Toronto, Canada – Staring down the prospect of a decade or more in a Tajik prison, Alexander Sodiqov began to lose hope.
Sodiqov, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, was arrested on charges of high treason in mid-June while conducting research in Khorog, the capital of Tajikistan’s restive Gorno-Badakhshan province. He was detained for a month in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, before authorities released him on July 22 – only to bar him from leaving the country.
Earlier this month, Sodiqov was finally allowed to return to Canada, but he remains “under investigation” in Tajikistan – a tenuous legal situation that has thrown into question his ability to ever go back.
“When I was told I was being released from prison, I could not believe it,” Sodiqov, a Tajik native, told Al Jazeera from his Toronto home recently. “Even when my wife came to pick me up from the prison, I still could not believe it. It took me some time to realise that the authorities did actually let me out of prison. I was shocked when they allowed me to leave.”
Sodiqov’s case gained significant international scrutiny over the past few months, with supporters launching a Free Alex Sodiqov website and a petition that garnered thousands of signatures. The University of Toronto issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about his detention, urging Tajik authorities to respect his rights.
The case has also fuelled debate over academic freedom in Central Asia, a region where Amnesty International has said human rights activists have become increasingly vulnerable. Groups working in the region are not adequately guaranteed freedom of association, Amnesty reported, with human rights activists frequently labelled as traitors.
What I was doing in Khorog at the time of my arrest was normal academic research. This is how research is done: You get down to the field and talk to people.
“Alexander Sodiqov’s case illustrates the limitations on the rights of freedom of expression of academics, journalists and human rights defenders in Tajikistan,” Rachel Bugler, Amnesty’s expert on Central Asia, told Al Jazeera. Bugler has called on Tajik authorities to formally drop the case against Sodiqov, noting that while his release is a positive development, “the fact [remains] that he was persecuted for his academic research and for exercising his right to freedom of expression”.
Sodiqov’s case began to unfold on June 16, when he met in a park in Khorog with civil society activist Alim Sherzamonov. Amid recent clashes in Khorog, Sodiqov wanted to interview Sherzamonov about the role of civil society in resolving disputes between communities and their governments. His research was to form part of a larger University of Exeter project on conflict management in Central Asia, including Tajikistan, which fell into a five-year civil war after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Unrest has continued in the years since, particularly in the semi-autonomous province of Gorno-Badakhshan, located on the country’s border with Afghanistan.
Within an hour of the pair’s meeting, Tajik authorities swooped in to arrest Sodiqov, charging him with high treason – a crime punishable by 12 to 20 years in maximum-security prison, Sodiqov noted.
“I am innocent,” he said. “What I was doing in Khorog at the time of my arrest was normal academic research. This is how research is done: You get down to the field and talk to people.”
Tajikistan’s president and foreign ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s multiple inquiries on the status of Sodiqov’s case and on whether further charges could be laid. Supporters with FreeAlexSodiqov.org said that given the seriousness of the initial allegations, and the fact that Sodiqov has now been allowed to leave Tajikistan, the treason charges “have effectively been dropped” – but their campaign will continue until the investigation is formally closed.
Amid this ambiguity, Sodiqov remains unwilling to discuss a number of aspects of his case. He declined to comment on whether police ever disclosed any evidence against him, or on whether the experience altered his impressions of the Tajik government. He spoke only cursorily about the conditions he faced in detention – they were “not as bad as one would expect” – but would not go into detail. Sodiqov also declined to comment on suggestions that his arrest underscored the Tajik government’s anxiety about public scrutiny of past events in Gorno-Badakhshan.
He did, however, confirm: “I want to be able to go [back] to Tajikistan one day.”
The Canadian government, meanwhile, has lauded the news of Sodiqov’s release. “Canada welcomes this positive outcome, and the adherence by the Tajik authorities to their international human rights obligations,” Francois Lasalle, a spokesperson for Canada’s foreign affairs department, told Al Jazeera.
I fear for his family members who remain in Tajikistan, for his ability to clear his name, for his ability to contribute to scholarship about Tajikistan.
Edward Schatz, Sodiqov’s dissertation supervisor at the University of Toronto, said he was delighted about Sodiqov’s release but apprehensive about what the future may hold.
“Since Alex technically remains under investigation on allegations of treason and espionage, I remain fearful,” Schatz told Al Jazeera. “I fear for his family members who remain in Tajikistan, for his ability to clear his name, for his ability to contribute to scholarship about Tajikistan, and for other scholars who might find themselves in similar situations. More generally, I fear for academic freedom, and not just in Tajikistan. I see a trend globally in which knowledge itself is increasingly considered to be a dangerous thing.”
A senior lecturer at the University of Exeter confirmed that the planned research in Tajikistan had been suspended as a result of the Sodiqov incident, although work on the broader project was also conducted in a number of other countries, including Russia, China and Kyrgyzstan.
In the meantime, as Sodiqov slowly reintegrates into academic life in Canada, he says he will always be thankful for the awareness campaign that he believes ultimately secured his release.
“It was very difficult to be separated from my family for such a long time. It was even more difficult to think that I would not be able to return to my family during the next 10 years or even more… I am really grateful to my wife who, despite all the pressure, managed to organise a massive information campaign about my case,” Sodiqov said.
“After I was released from custody, I regained hope.”
Follow Megan on Twitter: @megan_otoole