since 2002, with 18 individuals successfully returned to Tajikistan. As far as I can ascertain, all of these cases of extraordinary rendition bypass international law, operating through informal measures. A pattern emerges from the known cases of extraordinary rendition. First, the Prosecutor General of Tajikistan issues an arrest warrant and distributes it to foreign governments. After this, an individual is detained in their host country and held in pre-trial detention. Often released after the maximum time for detention without trial elapses, the individual is then kidnapped by the security services of Tajikistan, often in collaboration with representatives of the host government. Following this, they are taken back to Tajikistan without formally passing through state borders.

 

Resisting

Two thirds of those targeted by the government of Tajikistan have managed to resist its efforts to render them. Those detained awaiting extradition to Tajikistan have used two principal tools to fight extradition and the risk of extraordinary rendition: domestic law in the country where they were detained and international law. The majority of cases have involved people being detained in Russia. Once they have received notification from the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation that it has decided to extradite them to Tajikistan, detainees can lodge an appeal against this decision. When this is invariably dismissed by the court, they can apply for political asylum with the Federal Migration Service (FMS). If denied asylum, they can once again appeal this decision, often with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most of those detained were held on a one year arrest warrant. If they have not yet been extradited when this expires, they are released. But as I state above this does not mean they are safe. Many seek to leave the former Soviet Union for the relative safety of countries in the European Union. Poland, for example, has received 660 applications for asylum from Tajik citizens in the first half of 2016, surpassing the 527 applications lodged in 2015.[20]

 

Another alternative for detainees is international law. Thirteen Tajik citizens, all detained in Russia, have taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights. While seven of these cases were lodged by those who had already been illegally transferred to Tajikistan, six individuals have used the ECtHR to successfully resist Tajikistan’s attempts to render them back to the country.[21] Those fighting extradition used the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia ratified in 1999. All six individuals used Article 3 of the Convention, which states that ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,’ to appeal against extradition to Tajikistan. In some cases, applicants complained under Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security) and Article 5 § 4 (right to have lawfulness of detention decided speedily by a court) because they were held after the expiration of the extradition detention order. Whilst cases are under review at the ECtHR, the court usually issues an interim measure under Article 39 of the Rules of Court to prevent the individual being extradited before the ECtHR has made its judgement.[22]

 

Tajikistan has collaborated with Russian and other Central Asian security services to intimidate and deny entry to opposition members. Apart from Russia, Tajikistan has only successfully rendered citizens from Turkey, where the Turkish security services seem to have at least turned a blind eye to Tajik incursions. Outside of Russia and Turkey, governments have been unwilling, or unable, to send suspects back to Tajikistan, partly because of fears that they will be tortured. Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have pressurised governments into releasing those detained on international arrest warrants. Pressure from human rights organisations helped to secure Quvvatov’s release from detention in Dubai in August 2013. He later applied for asylum in Turkey through UNHCR. Shabnam Khodoydodova was released from detention in Belarus in February 2016. Later she successfully crossed the border to Poland and applied for political asylum there. Sharofiddin Gadoyev, Quvvatov’s cousin and successor as leader of Group 24, was also released in June 2014 after a Madrid court ruled that sending him back would violate the UN Convention against Torture.[23]

 

Concluding remarks

With the ongoing crackdown on the IRPT, Group 24 and recruitment for the conflict in Iraq and Syria, incidences of extraterritorial security measures are increasing not decreasing. Despite being frequently referred to as ‘weak’, the deployment of Tajikistan’s security apparatus beyond its territorial borders is relatively sophisticated. To understand politics and security in Tajikistan, it is increasingly necessary to extend our focus to sites outside the country, in the diaspora, in migrant communities and online. Although it is perhaps unsurprising that Tajikistan finds complicity from the security services of increasingly authoritarian Russia and Turkey, what is more worrying is the Tajik government’s manipulation of the Interpol system to pursue its political goals. After a year of trying, in early September Tajikistan managed to have a Red Notice issued against IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri, who is accused of corruption and terrorism. Despite the fact that the charges against Kabiri are blatantly political, the move will inhibit his freedom of movement and sets a precedent for other authoritarian states to continue abusing the system.

[1] Edward Lemon, Tajikistan Extradites Opposition Leader, Arrests Sympathisers,  EurasiaNet, January 2015, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/71916

[2] В Москве похищен таджикский оппозиционер Максуд Ибрагимов [Tajik Opposition Avtivist Maksud Ibragimov Abuducted in Moscow], Fergana News, January 2015, http://www.fergananews.com/news/22998

[3] Nadejda Atayeva, Tajikistan Officially Reported that Maksud Ibragimov is Sentenced to 17 Years of Imprisonment, Blog, July 2015, http://nadejda-atayeva-en.blogspot.com/2015/07/tajikistan-officially-reported-that.html

[4] For a discussion and critique of representations of Tajikistan as a ‘weak’ state, see Heathershaw, John, Tajikistan Amidst Globalization: State Failure or State Transformation. In: Heathershaw, John and Herzig, Edmund. (eds.). The Transformation of Tajikistan. London: Routledge.

