Warsaw, Poland – To human rights campaigners, Alim Sherzamonov is a civil society activist.
But in his native Tajikistan, he is considered an “extremist”.
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Sherzamonov is from Khorog in eastern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, which borders Afghanistan, and is a local opposition leader.
Tensions between the Tajik government in Dushanbe and the people of Gorno-Badakhshan run high. Demonstrations six years ago turned deadly as the army and local armed forces clashed.
Like other Tajik opposition dissidents, Sherzamonov fled Tajikistan for Poland.
“We hope that Polish authorities will help us endorse our plight,” said Sherzamonov, who reached the Eastern European country last year.
In early September, he was appointed as a deputy leader of the National Alliance of Tajikistan – an opposition coalition of four Tajik dissident parties and organisations: the Forum of Tajik Freethinkers, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the Association of Central Asian Migrants, and the People’s Movement “Reforms and Development in Tajikistan”.
The Alliance represents a broad section of Tajik society, including secular and traditional figures, and is based in Poland.
Jamshed Yorov, a lawyer from Dushanbe, is also among the Tajiks living in Poland. He was detained several times in his homeland on various charges before he escaped to Poland. Meanwhile, his brother Buzurgmehr Yorov, a human rights lawyer, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for defending political dissidents from the banned IRPT.
Shabnam Hudoidodova is an independent human rights activist. Hudoidodova was one of hundreds of thousands of Tajik citizens who left for Russia seeking more economic freedom.
In Saint Petersburg, she joined Group 24, a dissident movement, and became active on social media. Group 24 was founded in Moscow in 2012, but banned in Tajikistan – which considered it an “extremist” organisation – two years later.
Hudoidodova told Al Jazeera that Tajikistan had filed an international warrant for her arrest through Interpol because of her social media posts about women’s rights.
In 2015, she was detained by Polish border guards while trying to escape to Poland, sent back to Belarus and imprisoned there.
“I was imprisoned for eight months, uncertain of my fate,” she said. Human Rights Watch and Belarusian NGO Vyasna worked on her case and she was later released and granted asylum in Poland.
‘Banned’ at home
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has run the country for more than 25 years.
Today, there are around 500 Tajiks in Poland.
“This number includes Tajik citizens who are in possession of a valid temporary residence permit,” Jakub Dudziak, a spokesman of the Polish Office for Foreigners, told Al Jazeera.
The figure doesn’t include Tajiks in Poland on a tourist visa.
Many apply for refuge in Poland because EU law requires migrants to claim asylum in the first port of entry.
But there are also other reasons.
Some Tajik refugees speak Russian – a Slavic language like Polish – because of their country’s Soviet heritage.
“Some of them stay in Poland because it is easier to overcome the language barrier,” said Muhammadjon Kabirov, a Poland-based Tajik who runs Eurasian Dialogue, an NGO helping newcomers adjust and integrate into Polish society.
Before moving to Warsaw, Kabirov managed an independent TV channel in Russia.
In 2016, upon the request of Tajik security services, it was closed and Kabirov and his wife sought refuge outside Russia.
Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the IRPT – which is also banned for “extremism” – told Al Jazeera via Skype that the National Alliance of Tajikistan plans to nurture a new political landscape and offer an alternative to out-of-touch autocrats by a mixture of pressure and dialogue.
“We want to become the political force that will represent and endorse interests of Tajik diaspora abroad,” said Kabiri, who lives in Western Europe.
The IRPT is one of the leading political movements behind the new opposition coalition and the most controversial.
The Tajik Supreme Court outlawed its activity in September 2015.
Almost all of its members, including Kabiri, were placed on Interpol’s wanted list.
In November 2017, Russia’s Interfax agency reported that around 2,000 people were on the Interpol list.
Eugene Chausovsky, senior Eurasia analyst at consulting firm Stratfor, said that while Tajikistan does face some security issues sharing a border with Afghanistan and there was a recent attack on foreign cyclists claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the threat is often exaggerated for political purposes. The government in Dushanbe, he noted, blamed the IRPT for the attack on the foreign cyclists.
In a telephone conversation with Al Jazeera, a senior Tajik diplomat denounced the new alliance as an “extremist” and “terrorist” organisation.
“The Tajik government will never go into negotiations with them. This is an illegal movement,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Relations between the opposition and government remain incredibly strained.
An anticipated OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) conference in Warsaw last month, during which representatives of the official Tajik delegation were expected to enter talks with the opposition, ended in a scuffle between the two sides with punches and kicks thrown. Each side accused the other of causing the hostilities.
“It certainly polluted the political atmosphere,” an anonymous OSCE delegate told Al Jazeera.
Eurasian Dialogue’s Kabirov claimed: “The envoy who attacked us was the economic adviser to Tajik ambassador in Germany.”
According to the official Facebook page of the Tajik Embassy in Germany, the envoy was appointed charge d’affaires shortly after the incident.
Rising Islamophobia in Poland
The Tajik dissident diaspora is growing at a time of rising Islamophobia and anti-refugee sentiment across Europe, especially in Poland.
Kabirov and Hudoidodova denied any presence of xenophobia or racism.
But just a few days after the National Alliance of Tajikistan was formed, far-right website Ndie.pl published stories about the organisation and activists, labelling them as “Islamists” and suggesting radicalism or militancy.
An admin for the site declined to comment to Al Jazeera, but publishing appeared to have stopped in early October.
The Polish government itself touts an anti-Muslim narrative.
On October 17, the ruling Law and Justice party released a campaign threatening voters with waves of Muslim refugees if they choose to side with opposition candidates in upcoming local elections.
Since 2017, the Center for Research against Prejudice recorded a sharp rise in Islamophobia.
Muslims in Poland comprise less than 0.1 percent of the total population, but according to an IPSOS poll, ethnic Poles believe that 7 percent of the country is Muslim.
“The [IRPT] is not a radical movement. It is a cultural mirror of Christian democratic parties in Europe,” Jamestown Foundation analyst Nurlan Aliyev told Al Jazeera.
An adviser to the Polish government, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera: “These stereotypes that appeared in the [Ndie.pl] article were aimed at reducing the image of Tajik dissidents to that of religious fanatics. This rhetoric mimics the regime’s stance, and this is dangerous for the dissidents.”