Muhiddin Kabiri was on the run before he knew it. After the rigged election in his home country of Tajikistan, in which his party officially received a mere 1.5 percent of the vote, he needed time to rest. A conference in Malaysia he had been invited to was a good reason to leave. After that, he planned a short stay in Turkey to relax before deciding what to do next. The 2015 election was the first time since the 1997 peace deal ending the civil war that his Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) did not make it into the parliament.
That, however, did not come as a surprise. Since 2010 the regime of President Emomali Rahmon has been tightening its grip on power, crushing any dissent. In the traditionally pious Tajik society, this meant targeting religion, which the authorities justified in the context of the global war on terror. The government banned wearing the hijab in public, introduced control over sermons, and forbade the attendance of those under the age of 18 at religious ceremonies. Men wearing long beards were forced to shave. One of the most affected groups was the electorate and activists of the IRPT, at the time the second biggest political force and the only parliamentary opposition in the country. Arguably, it was also the only group capable of challenging Rahmon’s rule.
It was March 2015 when Kabiri packed his bags, preparing to spend one month abroad. He soon found out that a return would not be easy. As soon as he left the country, a regime-run newspaper, Djumhuriat, published a statement from the General Prosecutor launching a criminal investigation into Kabiri’s involvement in an illegal sale of property 15 years earlier. The case was widely seen as a political move to discredit his party. It also brought back the memory of Zaid Saidov, a leader of the New Tajikistan party, who was charged with fraud and polygamy a few months into his oppositional involvement. He is now serving a 26-year prison term.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
At the time, a third of the IRPT’s Political Council thought that Kabiri should return. But the majority decided that it was too risky. When I asked Kabiri how he felt leaving his peers and family, he took a moment to think about the answer. “For sure, this feeling is only familiar to those who were in a similar situation,” he replied calmly, taking a deep breath. “It’s very difficult. On the one hand, you want to be with your peers and friends to go through the difficulties together. On the other hand – responsibility requires that you do not put yourself and the party in danger. If something happens to the party and the leader is free, he can still support his people.”
Even with the imminent threat of the leader’s arrest and the lost parliamentary seats, IRPT members failed to foresee what was to come.
“On September 9 we had the Political Council meeting. I took part online and the rest of the leadership was in my home in Dushanbe, as they had closed down our office a month earlier. Some members wanted to organize protests in front of the Ministry of Justice if they don’t let us hold the party congress at the end of the month. But the majority said the government was only waiting for such a provocation and suggested that we refrain from such actions.” Kabiri seemed composed while relaying the tale; he probably had told the story many times before.
“After two days I received information that there is a question on a high level: what to do with the party? Our sources said that once the decision about arresting the party leadership is made, we will have approximately two days to help our people flee.” But when the time came, Kabiri found it difficult to convince his associates to leave.
“Even my son, who is now in Germany, challenged my decision. He said that if he leaves it will look like a family escape. If there are arrests, he should be with the rest of the party. He had those romantic thoughts.”
Romantic it may have been, but the view was shared by the majority of party leadership. No one believed that the response of the authorities could be so ruthless. He therefore decided to give the activists individual orders to leave the country. “I called my first deputy and said that as the party leader, I tell you to leave Tajikistan. If you don’t, it will mean that you are violating the party discipline.” Thanks to those calls, around a third of the leadership managed to escape the country. But some missed the chance by a matter of minutes. Kabiri’s driver was caught as he was boarding a plane. Kabiri’s first deputy was arrested at the airport. During a two-day hunt, the authorities arrested over 200 party members. Around 1,000 activists managed to escape to Europe.
They Began With Beating
Kabiri’s relatives and friends who stayed in the country were arrested, including his elderly aunts. The authorities began with beatings, but soon after moved to more sophisticated measures.
“Imagine, a person who has been impelled to speak against his own son or brother. What kind of torture they had to go through, both physical and psychological? There were around ten videos only with my relatives speaking against the party. They forced everybody – even my daughter-in-law, my brother, and my teacher, and whoever had any contact with me.” The same happened to the families of his peers.
