With a bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, months of unprecedented grassroots protests for democratic change in Belarus and the Russian Far East, and a third revolution in 15 years underway in Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet space has rarely seen so much political and social upheaval at one time. But as scenes of Belarusians marching bravely in the streets and of a raucous power vacuum currently underway in Kyrgyzstan captivate our attention, we should not lose sight of the more than 9 million people in another corner of Eurasia who in a few days will face the next chapter in a largely unseen and ongoing human rights catastrophe.
Tajikistan’s presidential elections, set for October 11, are poised to reinstall Emomali Rahmon for another seven-year term in office. He has been the country’s president or its equivalent since 1992 and is the only post-Soviet dictator in power longer than Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko. Easily dismissed as a hollow, authoritarian exercise, the Tajik elections leave no doubt about who will prevail.
Tajikistan security services conceded as much last month when they hounded out of the race Faromuz Irgashev, a 30-year-old lawyer from the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) and a newcomer to the political scene, after he posted a video on YouTube announcing his intention to run. One day later, security officers appeared at Irgashev’s family’s home where they took him out “to have a long walk.”
This is nothing new for Tajikistan. The Central Asian state has never held an election judged free and fair by credible international observers. But it is possible to trace Tajikistan’s current wave of severe repression and the beginning of its descent into a full-blown human rights crisis to the last presidential election cycle.
Political Prisoners, Jailed Lawyers
During the run-up to the 2013 presidential elections, authorities arrested and sentenced business figure and opposition politician Zayd Saidov to 29 years in prison (later reduced to 26 years) in a flawed trial after he discussed the formation of a new opposition party, the New Tajikistan party. The terrible precedent set by Saidov’s case sparked a wave of arrests that within months extended to his lawyers Shuhrat Kudratov and Fakhriddin Zokirov.
By September 2015, the crackdown had steadily picked up momentum, culminating in the ban of Tajikistan’s most popular opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and the jailing of its senior leaders as well as hundreds of IRPT members for lengthy terms on politically-motivated charges. Authorities crossed a rubicon of repression, as Tajikistan’s population of political prisoners soared into the hundreds.
Among the hundreds of IRPT members jailed were deputy party head Mahmadali Hayit and activist Rahmatullo Rajab. Prominent human rights lawyers Buzurghmehr Yorov and Nuriddin Makhkamov were also arrested because of their representation of the IRPT and sentenced to 28 and 21 years, respectively, although Yorov’s sentence was later reduced by six years under an amnesty. Saidov, Hayit, Rajab, Yorov, and Makhkamov remain behind bars despite multiple rulings by U.N. human rights bodies, including the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, calling for their immediate and unconditional release. Several of them have been tortured.
Authorities have widened their campaign to pressure family members of the banned opposition. For example, Asroriddin Rozikov, 38, the son of imprisoned IRPT activist Zubaidullohi Rozik, was detained in June 2020 on terrorism charges, clearly politically motivated.
During the same period, Tajik authorities engaged in a campaign of transnational repression — targeting opposition figures and other perceived critics outside the country for kidnapping, extradition, and other abuses. The most notorious case came in March 2015 in Istanbul when another would-be presidential contender and head of the opposition movement Group 24, Umarali Quvvatov, was shot dead in Istanbul, Turkey in circumstances that strongly point to involvement or acquiescence by the Tajik government.
In a string of stunning transnational abuses, often with the assistance of sympathetic security services, Dushanbe has detained, kidnapped, and in some cases forcibly returned to the country numerous Tajik dissidents in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, and Turkey. The most recent instance occurred just last month in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia when several men in civilian clothes apprehended Group 24 activist Shobuddin Badalov. Badalov had fled to Russia due to persecution in Tajikistan and received official refugee status. After going missing for several weeks, Badalov recently re-emerged in Dushanbe and is currently in custody.
