Repression of dissenters in Tajikistan is taking a worrisome turn, with family members inside the Central Asian country facing retribution for the actions of activist relatives abroad.
Events surrounding the annual human dimension implementation meeting, convened in Warsaw by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), have highlighted the issue of payback by proxy. On September 19, during the forum, supporters of political groups persecuted in Tajikistan staged a protest, holding up posters that highlighted reported abuses by the Tajik government.
Some of the dozen or so young activists also wore white T-shirts bearing images of leading figures of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) who have been languishing in jail for allegedly plotting a coup. Rights activists believe the charges to be politically motivated.
Protest participants represented IRPT and other opposition movements, such as Group-24 and Vatandor. The self-exiled leader of Vatandor, Dodojon Atovulloyev, also took part in the protest.
Tajikistan’s official delegation reacted to the barrage of criticism by demonstratively walking out of the ODIHR conference. “The representatives of organizations banned in Tajikistan started harassing and putting pressure on our delegation from the very first days [of the conference]. Because of this intimidation, three journalists left the event and civil society representatives generally avoided contact with them and did not even participate in side events,” the Tajik delegation said in a statement.
By all accounts, however, the real intimidation was unfolding back in Tajikistan.
Rights watchdogs now report that the impromptu and small-scale actions at the ODIHR event have sparked a cycle of retribution inside Tajikistan. Officials are said to be directing pressure on exiled activists and politicians by harassing family members still living in the country. A shadowy voluntary youth group appears to be leading the exercise in intimidation.
Human Rights Watch said on September 22 that it had received reports that relatives of the Warsaw protesters had been harassed within a day of the Warsaw episode. “The next day up to 30 relatives of those who participated in silent protest were detained in various cities across the country, including in Dangara, Dushanbe, Khujand, Rudaki, and elsewhere,’” HRW said in a statement.
Tajikistan was the object of considerable critical focus at the ODIHR event. A film produced by HRW and shown at the conference documented the plight of people targeted inside and, most alarmingly, outside the country for their political beliefs.
One person featured in the film was Ilhomjon Yakubov, who formerly headed the IRPT’s branch in northern Tajikistan’s Sughd region. Yakubov explained that he had been subjected to intimidation designed to force him into renouncing his ties to the IRPT. “Under threats and torture, they [the security services] wanted me to resign from the party, and for me to condemn the party in front of their camera, condemn the party leader, and they wanted me to say all of this in front of a television camera,” Yakubov said.
As HRW’s film was released, members of Yakubov’s family in Sughd’s regional capital, Khujand, were detained by state security agents. “They were harassed and interrogated at length by … officers who threatened that if their relatives [abroad] continued to publicly criticize the Tajik government then ‘we will destroy you,’” HRW reported.
Another figure whose relatives have faced reprisals in recent days is Shabnam Khudoydodova, an activist who caused Tajikistan considerable irritation after managing to defy an international arrest warrant while securing her release from jail in Belarus. According to opposition activists, a group of young men threw stones at Khudoydodova’s family home in the city of Kulob. In addition, the activist’s nine-year-old daughter was harassed at school, according to the same sources. On a subsequent day, intruders burst into Khudoydodova’s home and physically intimidated members of her family. When family members complained to the local police, they were sent packing and made to understand they could face more harassment.
Some youth activists also burned images of IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri outside the home of his 95-year-old father.
A youth group called Avangard — a movement loosely modeled on the kind of nationalist organizations that cropped up in Russia following the revolution in Ukraine in 2004-2005 – seem to be leading these public acts of intimidation.
The leader of the Avangard movement, Asliddin Khushvakhtov, has undergone a radical political makeover in recent months that has seen him go from an ardent IRPT supporter to a government cheerleader.
As recently as March 15, 2015, Khushvakhtov was an outspoken critic of the government, assailing it for rigging parliamentary elections in 2015. The IRPT lost its remaining two seats in the legislature in that vote. “I have often heard how elections are falsified, but this time I saw it with my own eyes,” Khushvakhtov stated at the time.
Speaking to EurasiaNet.org, Khushvakhtov said he experienced a crisis of faith last September, when a deputy defense minister purportedly tried to mount a coup with support from the IRPT. The deputy defense minister was killed and could never face trial, while the court hearings against the IRPT leadership were conducted under a heavy veil of secrecy.
Drawing on the government line about those purported events, Khushvakhtov said he did not want his country to repeat the experiences of Libya, Syria and Iraq. That is where Khushvakhtov sees opposition activism heading.
“In recent years, the youth of Tajikistan have become very active. If before we had no internet, now we have access to social media and information gets passed around very quickly,” he said.
Referring to the protesters in Warsaw, Khushvakhtov claimed they had tarnished his country’s reputation. “They wanted to use an international platform to ruin Tajikistan’s image. And this of course has an effect on the young people of Tajikistan,” he said.
Kamila Ibragimova is a pseudonym for a journalist working in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.