By Oleg Salimov (11/26/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Tajikistan’s Parliament passed a newly revised law on rallies and demonstrations on November 13. The law regulates all public and street meetings and gatherings. Although the ruling and opposition parties unanimously declared that the new law improves the application of principles of democracy in Tajikistan, the political conditions that surrounded the passage of this law point in the opposite direction.

First, law was passed in the aftermath of events in Ukraine and, most recently, the stand-off between protesters and police in Hong Kong. Second, the law is the next step in a set of measures taken in Tajikistan after the calls for protests launched by the opposition Group 24 on October 10. Soon after the protest appeal was announced, the Tajik government blocked internet in the country, put the police and military on high alert, and designated Group 24 an extremist organization.

The new law substituted a similar law from 1998. In essence, the new and harsher version of the law aims to control and prevent mass protests and demonstrations. The law regulates the presence and legal status of journalists and reporters during rallies, demonstrations, and meetings. In other words, the newly added provision imposes government censorship on all information about meetings and demonstrations. The law successfully monopolizes the government’s control over the flow of information and interpretation of events during public rallies and demonstrations.

Also, the new statute grants additional power to police during meetings and demonstrations. Police is allowed to stop and disperse a public gathering if its organizers violate the government approved agenda or order of a meeting. Thus, the determining factor of a meeting’s longevity will be the police’s vision of the order of a meeting.

The new law also prohibits “coercion” of the public to participate in rallies and demonstrations. The coercion provision is seemingly inspired by the recent protest movements in Ukraine and Hong Kong, which demonstrated the potential for internet and informational technologies as protesters were widely informed and got involved through the spread of text messages and on-line social networking. In the conditions of authoritarian rule, the simple mobilization of supporters for a protest rally through text messages or on-line social networks can easily be interpreted as coercion.

Rakhmon understands that the “immunization to protests” which Tajiks obtained through the Civil War might have started to wear out. Generations of young Tajiks not familiar with the bloodshed during the Civil War and unfamiliar with any other leadership than that of Rakhmon, are now adult. Having previously targeted nonconforming individuals, Rakhmon is currently refocusing on the masses. Political instability in Badakhshan Autonomous Region, where the last public unrest took place as recently as May 2014, is a clear signal for Rakhmon to reassess the probability of mass protests in Tajikistan. Regardless of its failure, the attempt last month by Group 24 to organize an opposition meeting in Dushanbe became a turning point for Rakhmon to adopt more serious measures to subdue undesirable public actions.

The Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party’s leader Mukhiddin Kabiri pointed out that Tajikistan has not had violent protests in the last twenty years. Over the same period, neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which demonstrates as low economic development and high corruption indicators as Tajikistan, had experienced two waves of upheaval in 2005 and 2010, resulting in the overthrow of two governments. By passing the new statute on rallies and demonstrations, Rakhmon reveals his regime’s increased perceived vulnerability to political opposition, which can produce an outcome similar to Kyrgyzstan.

Another important factor in the new law on rallies and demonstrations is the Tajik opposition’s unanimous endorsement of Rakhmon’s latest legislative initiative. The leaders of the largest opposition parties represented in Tajikistan’s parliament, the Islamic Renaissance Party and the Communist Party, collectively supported the law significantly restraining opposition. When justifying support of the law, Kabiri and Shabdolov emphasized their commitment to peaceful resolution of all disagreements with the current regime. This commitment is now secured in the newly passed law on rallies and demonstrations.

From the legal standpoint, the new statute is intended to protect the general public from potential outbursts of violence, unruly crowds, and street mobs during meetings and demonstrations. However, in Tajikistan, justice as the foremost principle of the legal system is often substituted by political considerations and objectives of the regime. In the context of a weak separation between the executive, judicial, and legislative powers, the law can easily be manipulated for the regime’s benefit. While the law can meet the criteria of justice, its interpretation and application can deviate significantly from its initial intent. 

Published in Field Reports

By Oleg Salimov (11/11/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Representatives of Afghanistan took part in parliamentary assembly meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Moscow on November 6. The assembly identified as priorities the threats of terrorism, extremism, and drug trafficking in Afghanistan and neighboring Central Asian countries. According to Tajikistan’s national information agency Khovar, similar questions were discussed during a recent meeting between Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon and the secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev on October 16 in Dushanbe.