Soon after, the trials behind closed doors began. No witnesses, journalists, relatives, or OSCE observers were allowed in the court. Kabiri’s deputies were sentenced to life imprisonment; other party members and activists received 20, 25, or 30-year sentences. Following the IRPT’s trial, the authorities kept the ruling secret, although the party got hold of it through unofficial channels. The IRPT was charged with extremism and terrorism. No foreign government or organization has so far reiterated the accusation.
The authorities subsequently moved on to arresting the party’s lawyers. Buzurgmehr Yorov, the IRPT’s main attorney, is currently serving a 26-year sentence. His brother, Jamshed, managed to escape and is now awaiting a decision on his asylum application in a European country.
It has been two years since Kabiri last spoke to his grandchildren, who are under house arrest. They are not allowed to speak to their own father, and had not been allowed to see Kabiri’s father, who lived in Dushanbe just a few kilometers away. He passed away several months ago unable to say goodbye to his family.
“When the repression machine begins to work, it destroys everyone. It does not distinguish between the guilty and the innocent, young and old, it crushes everyone. And once there are no oppositionists left, it begins to turn against itself,” Kabiri says.
The World’s Silence
The response of the international community to the brutal crushing of the opposition in Tajikistan has been meek. The UN, which negotiated and was the guarantor of the 1997 peace deal, has done nothing to bring the issue to the international agenda. The EU continues to support the country with millions in development assistance and in February 2016, the United States promised to grant the country an additional $50 million in military aid to support its anti-terrorist efforts. The reluctance of the West to acknowledge and address the suffering of Tajiks can be seen as a deal with the regime, driven by anti-Islamic paranoia.
“Without democracy and strong civil society there will be neither stability nor development. We are trying to convince the EU that they should pay more attention to our region, but unfortunately, our European partners think that we are exaggerating the problems. It is easier to cooperate with official government structures in the fights against radicalism than with NGOs and opposition parties,” Kabiri says.
Kabiri sees an analogy between the current situation in Central Asia and the Middle East on the onset of the Arab Spring. “There is an example of Tunisia, where after the fall of Ben Ali, there was a responsible opposition both of an Islamic and secular character that managed to stabilize the situation. But why it did not happen in Libya? Because Gaddafi had destroyed the whole opposition. The only ones who remained were himself and a mob of radicals.”
As he explains, the high proportion of Tajik citizens in the ranks of the Islamic State is not accidental. People are disillusioned not only with their own governments, but also with the West, which they see as the main supporter of local dictators. They no longer believe in democracy and peaceful change. Through repression, the government is creating extremists, who, according to Kabiri, will soon be the only alternative to Rahmon’s rule.
In February 2017, Kabiri received refugee status in an EU country. Until then, he stayed in a refugee center with other asylum seekers from Tajikistan and elsewhere. “I had the financial means not to stay in the camp, but I didn’t want to. Maybe because I wanted to somehow compensate for the feeling of guilt,” he wonders. “But I don’t have any regrets. I had to start everything from the beginning and the few months were a university of life for me. Only because of that I now have some peace of mind. I feel the same way as I used to 20 years ago, when I was starting to build my life.”
He began with the reform of party structure to adjust to the realities of exile. He does not rule out that the party may change its name and objectives in the near future. Altering the program is necessary in the new circumstances. In Tajikistan, the party was focused on solving internal issues through dialogue and compromise with the authorities, for which it was often harshly criticized. Critics claimed that such excessive compliance is a sign of weakness, which the government used against the party and society. Now, there is no place for dialogue.
But for all the tragedy of the situation, Kabiri remains optimistic. “When I received asylum, my wife, who lives in Istanbul, said that on the very same day she received a phone call from someone from Dushanbe asking if it’s true. She said this person had heard it from someone in prison. This is how fast the good news reached my peers. They said that once I received status, it means that Europe does not see me as a criminal. And that there is hope for them too.”
Before we finished our talk, sitting in the comfortable office of a Polish NGO run by my friends in central Warsaw, I once again asked about Kabiri’s feelings. He did not seem to be accustomed to this kind of question.
“Will you ever return?” I asked. “For some reason I am sure that I will,” he replied without much hesitation.
“In the cemetery in my village I planted a couple of trees. They took away everything I had, but I asked someone to take care of the trees. I planted them because I want to be buried there. I don’t know whether it will ever happen. But my return will mean that my peers are free.”
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a journalist focusing on the post-Soviet space and an editor with New Eastern Europe magazine.