It seems that in the past year, all the news coming out about Tajikistan has been bad. In a region already known for heavy-handed leaders, beleaguered or nonexistent opposition, and constrained freedoms, Tajikistan is in crisis, human rights advocates say. Tajikistan’s political plurality, a product of the peace deal that ended its devastating five-year civil war, was a hopeful spot in a dark region. That hope has all but vanished.
In March 2015, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) went from holding two seats in Parliament to gaining none in the elections. In the same month, the leader of Group 24, Umarali Quvvatov, was assassinated in Istanbul. Through the summer, the state continued cracking down on expressions of Islam and tightening the noose on the IRPT, forcing the closure of its offices and intimidating its members. In September, violence erupted when Abduhalim Nazarzoda, the deputy defense minister, seemingly mutinied and fled the capital with a cadre of supporters. The Tajik government linked Nazarzoda, who had been a commander with the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) during the Civil War, with the IRPT and now says the party financed Nazarzoda’s short-lived revolt (something the party denies and regional experts are skeptical of). The IRPT was then closed and shortly after declared an extremist group.
“If you work in democracy and governance, or if you follow Central Asia… you’re probably already inured to the words ‘crackdown’ or ‘crisis,’” Nate Schenkkan, project director for Freedom House’s Nations in Transit said at a recent roundtable in Washington DC. But, he went on, what’s happening in Tajikistan ought to be viewed as a genuine crisis.
The gathering — hosted by Freedom House – brought together several key voices on Tajikistan, including Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, Catherine Cosman, a senior policy analyst with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and two prominent exiled Tajik opposition leaders, Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and Sobir Valiev, deputy head of Group 24 and also deputy head of the Congress of Constructive Forces of Tajikistan.
Swerdlow noted that while the human rights situation across the region is bad, “Tajikistan always occupied a place in the slightly more hopeful category.”
“If Kyrgyzstan was the brightest and Kazakhstan was maybe the most stable, with the best economic prospects if still dictatorial,” he said, “then Tajikistan had a vibrant civil society” and the region’s only legally-registered Islamist opposition political party. Swerdlow called the present crackdown unprecedented — including arbitrary arrests leading to long prison sentences, reports of torture, government pressure on journalists and the arrest of lawyers defending human rights advocates and opposition members.
Cosman outlined Tajikistan’s uneasy history with religion, describing a state bent on control. She noted that highly restrictive laws adopted in 2009 marked a downturn. The 2009 religion law, Cosman said, “set harsh registration registration requirements for religious groups,” and “also criminalizes unregistered religious activity as well as private religious education.” Tajikistan’s government tightly controls the size and number of mosques, appoints imams, and even writes the sermons delivered. A 2011 law banned minors from attending public religious activities aside from funerals. “The State Department,” Cosman said, “has noted that Tajikistan is the only country in the world that has adopted such a ban.”
The crackdown experienced by both the IRPT and Group 24 underscores that the crisis is not just one rooted in religion but also politics. Group 24 was founded in 2012 by Umarali Quvvatov, an opposition politician living in exile in Moscow. The group, deeply critical of the regime of President Emomali Rahmon, was banned and labeled an extremist group in 2014, despite never being linked to any violence or calls for violence. But as Cosman noted, “Tajikistan’s extremism law prohibits extremist, terrorist, or revolutionary activities without requiring acts that involve violence or incitement to imminent violence.”
Sobir Valiev, Group 24’s deputy chairman, joined the conversation via Skype. He made an impassioned statement chronicling the banning of his group by the Tajik government and persistent pressure and harassment experienced by members and their families.
If Group 24 can be thought of as the younger face of the Tajik opposition, the IRPT can be seen as the elders. The heirs to the peace settled between the Tajik state and the UTO in 1997, the IRPT consistently were allowed two seats in Parliament (Tajikistan has never had an election judged free and fair) and were accorded by the peace deal a portion of government positions. Over the years that proportion shrunk and the rapid decline kicked off in the March elections has culminated in the arrest of most of the IRPT’s leadership. The arrest of the leadership was followed by the detention of their lawyers on fraud charges most external observers say are trumped up. Now, it seems, the extended families of IRPT members have become targets.
Muhiddin Kabiri, the chairman of the IRPT, was abroad when the crackdown against his party intensified this year. He remains in exile and spoke to the roundtable via Skype from an undisclosed location. Kabiri said that about 10 members of his family, including his 95-year old father and other elderly relatives were arrested as punishment for him speaking (he was planning on attending the event in person but was not able to obtain a visa in time).
“When I asked why my family members were arrested today… I was told ‘we heard you were planning to speak at an event today,’” he said.
Kabiri said that the government of Tajikistan has been planning to force the IRPT to close for some time and that officials advised the party to close voluntarily, in order to avoid violating the peace treaty. But when the party refused the state went ahead anyway. Part of the crackdown on the party has involved pressure on members to quit and make statements against the party. Kabiri made the claim that Nazarzoda had been asked by the government to make a statement against the IRPT, but that he had refused.
Kabiri noted that over the years some had urged the IRPT to be more active in its opposition, but he said that the party always pursued a peaceful path of patience and tolerance. Now, he said, some say they were too patient.