A little more than a month ago, a court in Khujand sentenced Tajik journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov to 12 years in prison. Mirsaidov’s troubles began after he accused regional officials of corruption last November, only to find himself the one arrested and accused of corruption.
On August 22, however, a regional court changed the sentence and Mirsaidov walked free.
While Mirsaidov was allowed to leave the court a free man, to the happy tears of his family and supporters outside the courtroom, his conviction for embezzlement, forging documents and providing false testimony remains in place. He has been ordered to pay an 80,000 somoni ($8,500) fine, do community service, and pay one-fifth of his salary over the next two years to the government.
Nevertheless, the Tajik authorities’ change of course was a rare event and celebrated by Mirsaidov’s family, friends, and supporters.
“While Mirsaidov should have been fully exonerated, and we will continue to call on authorities to fully dismiss the charges, the significance of [the] reversal in the appellate court is nothing short of dramatic,” Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow told The Diplomat.
The reversal followed a massive social media campaign to #FreeKhayrullo, spearheaded by his friend and fellow journalist Michael Andersen and amplified by human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The U.K.’s top diplomat in Dushanbe, Ambassador Hugh Philpott, also tweeted in support of the campaign ahead of Mirsaidov’s appeal in mid-August.
The day before Mirsaidov was surprisingly released, Swerdlow and RFE/RL’s Bruce Pannier published an article which posed the question: Can Social Media Help Deliver Justice In Tajikistan? It seems, in part, that it can.
According to Swerdlow, since the 2014 release of graduate student Alexander Sodiqov, “this is the first time the Tajik government has released a single political prisoner.”
While Kate Barth, legal director for Freedom Now, a U.S.-based NGO that works to free individual prisoners of conscience, clarified that her organization does not conduct survey research on the specific number of political prisoners in Tajikistan, she told The Diplomat that “100-250 is a number I’ve heard batted around — the majority of whom would be IRPT [Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan] members.”
Andersen commented that it is too early to say whether Mirsaidov’s release has any wider significance but stressed that the “the decision is obviously important to Khayrullo and his family!”
The international community, he continued, “can now either congratulate each other and relax or we can analyse what worked and what did not work in this campaign — and apply that more generally in our dealings with the dictators of Central Asia.”
“Let us remind ourselves,” Andersen said, “that this kind of thing – this kind of outcome – almost never happen in this region. So, it seems to me that the question ‘why did it happen in Khayrullo’s case?’ is very important.”
What works and what doesn’t when it comes to persuading a state like Tajikistan to change its mind?
“The court likely would not have reached its decision without the wave of protests from around the globe in support of free expression and Khayrullo himself,” said Swerdlow.
Barth commented that “no other single political prisoner has gotten the same amount of attention as Khayrullo.” She also pointed out that, unlike many of the remaining political prisoners in Tajikistan, who represent an alternative political power force in the country, Mirsaidov did not. He was “merely attempting to expose local corruption.”
Khayrullo’s release came on the heels of two similar turnabouts by Dushanbe. Four-year-old Hamza Tillozoda and 10-year-old Fatima Dovlatova, both relatives of the Rahmon regime’s exiled political opponents, were prevented from leaving Tajikistan earlier this summer. They were essentially turned into hostages in an attempt to coerce their relatives to return. Where these cases converge with Mirsaidov’s, however, is in the international campaigns that saw the three freed — in Mirsaidov’s case from jail in Tajikistan and in Hamza’s and Fatima’s cases from Tajikistan itself.
“The recent success we have witnessed in the reunification of children with their dissident parents abroad and now Khayrullo’s freedom reminds us that change in Tajikistan is possible, especially if actors with influence, like the U.S., EU member states, OSCE, and others throw their full weight behind a call for a release of political prisoners,” Swerdlow said.
Andersen, in particular, has heavily criticized Western governments for their meekness in the face of Mirsaidov’s case. In a July article for openDemocracy, Andersen called the response from Western governments “shameful” and “lame.”
Andersen’s frustration came across clearly in his comments to The Diplomat. “Let’s not be naive — the diplomats in Dushanbe only started to take a real interest in Khayrullo’s case when my Twitter bombing brought in more and more international organizations and it therefore started to get too embarrassing for the diplomats and governments to continue to do nothing.”
Barth noted that while “it is true that Western governments have not been as vocal in Tajikistan as many in the human rights community would want and that much of this diplomatic pressure might be applied behind closed doors… we have seen some public pressure coming from, for example, the U.K., Germany, France, the U.S., and the EU Delegation — all of which jointly released a strong public statement condemning Khayrullo’s conviction on the day of his conviction” in July.
Barth nevertheless agreed that “of course, it would have been nice to have seen such a statement come out prior to his conviction, as it may have forestalled such [a] result.” She also noted the silence of Asian governments, like Japan.