Dushanbe’s transnational repression has even extended into the heart of Europe. Tajik authorities (mis)use INTERPOL, the international police organization, to stifle dissidents abroad and seek their extradition. In October 2017, Greek border guards arrested IRPT activist Mirzorahim Kuzov at Athens International Airport as he was flying from Warsaw – where he had attended an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) conference on human rights – to Tehran, via Greece on an Interpol “red notice” filed by Tajikistan. Human rights activists helped secure his release in a hearing 40 days later.
Last March, Ilhomjon Yaqubov, the head of the Association of Central Asian Migrants and a Tajik opposition activist long subjected to threats by security services, was violently beaten by two Tajik assailants in Kaunas, Lithuania. The attackers had lured him into a car under false pretenses. Yaqubov told this author that Lithuanian police launched an investigation that is currently ongoing.
Journalists and civil society organizations have also borne the brunt of Tajikistan’s deepening human rights crisis.
In April, a Dushanbe court sentenced independent journalist Daler Sharipov to one-year imprisonment on charges of “inciting religious hatred.” In an Orwellian twist, prosecutors rest their “religious incitement” charges on a text Sharipov authored that argues that Islam did not justify acts of terrorism. In June 2020, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, led by Bob Menendez, appealed for Sharipov and Buzurgmehr Yorov’s immediate release in a letter to Rahmon.
Pressure on journalists only increased during the government’s reckless (non)response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Tajikistan resisted officially acknowledging the existence of COVID-19 in the country until late April — almost a full month after Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan had done so. During the month of March, in blatant disregard of advice from the World Health Organization, Tajik authorities continued to organize mass gatherings that may well have served as super-spreading events.
In May 2020, Asia-Plus journalist Abdullo Gurbati, who had been actively reporting on the pandemic, was violently attacked in two separate incidents. In the first attack on May 11, Gurbati reported that two unknown individuals wearing medical masks attacked him near his home in Dushanbe, hitting him on the head, arms, and legs. The attackers made no attempt to steal any items. Gurbati had received death threats by phone prior to the beating. When Gurbati reported the attack to police, they opened an investigation for “hooliganism,” a minor offense. To date, police have identified no suspects. Three men attacked Gurbati just three weeks later, on May 29, in the Khuroson district in southern Tajikistan while Gurbati was reporting on recent mudslides in the area.
In July, Rahmon signed into law new legislation criminalizing the spread of “false information” about the coronavirus. The law severely curtails freedom of expression by carrying steep fines for journalists and bloggers who distribute “inaccurate” or “untruthful” information about COVID-19. It has already had a chilling effect on free speech and expression.
Tajikistan regularly blocks access to critical websites and information online. But in recent years it has intensified its campaign against media freedom, denying accreditation to at least eight reporters as of August 2020 and banning the muckraking, Prague-based Akhbor.com as “extremist.” In one of his last official statements before Tajikistan and other states blocked his reappointment to the post, the OSCE’s Representative of Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir expressed concern over Dushanbe’s restriction of access to Akhbor, labelling it a “severe restriction on the freedom of expression.”
The Tajik government’s worsening crackdown on civil and political rights has coincided with its reluctance to investigate or prosecute another epidemic that affects a much larger segment of the population: domestic violence. At least one in five women in Tajikistan report having experienced severe forms of domestic violence. Despite a 2013 law that helped raise awareness about the problem, Tajik law still does not criminalize domestic violence and survivors of domestic violence face enormous hurdles in accessing protection and services. Currently only three domestic violence shelters are available for a country of over 9 million people.
Let us not confuse Tajikistan’s lack of political competition or street protests with the idea that nothing of consequence will be at stake this coming Sunday. The chain of human rights abuses — which have increasingly become Dushanbe’s modus operandi in the last seven years — amounts to the worst human rights crackdown in Tajikistan since the end of the country’s civil war in 1997. They illustrate that even in Tajikistan’s highly controlled, one-man-matters politics, elections have consequences.
Steve Swerdlow is a human rights lawyer and an associate professor of the practice of human rights at the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @steveswerdlow