Tajikistan’s poor record on free expression seems to have deteriorated further over the past year. The authorities restrict media freedom and routinely target journalists for their work. Opposition figures are imprisoned and critical voices are silenced through intimidation or murder. The act of publicly insulting the president carries a prison term of up to five years. The regime is also quick to blame internal unrest on Western interference. The latest victim to fall foul of this paranoia is 31-year-old Alexander Sodiqov, a Tajik citizen and PhD student at the University of Toronto, who has been charged with treason for carrying out research relating to his academic studies. If convicted, he faces up to twenty years in prison.
Sodiqov was detained by security officers on 16 June 2014. He had been interviewing an opposition leader as part of his research into conflict resolution in Gorno-Badakhshan, an autonomous province bordering Afghanistan, which has suffered from violent clashes between protesters and local security forces. His fieldwork was part of a multinational research project based at the University of Exeter called ‘Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia’. Sodiqov also blogs on Central Asian issues for Global Voices and the Tajikistan Monitor.
Sodiqov was initially detained incommunicado and then transferred to a detention facility run by the State Committee for National Security (SCNS) in Dushanbe. On 17 June, the SCNS searched his mother’s home in Dushanbe and removed computer and storage equipment. They then issued a statement accusing Sodiqov of spying for foreign governments. On 22 July, he was released from prison on bail and placed under house arrest.
Tajikistan gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A brutal civil war ensued between the Moscow-backed government and the Islamist-led opposition, in which up to 100,000 people were killed and thousands more fled the country. The war ended in 1997 with a United Nations-brokered peace agreement, but Tajikistan’s economy has yet to recover and has been further weakened by pervasive corruption and drug trafficking.
As a consequence there have been several domestic security incidents, including armed conflict between government forces and local warlords in the Rasht Valley and criminal groups in Gorno-Badakhshan. Most recently, tensions flared in May 2014, resulting in violent clashes in the region. Gorno-Badakhshan is home to Pamiris, who are Shia Ismailis, and other ethnic minorities, who feel marginalised by President Emomali Rahmon’s government.
Formerly a senior member of the Communist Party, Rahmon has ruled Tajikistan with an iron fist since 1992. In early November last year, he was re-elected as president for a fourth term in a process deemed neither free nor fair and in which there was no genuine political competition. In the run-up to the elections Rahmon silenced his critics and the main opposition figures: in March that year, Salimboy Shamsiddinov, a critical journalist and head of the ethnic Uzbek minority society of the Khatlon region, ‘disappeared’ after leaving his home in Qurghonteppa. Shamsiddinov had publicly called for ethnic Uzbeks in Tajikistan to support Rahmatillo Zoirov, the head of the Social Democratic Party, in the presidential elections. In May, Zayd Saidov, a businessman and former government official who had formed a new opposition party, was arrested. He had been receiving death threats by text message warning him to ‘stay away from politics’. On 25 December last year, after a politically motivated trial, he was found guilty of five criminal charges and sentenced to twenty-six years in prison.
According to a report by The Economist immediately after Sodiqov’s arrest in June, the state’s security chief claimed that foreign governments are collaborating with NGOs and ‘organised crime’ to destabilise Tajikistan. Sodiqov’s brief meeting at a reception with the British ambassador led them to claim a British conspiracy.
During his detention, Sodiqov’s family was denied contact with him and not informed of the charges against him. This is in violation of the United Nation’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Furthermore, Sodiqov was not allowed to consult a defence lawyer of his choosing, but was instead allocated one by the Tajik authorities.
Readers might like to write to the Tajik authorities calling for the unconditional release of Alexander Sodiqov, detained on politically motivated charges of treason; urging that Sodiqov be given a defence lawyer of his choosing in line with Tajikistan’s law and international obligations; and seeking assurances that he is not subject to torture or other ill treatment.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Erkin Kasymov
The Embassy of the Republic of Tajikistan
26–28 Hammersmith Grove
London W6 0NE
Fax: +44 (0) 20 8834 1100
President Emomali Rahmon
Fax: +992 372 21 68 00
Prosecutor General Sherkhon Salimzoda
Fax: +992 372 21 02 59
(Mark faxes and emails: ‘Please forward to Prosecutor General’)
Update: On 23 June, three Al Jazeera (English) journalists, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed (LR, May 2014), were sentenced in Egypt to between seven and ten years’ imprisonment on charges of having links to a ‘terrorist organisation’ and ‘spreading false news’. PEN believes their imprisonment is part of an escalating crackdown on dissent in Egypt, in which journalists, writers and independent or critical voices are targeted for their reporting and peaceful activism, and continues to call for their release.