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Tajikistan: Rise and Fall of a Telecoms Wunderkind

A young and former high-ranking state official in Tajikistan’s communications sector has learned to his cost the dangers of crossing elite big-hitters, particularly when they are related to the president.

A court in Dushanbe this week sentenced Kadamjon Safizoda, the ex-head of Center for Information and Communication Technology in the presidential administration, to 15 years in jail over an alleged scheme to defraud mobile phone service providers. Between time already served and a 2016 penalty-reducing amnesty, Safizoda has another nine years left to sit out in a strict regime prison colony.

The story begins many years ago, in the southern town of Kulyab, where much of the country’s leadership has its origins.

Having been raised in an unassuming rural household, Safizoda was, by the accounts of those familiar with his career, brought up through the ranks by an important fellow native of Kulyab, Beg Zukhurov. By dint of his relations to the president by marriage, Zukhurov has for many years accumulated great influence — and wealth, say many — as head of the government’s communications regulator.

By the late 2000s, Safizoda had become deputy head of the communications agency, but in January 2012 he made a sideways move by heading up a parallel IT development department in the presidential administration.

With Safizoda’s star on the ascendancy, Zukhurov’s was ostensibly on the decline. According to scuttlebutt trickling out over the years, President Emomali Rahmon even once ominously warned Zukhurov that a “young generation was growing up.”

Perhaps the most notable service performed by Safizoda has been to lobby for an internet cable to be laid down alongside the planned, but now indefinitely postponed, fourth strand of the China-Turkmenistan natural gas pipeline. The idea was to significantly improve internet provision courtesy of data provided by Beijing and then sell excess capacity to Afghanistan.
It all went wrong in early 2016, when the story begins to get strange and confusing.

According to prosecutors, a short while after moving into a top-floor apartment, Safizoda called specialists from the communications service — which provides telecommunications services as well regulating them — to install the internet in his home. But when the technicians climbed up into the loft, what they found there was a sophisticated array of modems that appear to have belonged to Safizoda’s friend Parviz Nazarov.

Reports of this discovery were immediately relayed to Zukhurov, who began compiling a report to President Rahmon about how his former protege seemed to be involved in cyberterrorism and all manner of other misdoings.  

The court heard — and struggled at times to understand, according to correspondents who followed the case — a more technical and complicated story.

In essence, the prosecution’s case was that Safizoda and his associates had created the technical means to trick the network of cellphone services provider Megafon Tajikistan and Beeline Tajikistan into thinking that incoming calls from Russia were actually local calls. Under an agreement between Russian and Tajik cellphone providers, a certain portion of the cost incurred by the person initiating such international calls should be paid to the local company. But in this instance, whatever money Russian cellphone companies were supposed to pay their Tajik counterparts was allegedly simply pocketed by the masterminds of this scheme.

Nazarov as good as admitted his culpability in court and said he was assisted in the fraud by a colleague in Russia that he named only as “Volodya.” He said that the scale of the financial gain was nowhere close to the $910,000 being maintained by the prosecution, however. Safizoda denies he was in any way involved and provided the court with what he said were transcripts of a messenger app exchange with Nazarov, expressing his rage at what the communications service engineer had discovered.

Representatives for neither Megafon nor Beeline, the primary alleged defrauded parties, appeared in court.

In addition to Safizoda, another six purported accomplices were handed sentences of between 12 and 15 years in jail. The act of “illegal entrepreneurship,” which is in legal terms how the crime was defined, carries only a fine, so some more charges were added to the slate to ensure the custodial penalties.

Tajikistan: Rise and Fall of a Telecoms Wunderkind

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