Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Russia Brands Exiled Tajik Opposition Party a ‘Terrorist’ Organization

The designation by Russia of the IRPT as an extremist organization may put Tajik citizens in Russia further at risk.

Russia Brands Exiled Tajik Opposition Party a ‘Terrorist’ Organization
Credit: Freestock,ca

Seven years after the party was declared extremist by Tajikistan, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) has reportedly been named a “terrorist” group by the Supreme Court of Russia, too. This is sure to please Tajik President Emomali Rahmon when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, later this week.

The IRPT, until its banning in 2015, was Tajikistan’s largest opposition party and the only legal Islamist political party registered in Central Asia. With roots in the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), the IRPT was first banned in 1993 by the Tajik government, newly headed by Rahmon. After the civil war, which ran from 1992 to 1997 and ended with a peace agreement promising opposition representation in government, the IRPT was legalized. In 2005, the party secured two seats in the Tajik parliament, out of 63.

It’s worth noting that the party did not push anything resembling an extremist platform. It even backed a secular, female candidate for president in the 2013 election. The effort to pool opposition votes was ultimately unsuccessful, given that Oynihol Bobonazarova, the candidate and a prominent human rights lawyer, was prevented from running.

A decade after first entering parliament, the IRPT lost its seats after a concerted pressure campaign (including leaked sex tapes and arrests on dubious charges). That was just the beginning of the IRPT’s woes. IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri, already in exile in June 2015, warned that Dushanbe was gearing up to destroy the party. And it did. By the end of 2015, what remained of the party’s leadership in Tajikistan had been arrested (eventually their lawyers were arrested, too). The party was branded a “terrorist” outfit after being blamed for an outbreak of violence in early September 2015. The details at the time were murky, and time has only deepened the uncertainty.

In the years since, the IRPT has been blamed by Tajik authorities for various crimes and instances of violence — always without presenting evidence. In 2018, when the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a car attack that killed four foreign cyclists in Tajikistan, Dushanbe reflexively blamed the IRPT. Again, no evidence was presented of a connection between the attack and the IRPT.

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All the while, IRPT members continued to flee Tajikistan. Given the ease of travel from Tajikistan to Russia, and familiarity of the route given the huge number of annual Tajik labor migrants travelling north, many landed there first. But Russia has never been a safe place for Tajik political dissidents.

In 2016, a record number of Tajik asylum seekers knocked on the door of the European Union, many applying at the Polish border. Dushanbe sought the extradition of various IRPT members from states like Greece unsuccessfully in 2017 and found ways to forcibly return others from states like Turkey and Russia, presumably with the assistance or at least permission of local authorities. At the same time, Tajik authorities escalated pressure on the families of political dissidents remaining in Tajikistan.

The designation by Russia of the IRPT as an extremist organization may put Tajik citizens in Russia further at risk. The mere allegation of association with the IRPT could bring legal trouble and deportation. 

A spokesman for the IRPT, which operates now out of Europe, told RFE/RL the designation was expected even though the group does not operate in Russia. “We are concerned that this decision will be abused by the authorities and many innocent people will be arrested and imprisoned as a result,” Bobojon Kayumov said.

Over the last year, a number of Pamiri activists and leaders — some even with Russian citizenship — have been forcibly returned to Tajikistan from Russia. The pattern is the same: a disappearance in Russia and a reappearance in Tajikistan, occasionally with a forced confession or statement of voluntary return before charges are announced. The Pamiris, an ethnic group native to Tajikistan’s vast Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), also formed a part of the UTO in the civil war and have come under increasing pressure by the central government.

While the Pamiris and IRPT are distinct (one an ethnic group and the other a political organization), their members face increased risks in Russia. And Russia, with few friends to count after its invasion of Ukraine, has no qualms about deporting a couple of Tajiks at Dushanbe’s request.