As reported by opposition and independent media in Tajikistan, the meeting was held behind closed doors with only a few reporters of a state-sponsored news agency present. The later issued statement for the press accentuated Tajik-Afghan border security, the perspectives of Russian-Tajik military cooperation, and informational security. Other participants of the meeting in Dushanbe included representatives of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, and Federal Security Bureau. The meeting in Dushanbe and the following CSTO meeting in Moscow were rounded up by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of Russia’s willingness to assist the Afghan government in its efforts to restore peace and security in the country.

The conclusion of the active part of the military operation in Afghanistan and the long planned withdrawal of International Security Assistance Forces in 2014 has triggered active consultations among Central Asian countries, Russia, and China in the CSTO and SCO formats. Possessing the longest border with Afghanistan among the Central Asian republics, which stretches through inaccessible mountainous regions, Tajikistan is the most vulnerable to security threats if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates. Other complicating factors include Tajikistan’s fragile political stability, the inability of Tajikistan’s military to control the Tajik-Afghan border, and the threats of homegrown Islamic radicals.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is considered by the Tajik government as the main extremist organization spreading the ideas of radical Islam in Tajikistan. The organization confesses to a salafist-wahhabist ideology, possesses strong ties with radicals in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and propagandizes the creation of a worldwide Islamic caliphate. The other extremist organization is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan located primarily on the territory of Afghanistan and having numerous supporters in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The predecessors of the IMU, founded in 1998, were fighting on the side of Islamic opposition during the Tajik Civil War and also took part in Commander Makhmud Khudoberdiev’s attack on Northern Tajikistan in November 1998.

A number of Tajiks are also currently fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria and concerns are growing that their return could coincide with a potential restoration of Taliban power in Afghanistan and facilitate coordinated attacks on both sides of the Tajik-Afghan border. According to Tajik state media, five Tajiks were convicted in Tajikistan on charges of terrorism upon return from Syria earlier this year and Tajik officials issued condemnation after reports of a Tajik citizen being appointed by ISIS as the head of Ar-Raqqah in Syria after the fall of the city. While radicalization previously mainly affected Tajikistan’s southern regions, observers report a growing number of Islamic radicals in Northern Tajikistan according to Radio Ozodi.  

The problem is multiplied by the Tajik government’s inability to fully control the Autonomous Badakhshan region which borders Afghanistan. Badakhshan became a hideout area for irreconcilable post-Civil war militants and a hotbed of radical Islam. Rakhmon ordered several military operations in Badakhshan after terrorist attacks on Tajik government officials in 2010 and 2012. The military actions had little to no effect in improving security in the region. The nominal government control implies higher penetration of the border by extremists and drug traffickers, the Tajik government’s neglect of which is frequently highlighted by local independent media. Tajikistan is the second largest source of northward trafficking of Afghan heroin after Iran.

The situation deteriorated after the withdrawal of a Russian border patrol contingent in 2005. While Russia continued to maintain an Operational Border Group in Tajikistan after 2005, the recent border cooperation agreement signed in September 2014 foresees the reduction of this group from 350 to 200 specialists and duties void of operational actions to consultation “on request” only. Drug trafficking and the spread of extremists to its southern and predominantly Muslim regions were constant concerns of the Russian government and one of the main arguments for its military presence on the Tajik-Afghan border. This consideration has motivated a proposal of Russian technical military assistance to Tajikistan of up to US$ 200 million until 2025.

The visit of Nikolai Patrushev to Dushanbe and the following security meeting in Moscow demonstrates Russia’s determination to step in after ISAF’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. There has so far been no official reaction from Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan, on these perspectives and Vladimir Putin’s announcement. 

