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2 Tajik Opposition Activists Go Missing in Turkey

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2 Tajik Opposition Activists Go Missing in Turkey

In less than a month, two prominent Group 24 activists have disappeared in Turkey, raising concerns that they have been or will be sent back to Tajikistan. 

2 Tajik Opposition Activists Go Missing in Turkey
Credit: Depositphotos

On March 11, Group 24 – a banned Tajik opposition movement – issued a statement that its leader, Sohrab Zafar, had gone missing from Turkey. 

“His phone is also switched off. It is not known where he is,” the statement said.

Zafar, who has lived in Turkey since October 2014, is the second Group 24 member to go missing in the country in less than a month. On February 25, Zafar told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, Radio Ozodi, that Nasimjon Sharifov, another Group 24 activist, had left his home on February 23 and had not been heard from since.

As of writing, the two men remain missing and concerns are mounting. 

Group 24 was founded in 2012 by businessman and politician Umarali Kuvvatov. Kuvvatov fled Tajikistan the same year, with the movement very much nascent. In 2014, after Kuvvatov called for protests against long-time Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, the group was banned, declared “extremist” by Dushanbe. A Eurasianet report at the time referred to Group 24 as a “proto-opposition movement,” writing that “with a straight face the nation’s highest court has branded the hazy, little-known Facebook group terrorists.”

Kuvvatov was assassinated in Istanbul in early March 2015. Just ahead of his murder, Kuvvatov had been detained by Turkish authorities, ostensibly at the request of Tajikistan.

Group 24 was easily dismissed by media early in its days, given the little overt support for the movement in Tajikistan. Yet Dushanbe has gone to great lengths over the last decade to crush any sprouts of resistance, no matter how far away they take root.

As I wrote in 2016, part of an article charting Tajik efforts to silence opposition outside of the country: 

Several Group 24 members have been arrested in other countries at the request of Tajikistan, pressured into “voluntarily” returning to face charges, or have disappeared completely. Shabnam Khudoydodova was arrested in Belarus [in summer 2015] while trying to cross into Poland to seek asylum. She’d been living in St. Petersburg and calling for democratic reforms online when she got word Dushanbe might try to forcibly return her to face extremism charges. Ehson Odinaev, a 24-year-old Group 24 member, disappeared from Russia in May 2015; his brother and mother have subsequently fled to Moldova. Umedjon Salikhov, who denies being a Group 24 member, voluntarily returned to Tajikistan after authorities threatened to charge his family. He was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison in March 2015 on charges he distributed “extremist materials” on social media. Salikhov’s lawyer, Buzurgmehr Yorov, was detained months later after saying in an interview that another of his clients (one of the many IRPT members on trial currently) had been tortured by Tajik police.

Activists worry that Zafar and Sharifov will be added to the long list of Tajik oppositionists who have been kidnapped abroad and forcibly returned to Tajikistan, or worse – with Kuvvatov’s fate ever-present as a worst case scenario.

Ubaydullo Saidi, a representative of Group 24, told Radio Ozodi, “We fear for [Zafar’s] fate, because if he returns to Tajikistan, he is threatened with torture and a long term of imprisonment.”

Steve Swerdlow, a rights lawyer and associate professor of the Practice of Human Rights at the University of Southern California, told Radio Ozodi that he’d recently been in contact with Zafar to discuss the disappearance of Sharifov.

In a report released in October 2023, Swerdlow chronicled Tajikistan’s history of enforced disappearances, stretching from the early 2000s to the present day in broadly three waves, one of which targeted members of Group 24 and the also-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

Zafar and Sharifov were detained in 2018 by Turkish authorities and at risk of deportation. But after 70 days the two men were released.

Speaking to Radio Ozodi in late February, Zafar said that Group 24 has “bitter experience” with what happens when a person is kidnapped. He also said that members regularly receive threatening messages, ranging from death threats to threats of kidnapping, which they believe come from the Tajik security services. Before his own disappearance, Zafar appealed to Turkey, saying that Ankara had not handed over any Tajik oppositionists, despite occasional arrests and interrogations, and that he hoped that would continue.