“To be ‘loud’ and shout about democracy and free media in Tajikistan — you have to think that it is important,” Andersen told The Diplomat.
For years, Tajikistan has marched deeper and deeper into authoritarianism. Most obvious in the political space by the outlawing of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) in 2015, this slide has also included increased pressure on human rights advocates, lawyers, journalists, and others. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has ruled the country since 1992 and his family has infested positions of power through the country’s political and economic hierarchies.
Tajikistan’s international partners, especially those in the West touting the benefits of democracy and free speech, have wrestled with what to do in response to a state that takes none of those values seriously.
“To the extent that governments are not being as vocal as we’d like, as early as we’d like, I think this is the reality of diplomacy being based on a collection of interests, of which human rights is only one,” Barth told The Diplomat.
Tajikistan’s long border with Afghanistan, and the implied security necessities of relations with Dushanbe, have consistently won the country reprieve from the sharper instruments foreign governments could use to leverage change in Tajikistan.
For example, although the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended Tajikistan be designated a “country of particular concern” since 2012, the U.S. State Department only opted to do so beginning in February 2016. The designation, however, hardly matters as Tajikistan — like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan — has repeatedly been granted a waiver from sanctions on national security grounds.
“Of course, Tajikistan’s harsh repression of its people can only lead to alienation and extremism, so human rights interests certainly align with security interests in the long term — still, it may be that Western governments give Tajikistan a slightly longer tether in acknowledgment of its role as a security ally in a terrorist-prone region,” Barth notes.
But the road, in a sense, goes both ways. While the United States may view maintaining a working relationship with Tajikistan as a necessity to its counterterrorism efforts, Tajikistan — or more specifically, the Tajik elite — depends on Western nations for their banking, education, and pleasure.
“For 25 years,” Andersen said, “Central Asia has had some of the worst crooks on the planet in power, all well documented by people like myself and other journalists, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty etc. – and the crooks’ wives, girlfriends, daughters and sons still go to our elite schools, mingle with our political and cultural elite, still buy the most expensive properties in London.”
“The job of the international community and Western governments,” he said, “should be to ‘explain’ to these crooks that if they want our money, [want to] be in our organizations, visit our countries, shop for houses and diamonds in London, Geneva, and Marbella – they need to stop [the] oppression.”
Andersen notes that the tools already exist: “Magnitsky sanctions. Targeted sanction against human rights and democracy oppressors.”
It’s not for lack of a vulnerable spot to push on that Western governments fail to put pressure on Tajikistan. “Western governments are hesitant because they do not care,” Andersen told The Diplomat.
Back in July, in his article for openDemocracy, Andersen wrote that since meeting Khayrullo 15 years ago, he had “on countless occasions seen [him] do what most journalists claim they do, but few of us actually do – namely, speak truth to power.”
Khayrullo Mirsaidov is a free man again. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said he was unhappy with the court’s ruling. “According to the courts, I am still considered a criminal, even though I haven’t committed a crime,” he said.
Mirsaidov promised to appeal the decision and to continue writing “revealing” articles as a journalist.
Meanwhile, the perhaps naive question lingers: Could this be the first step toward change?
“Does a leopard change its spots?” Andersen asked The Diplomat, rhetorically. He noted that his sources inside the regime suggested the Mirsaidov case, and that of the two children — as embarrassing on the international stage as they had become — were being wielded in internal politics. “We don’t know,” he said, whether international shaming worked or perhaps someone in the regime “now understands that ‘there is a limit.’”
In discussing the rough estimate of 100-250 political prisoners remaining in Tajikistan, Barth commented, “Unfortunately, I think it’s unlikely that any of these guys will be imminently released… Having said that, who knows?” Barth said that when she’d gone to bed on August 21, “Khayrullo’s release didn’t seem particularly imminent either.”
On August 24, Akhbor, a Tajik news site based in Prague, reported that unnamed sources indicated that the Tajik authorities were preparing to pardon large numbers of political prisoners in conjunction with Constitution Day in November. Such a mass pardoning is not necessarily unprecedented; for example, in 2009 the Tajik government announced that Rahmon had signed a decree amnestying some 10,000 prisoners. The key will be whether political and religious prisoners are included in this round.
Earlier this year two UN bodies — the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and United Nations Human Rights Committee — issued opinions that the imprisonment of Mahmadali Hayit and Zayd Saidov, respectively, violate international law. Both are considered political prisoners and are on Akhbor’s list of possible prisoners to be released.
Only time will tell. Furthermore, none of what has happened so far — reversals and releases — reflects a demonstrated will to change the underlying autocratic nature of the state. It remains hostile to free speech and opposition politics.
In the meantime, human rights organizations will continue to pressure the Tajik government, reinvigorated by recently successful campaigns. “Until we see the government send a clear message that it values its human rights obligations under international law, governments, international institutions and activists should keep the pressure up,” Swerdlow told The Diplomat.