Published in Field Reports
Wednesday, 29 October 2014 10:15

Former Tajik Minister Faces Additional Charges

By Oleg Salimov (10/29/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon continues persecution of his former Minister of Industry, businessman, and politician Zaid Saidov. On October 16, Tajikistan’s Anticorruption Agency raised several new criminal charges against Saidov, who already serves a 26-year prison term as of December 2013. Presumed by Rakhmon to be a potential political challenger, Saidov was convicted on charges of rape, polygamy, fraud, and bribery. The new charges include document forgery; abuse of office; misappropriation; illegal actions towards property subject to inventory, arrest, or confiscation; and tax evasion. The abuse of office was among the first charges pressed against Saidov at the moment of his arrest. However, when announcing the verdict, the court ordained this charge to supplementary examination. The cumulative punishment for the new charges against Saidov envisions up to 15 additional years of imprisonment.

Saidov’s rapid downfall was provoked by his announced intention to organize a new political party in Tajikistan, which was supposed to focus on addressing the concerns of business owners and entrepreneurs. The criminal charges against Saidov were brought up soon after the announcement, resulting in his arrest in May 2013 (see 04/09/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst). His ensuing conviction to a 26 year prison term and the confiscation of his property was widely seen by local and international human rights organizations as a punishment for political initiative and a warning to other potential challengers to Rakhmon.    

Tajikistan’s Supreme Court rejected Saidov’s appeal in May 2014. After losing the appeal, the lawyers representing Saidov were determined to obtain an assertion of their client’s innocence in the International Court of Human Rights. The lawyers also consecutively criticized the Anticorruption agency for fabricating its case against Saidov and Tajik courts for ignoring the defenders’ arguments, evidence, and relevant materials. According to Saidov’s lawyers, the takeover of numerous successful businesses belonging to Saidov is another motive behind his conviction and the new charges. At the moment of his arrest, Saidov owned and co-owned 13 business enterprises ranging from fertilizers to light industry and education. Some of the businesses, including the large company TajikAzot were confiscated soon after the conviction. The new charges aim to expropriate Saidov’s remaining assets as well as punishing all individuals connected to him.

Saidov’s lawyers were among the first victims, as two out of three were accused by the Anticorruption agency of committing fraud and bribery. Fakhriddin Zakirov was arrested in March 2014 and Shukhrat Kudratov in July 2014. Previously, Saidov’s lawyers reported receiving warnings, threats, and harassment while working on Saidov’s case. A day before his arrest, Kudratov published an open letter stating the political motives for Saidov’s conviction sanctioned by the country’s top political elite. Just like the trial against Saidov, Zakirov’s case, which started on October 3, is conducted behind closed doors with no reporters or journalists allowed. The international Commission of Jurists in Switzerland expressed grave concerns regarding the persecution of Saidov’s lawyers due to their client’s political views. Two new lawyers will join Saidov’s team of defenders, replacing Zakirov and Kudratov who are still under arrest.

Saidov’s relatives are also targeted by Rakhmon’s regime. In August 2014, the Anticorruption agency initiated a document forgery case against Zaid Saidov’s son Khairullo. In January this year, the Higher Economic Court of Tajikistan reopened a case against Saidov’s other son, Khurshed, accusing him of illegal gain of property. In August 2013, Saidov’s friends and relatives took part in a symbolic action of support releasing one hundred white pigeons and balloons with Saidov’s portrait. They were soon arrested and spent several days in jail on charges of hooliganism.

The latest charges against Saidov involve 14 alleged accomplices including 6 unnamed city of Dushanbe officials. The assumed criminal ring headed by Saidov is suspected of financial manipulations and misuse of funds allocated for construction purposes. The group is also accused of repeated tax evasion.

There is a high probability that the 56-year-old Saidov will spend the rest of his life in prison. Besides losing his freedom, Saidov will be deprived of all his financial assets. New charges will likely continue to emerge until President Rakhmon is fully ascertained of Saidov’s complete political and financial destruction. Saidov’s case demonstrates that Rakhmon’s regime is determined to annihilate all potential opposition in Tajikistan while acquiring considerable financial assets from convicted persons, and does not shy from targeting business, personal, and political companions and manipulating the legal system in the process. 

Published in Field Reports
Wednesday, 15 October 2014 21:44

Tajikistan's Government Braces for Protests

By Oleg Salimov (15/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Tajikistan’s government initiated yet another set of internet blocking measures in the country on October 4. Several popular social networking websites were blocked for a week following speculations of planned anti-government protests in Tajikistan on October 10. As reported by local media, the northern part of Tajikistan was completely cut out of the internet and access was blocked to Facebook, Vkontakte (the Russian version of Facebook), and several opposition and media websites in the rest of the country until October 11.

