Tajikistan: Bad Days for President’s Critics
It’s been another bad week for critics of Tajikistan’s long-serving strongman, Emomali Rahmon.
On July 18, police announced they had found a body appearing to be that of Salim Shamsiddinov, the missing leader of the Uzbek minority in Tajikistan, downstream in Uzbekistan. Shamsiddinov, 58, vanished without a trace during a regular morning run in his hometown of Qurghonteppa on March 16. A consistent critic of Dushanbe’s policies towards its one-million-plus Uzbek community, many, including Amnesty International, suspected his disappearance was related to his political activities. Shamsiddinov had previously been beaten outside the local offices of the security services, the GKNB, in broad daylight. From our March story:
One prominent analyst in Dushanbe sees two possibilities behind Shamsiddinov’s disappearance. On the one hand, he says the GKNB – which regularly faces allegations of intimidation, kidnappings, torture and extra-judicial executions – is a likely culprit. The GKNB, this popular theory goes, wanted to silence Shamsiddinov because he had been cavorting with one of Rakhmon’s political rivals ahead of presidential elections scheduled for November.
The analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of provoking the powerful GKNB, also points out, however, that Shamsiddinov had problems within the Society of Uzbeks, especially since his Millat interview, and his disappearance could be related to power struggles within the organization.
Members of Shamsiddinov’s family are expected to travel to Uzbekistan to identify the body, which they say they do not recognize from photos in its advanced state of decay. Police say the body does not bear signs of violent death.
Today, news emerged that officials have slapped another charge on an imprisoned opposition leader, Zaid Saidov, who was arrested in May shortly after forming a new political party. He is being held pending an investigation into eight-year-old embezzlement allegations dating to his time as industry minister, and for polygamy. From our May story:
Only last month, Saidov emerged as a driving force behind the formation of New Tajikistan, a group comprised largely of businessmen and intellectuals who promised to focus on economic development. The party made it clear it had no interest in fielding a candidate for the presidential election this autumn. Yet it also stressed it was not a “pocket” party designed simply to create the appearance of a more vibrant political playing field in Tajikistan.
This week Saidov, 55, faces new charges of raping a minor and forcing her to have repeated abortions over a period of four years. It is of course, difficult to know whether the rape charges are merited, but that’s what makes them so convenient for authorities who appear bent on silencing all critics. (And the courts are good at listening to orders from above.)
Zaidov’s lawyers say the new accusations are designed to keep him detained while investigators furiously search for evidence to confirm their earlier embezzlement charges.
Saidov is a popular businessmen who, his supporters say, was just trying to inject new ideas into Tajikistan’s calcified political system. But with presidential elections approaching this autumn, a popular critic was apparently too much for Rahmon and his paranoid advisors to stomach. Tajikistan has never held an election judged free and fair by credible independent observers. Saidov’s supporters say they are being harassed; several have received death threats.
While we’re talking about critics: Many celebrated last year when Tajikistan decriminalized libel, which had been used repeatedly to intimidate critical journalists. The decision was seen as rare progress. Yet journalists are still facing harassment from officialdom. “Although Tajikistan decriminalized libel last year, state officials regularly file defamation complaints against news outlets in retaliation for publishing critical stories,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said earlier this year.
Authorities just use more serious, criminal charges, it seems: In northern Tajikistan, journalist Mahmadyusuf Ismoilov was detained on June 24 after two local women accused him of demanding payments not to defame them in his newspaper, the Dushanbe-based independent weekly Nuri Zindagi (“Light of Life”).
If Ismailov’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he was prosecuted in 2011 for insult and extortion after accusing several local officials of corruption. The Committee to Protect Journalists at the time called the “politicized” charges “fabricated.” Ismoilov was eventually released, but barred from reporting for three years and fined 35,000 somoni ($7,000) for “moral damages.” The penalty was later overturned.
Of course, we can't be certain of Ismoilov's innocence. Demanding bribes is a common enough occurrence in Tajikistan. The only strange thing is that it never seems to be the authorities prosecuted for it – or for anything, until they start criticizing Rahmon.