[5] This figure is compiled from publicly-available sources in Tajik, Russian and English. For a full list of cases, see Edward Lemon, Governing Islam and Security in Tajikistan and Beyond, PhD Diss. University of Exeter, 2016.

[6] Other incidents have taken place in Ukraine, Dubai, Lithuania, Spain, Finland, Moldova, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

[7] МВД: В Таджикистан возвращены более 150 граждан, обвиняемых в терроризме и экстремизме, [Ministry of Internal Affairs: Over 150 Citizens Have Been Returned to Tajikistan, Most of them Accused of  Terrorism and Extremism], Asia Plus, September 2016, http://news.tj/ru/news/tajikistan/security/20160920/mvd-v-tadzhikistan-vozvratsheni-bolee-150-grazhdan-obvinyaemih-v-terrorizme-i-ekstremizme

[8] Just 160 of these names are listed on the Interpol website. See, МВД: Интерпол ищет Кабири [Ministry of Internal Affairs: Interpol Searches for Kabiri]Radio Ozodi, July 2016, http://rus.ozodi.org/a/kabiri-is-in-interpol-list-/27873105.html

[9] Formed in around 2010 by ex-opposition warlord Amriddin Tabarov, Jamaat Ansurallah claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Khujand in September 2010. The organisation is present on social media under the name Irshod. The government alleges that it maintains close links to the IMU, the Taliban and ISIS.

[10] Tajikistan: Former Interior Minister In Dushanbe to Face Trial for Treason, RFE/RL, March 2004, http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1051835.html

[11] Case of Iskandarov v. Russia, European Court of Human Rights, February 2011, http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4ca1d1e52.pdf

[12] Nargis Hamroboyeva, Nizomkhon Jurayev Faces Trial, Asia Plus, May 2012, http://news.tj/en/news/nizomkhon-juraev-faces-trial

[13] Konstantin Parshin, Tajikistan: Dushanbe Targets Old Presidential Challenger for Extradition, EurasiaNet, February 2013,

http://www.eurasianet.org/node/66540

[14] Formed as an all-USSR party in 1990, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan split from this in 1991. Led by Said Abdullo Nuri until his death in 2006, the IRPT formed part of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) which fought the government in the country’s civil war between 1992 and 1997. Following the peace accord, which allocated one third of government posts to the opposition, the party was legalised in 1998. It held two seats in parliament and became the leading opposition party in the country. In 2015, the party was banned and declared a terrorist organisation following armed attacks in Dushanbe in September. Approximately 200 of its members were arrested.

[15] Information about Muhiddin Kabiri Appeared on Interpol’s Website, Asia Plus, September 2016, http://news.tj/en/news/tajikistan/security/20160905/230452

[16] Рахимзода: [Rahimzoda The Presence of Tajiks in the Ranks of ISIS is Worrying], Radio Ozodi, May 2016, http://rus.ozodi.org/a/27748955.html

[17] See, Lemon, Edward, Daesh and Tajikistan: The Regime’s (In)security Policy, The RUSI Journal, 160: 5.

[18] Turkey: Journalist Gulnora Ravshan Noticed Surveillance, Blog, April 2015, http://nadejda-atayeva-en.blogspot.com/2015/04/turkey-journalist-gulnora-ravshan.html

[19] Umedjon Solihov and Sherzod Komilov returned to Tajikistan in early 2015 following threats against their families. 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

[20] Yann Matusevich, The Quiet Tajik Refugee Crisis, The Diplomat, August 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/08/the-quiet-tajik-refugee-crisis/

[21] The six individuals are Gaforov, Mr Sidikov and Mrs Sidikov, Khodjaev and Nasrulloyev.

[22] Rules of Court, ECtHR, January 2016, http://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Rules_Court_ENG.pdf

[23] Вопрос экстрадиции Гадоева суд рассмотрит в понедельник [The Question of Gadoyev’s Extradition Will be Decided on Monday],Radio Ozodi, July 2014, http://rus.ozodi.mobi/a/25454043.html

Footnotes
    Related Articles

    Introduction: The Rise of Illiberal Civil Society?

    18/07/18
    Article by Dr Edward Lemon

    From a Pro-Russian to a Pro-Georgian Narrative

    18/07/18
    Article by Dr Edward Lemon

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre

    JOIN