A crackdown in Tajikistan that began in 2015 has forced large swaths of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan membership into self-imposed exile, with many resettling in Poland and Germany.
In early July, IRPT members – along with representative from other Tajik organizations critical of the government, including Group-24, Vatandor and the Congress of Constructive Forces of Tajikistan – held their first-ever congress outside the country, in the German city of Dortmund. While the attendees pondered ways to bring about change at home, authorities in Dushanbe watched from afar and took notes.
IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri told EurasiaNet.org that threats to relatives back in Tajikistan began before the congress had even opened.
“They summoned family members [for questioning] and put pressure on them through local authorities. Groups of female and youth [pro-government] activists tried to intimidate relatives into heaping abuse on their family overseas, and demanded that they help put a stop to their political activities,” he said.
But the trouble really started on July 10, when Saifullo Safarov, the deputy head of the presidential Center for Strategic Studies, warned at a talk that the coalescing of the opposition posed a danger to Tajikistan’s security. All Tajiks should be vigilant and resist the undertakings of the opposition, he said, and the authorities should act to quash the opposition’s efforts.
Safarov’s remarks served as the starting pistol.
Threatening the relatives of suspect individuals has become a preferred tactic for authorities as they work to keep a lid on opposition activity abroad. One incident involved the relatives of opposition activist Bobojon Kayumzoda, who is from the city of Kulob in southern Tajikistan. Kabiri said local officials warned Kayumzoda’s parents that if they did not intervene to stop their son from getting involved in politics, their home could be confiscated. The parents were filmed as they were verbally warned that they should take every effort to get their son to return to Tajikistan.
The same thing happened to IRPT activist Jannatullo Komil’s family in the town of Dangara. Family members were also told they face confiscation of their house and banishing from the area.
“Even in Dushanbe, they summoned a gathering of activists and called in an 80-year old relative of mine and demanded that he apologize to the nation and smear me. Of course, he refused to do it, and that has not made his life easier,” Kabiri said.
All such actions are, as a rule, conducted informally and cannot be confirmed by officials.
Another method has hallmarks of the public humiliation “struggle sessions” that characterized the darkest years of the rule of Mao Zedong in China. IRPT spokesperson Mahmudjon Faizrakhmonov said agents from the State Committee for National Security, the successor agency to the KGB, summoned a village council in Qumsangir, near the border with Afghanistan, so that they could publicly criticize him in front of his mother.
“They put psychological pressure on her, and nobody gave any thought to the fact that my mother suffers from a weak heart. They dressed her down before the villagers as though she was a little girl. And it is not the first time this happens. Last time, the neighbors began to spurn our family. My little brother is going through a hard time because nobody wants to make friends with him at school and everyone is wary of him, as if he were a criminal,” Faizrakhmonov said.
Following on from the arrest of almost the entire IRPT leadership in late 2015, authorities also went after their lawyer, Buzurgmehr Yorov, who is now serving lengthy jail terms on trumped-up charges. His brother Jamshed managed to leave the country, but his wife is stuck in Tajikistan.
“They threatened my wife and demanded that she forsake me, that she get a divorce. If my wife or any other relatives get in touch with me, they will have criminal charges filed against them. They are threatening to confiscate businesses belonging to my wife’s family. But that isn’t all, they are even threatening children. My 15-year old daughter. They have warned her she will be raped or otherwise physically harmed,” Jamshed told EurasiaNet.org.
Even small children do not appear to be deemed off-limits.
Last September, for example, a group of young men singled out the Kulob home of Shabnam Khudoydodova, an activist who caused Tajikistan considerable irritation after managing to defy an international arrest warrant. The mob pelted the house, where Khudoydodova’s mother and nine-year-old daughter still lived, with rocks. The young girl faced yet more harassment at school.
Relatives are often unable to leave the country because they have had their passports confiscated.
Watchdog groups assail the practice of holding those in Tajikistan responsible for the actions of relatives abroad.
“The vicious campaign of violent attacks, detentions, public shaming, confiscation of passports and property, and bans on leaving the country against dissidents’ relatives are part of an escalating pattern of government-led retaliation in Tajikistan,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at HRW.
The intensity of the backlash may reflect the Tajik government’s distress at the evolving strategy of the opposition. Speaking at the congress in Dortmund, Kabiri insisted that blame for the situation in Tajikistan should not be placed on all officials, but instead on a limited circle of elite insiders. “Those individuals committing crimes against their own people are no more than 20 in number. It is against those people that we must fight,” said Kabiri, alluding to President Emomali Rahmon and his close associates.
To that end, Kabiri and his allies, as well as international rights groups, have been lobbying with the European Union and the United States for the imposition of sanctions against people in that circle suspected of rights abuses.
But the IRPT leader is concerned that this may all be a race against time. He worries that frustration inside Tajikistan can boil over, with people willing to resort to more hardline means of resisting state pressure.
“By violating the rights of their citizens, humiliating them, using women and children as hostages … the authorities are only generating more bitterness and hatred. And not everybody’s patience will hold out. And sadly, it is in this way that many could be drawn into armed radical groups,” he said.