The government denies any involvement while internet providers refer to unofficial orders from the Tajik State Communication Services requiring blockage of certain websites. Tajikistan’s government recurrently blocks internet and opposition websites during political events and public discord (see the 03/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst).

Asomiddin Atoev, the head of Tajikistan’s internet providers association, is convinced that the blockage of internet was a preventative measure against opposition “Group 24” which called for a protest action in Dushanbe on October 10.

Dushanbe city police conducted anti-protest exercises on October 4, which coincided with the start of the internet blockage. According to Tajik officials, the anti-protest exercise is a part of the scheduled routine. During the exercise, police in full military outfit armed with shields and batons circled the main city square Dousti and moved forward dispersing the supposed protest crowd.

At the same time, the Political Advisory Council of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan appealed to its supporters to refrain from attending the planned protest action. The party reminded of the bloody consequences of Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war, which started as anti-government protests and left about 150,000 Tajiks dead. The Advisory Council also threatened to expel members who will attend the action. A similar plea to the Tajik public was announced by the leader of the Communist Party of Tajikistan Shodi Shabdolov, who also warned about the possibility of protests spiraling out of control and the inadmissibility of another civil war in the republic, while dismissing the idea of unauthorized protest actions.

Soon after the blockage of internet, the Tajik Prosecutor General’s office sent a request to the Supreme Court to designate Group 24 as an extremist organization attempting a coup in the country. Two days later, on October 10, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court approved the request, designating Group 24 as an extremist organization and banning all its actions and activities in Tajikistan. Tajikistan’s government also accuses the leader of Group 24, Umarali Quvvatov, of fraud, kidnapping, and theft. The case was opened in 2012 with damages estimated to millions of dollars. The investigation of Quvvatov’s case is conducted by the Anticorruption agency, infamous for its persecution of persons seen as dangerous to Rahmon’s regime, the most prominent of which include Zaid Saidov and Mukhiddin Kabiri. Quvvatov was arrested in December 2012 in the United Arab Emirates at the request of Tajikistan’s government. He avoided extradition to Tajikistan and was freed ten months later. Quvvatov lives in exile since 2012 and his exact whereabouts are unknown.

According to Quvvatov, Group 24 is named after 24 Tajik businessmen, politicians, and public figures who founded the opposition organization in 2011, united by the idea of replacing Rahmon and changing the course of political development in the country. However, Quvvatov refuses to release the names of the Group’s founders. A staunch critic of Rahmon, Quvvatov states his vision of economic and democratic development in Tajikistan, including reform of the agricultural and taxation sectors, elimination of corruption, improvement of educational system, and revision of international agreements unfavorable to Tajikistan.

Eventually, no unsanctioned event took place on October 10. Group 24 failed to attract Tajiks to the protest action for several reasons. First, there is lack of clarity in whose interests the Group represents. This obscurity hindered Group 24 from building a platform of supporters in Tajikistan. Second, due to the high level of labor migration (almost one million according to Tajikistan’s Ministry of Labor) Tajikistan does not have the unemployed masses that played a significant role during Arab Spring revolutions. Third, Quvvatov, the only known face of Group 24, is not yet perceived as a leader of Tajikistan’s opposition. The large opposition parties and groups, including the Islamic Renaissance party, the Communist party, the Tajik Labor Migrants group, and the Tajik Youth for revival of Tajikistan group, all rejected the calls for public protests. Finally, although Tajikistan’s government took swift actions to prevent protests, which also a included high number of policemen and military vehicles in Dushanbe on October 10, memories of the relatively recent civil war remain a firm argument against engaging in street protests to many Tajiks. 

Published in Field Reports

By Alexander Sodiqov (10/15/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

An exiled Tajik opposition leader recently promised a mass demonstration against the regime of President Emomali Rahmon who has ruled the Central Asian nation since 1992. Although local analysts shrugged off this statement as lacking credibility, the country’s security services reacted with a series of disproportionately harsh measures. Does the Tajik opposition in exile really have enough support and resources to mobilize large-scale popular protest? What explains the heavy-handed approach taken by Tajik security services in preventing the rally?

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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