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Outcry over student arrested in Tajikistan

PhD student arrested while researching conflict management in the Central Asian country, now faces treason charges.

Last updated: 26 Jun 2014 10:57
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Alexander Sodiqov's wife has denounced the charges as 'completely absurd' [Musharraf Sodiqova]

Alexander Sodiqov started his day with a telephone call to one of Tajikistan's most prominent civil-society activists, Alim Sherzamonov. 

Shortly before noon on the morning of June 16, the pair met at a central park in Khorog, the capital of Tajikistan's restive Gorno-Badakhshan province. Sodiqov, a PhD student at Canada's University of Toronto, who had been researching conflict management in the Central Asian country, recalls asking Sherzamonov about the role of civil society in resolving and preventing disputes amid recent clashes in Khorog. 

"We spoke on this subject," Sodiqov later told Tajik authorities, in a statement broadcast by local media. "He said nongovernmental organisations and civil society played a positive role." 

But their conversation did not last long. Within about an hour, security officials had arrested Sodiqov. Nearly two weeks later, he remains in detention, reportedly facing up to 20 years in prison on charges of high treason. The case has sparked an international outcry, with foreign politicians and human-rights groups accusing the Tajik government of punishing Sodiqov for asking the wrong questions.

"As far as we can tell, he is being detained and potentially prosecuted for exercising his freedom of expression to conduct academic research," Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera in an interview from the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. 

Violent history 

 

Tajikistan, which gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, fell into civil war a year later following anti-government demonstrations. The war ended in 1997, but peace has proven elusive for the mountainous, Sunni-dominated country of about eight million people - particularly in Gorno-Badakhshan, a sparsely populated breakaway province comprised largely of Shia Ismaili Muslims.

In the summer of 2012, deadly fighting erupted in Khorog after the slaying of a local security chief. Dozens were killed as Tajik troops and rebel fighters grappled for control of the troubled region, situated on the country's border with Afghanistan. Fresh violence flared up this May, when a gunfight allegedly involving police and drug dealers in Gorno-Badakhshan killed four people and triggered anti-government protests. Sherzamonov has spoken publicly about his belief that Tajik authorities repeatedly created "pretexts to eliminate [suspected participants] in the 2012 clashes".

Religion restrictions debated in Tajikistan

At the time of his arrest, Sodiqov had been working with John Heathershaw, a senior lecturer of international relations at the University of Exeter, on research funded by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council. Focused on the management and resolution of conflicts in Central Asia, their project involved fact-finding missions in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, the UK, Russia, and China. In Tajikistan, Sodiqov was to have conducted a series of interviews with public officials and civil society leaders, Heathershaw told Al Jazeera. 

"[Tajik authorities] claim that he is engaged in espionage, but as there is no evidence for these accusations, there are no grounds for detention," Heathershaw said. "The detention is groundless, incommunicado and illegal." 

As of this week, Sodiqov was reportedly being held at a State Committee for National Security (SCNS) facility in Dushanbe. He has had little contact with his family and, while he was granted access to a state-appointed lawyer, he has not been allowed to select his own counsel, according to Amnesty International.  

Critics have blasted Sodiqov's videotaped police statement, which aired on television last week, saying parts appear to have been coerced. At one point, for example, Sodiqov alleges he was told by Sherzamonov that Gorno-Badakhshan's Ismaili community had misgivings about their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan - but, according to the Asia-Plus news agency, Sherzamonov has denied making such comments. "Apparently, somebody wanted [Sodiqov] to say that the people do not trust the Aga Khan," a Khorog resident told Asia-Plus. Observers say the video may have been a politically motivated attempt to discredit Sherzamonov. 

After Sodiqov's arrest, police searched his mother's home in Dushanbe and seized flash drives and computers. What they were looking for remains unclear. The SCNS has accused Sodiqov of spying for a foreign government, but provided no details. 

"[The] government wants to show that Tajikistan has an enemy somewhere far, but inside the country, everything is good," said Ravshan Abdullaev, the country director for Tajikistan with the Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia. "Of course, for the government this is much easier to do than to solve social problems in the country."

Al Jazeera's multiple inquiries to Tajikistan's foreign ministry went unanswered. Asked whether the Canadian government would intervene in the case, foreign ministry spokesperson Ian Trites only said that Ottawa is "aware of reports that a citizen from Tajikistan, studying in Canada has been arrested in Khorog, Tajikistan".

'Nefarious' narrative

Edward Schatz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and Sodiqov's dissertation supervisor, said the charges have left the school "completely in shock". He described Sodiqov as a mild-mannered student who embarked on his latest research project with laudable intentions and no preconceptions.

"The government views it as tantamount to fomenting conflict - you're asking questions, you must desire conflict," Schatz told Al Jazeera, noting that he has sent a letter and petition to Tajikistan's foreign affairs ministry in hope of a resolution, but received no response. "There's this narrative of a nefarious outside plot to destabilise Tajikistan, and he's found himself caught in the crosshairs."

Sodiqov's wife, Musharraf Sodiqova, denounced her husband's detention as "completely absurd". The situation has posed a tremendous challenge for the couple's young daughter, who does not understand where her father is, she added. 

"She keeps asking me, 'Where is Daddy?' She pretends [she is] speaking to him on the phone and asking to come home," Sodiqova told Al Jazeera, adding the couple's wedding anniversary is June 26. This will be the first time in five years they are not together to celebrate. "It is just not right [for] a person's life to be destroyed for no reason." 

For nearly two weeks, human rights groups have urged Tajik authorities to provide Sodiqov with proper access to his family and to counsel of his choice, citing a clear violation of due process. The fact that his detention has already dragged on this long is not a good sign, Swerdlow noted. 

"The government has continually exhibited a lot of anxiety about any public discussion or scrutiny of events in [Gorno-Badakhshan]," he said, pointing to repeated government blocks of websites containing critical depictions of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. With respect to Sodiqov's arrest, Swerdlow added: "It's really hard to speculate on their motivations, but we do see an increasingly authoritarian style of government in Tajikistan."

Follow Megan on Twitter: @megan_otoole

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Al Jazeera
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