Tajikistan: When the academics threaten freedom



Umarali Kuvatov, leader of "Group 24": murdered in Istanbul, March 2015

Tajikistan has a history of political oppression which has been steadily increasing over the previous few decades, yet often flies low on the international radar. According to International Crisis Group, President Rahmon’s 23 year rule has been “marred by violence, lack of accountability, corruption and mass migration.” Governmental led oppression has included arbitrary limits on free speech, access to information, the right to civic organisation and political activism. Authoritarianism is peaking as those who protest abroad fear for their safety. The state of repression has now become so endemic within the central Asian nation that the people themselves do not rally to tear it down, but rather to stabilise the regime. 

In Warsaw on September 19th, at a conference by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), peaceful activists from Tajikistan held signs condemning the human rights abuses in their home country. Some of the young protestors wore t-shirts emblazoned with images of politicians of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), banned in Tajikistan by the ruling party. 16 leaders of this opposition party have been forcibly detained, facing life imprisonment, in a crackdown preceding the parliamentary elections planned in 2015. The Tajik delegation reacted by walking out of the ODIHR conference on September 22nd. The morning after, in Dushanbe, Tajik security services detained up to 30 relatives of the protesters after summoning them for questioning across cities nationwide. Students in Tajikistan staged a counter protest and large crowds have fallen upon the homes of the activists’ relatives.

The Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, commented that, “It is a bitter irony that exercising one’s free speech at an international conference designed to protect free speech would result in vicious mob violence against participants’ relatives.” He continued, “The coordination of near simultaneous attacks across several cities suggests official sponsorship, as does the authorities’ failure to stop or condemn them.” Notably, these attacks have been spearheaded by a backlash from teachers, students and academic institutions, with a mob of the above attacking the home of Shabnam Khudoydodova, an independent, female activist, on September 20-21st. Eye-witness accounts to Human Rights Watch describe the crowd taunting, threatening and following her home. The intimidation that Khudoydova has received is a prescient reminder that freedom of expression and thought can be under threat from the academic bodies which we aim to protect. 

Academic freedom, like political freedom, is far from guaranteed. Formally, higher institutions are protected but in practice corruption is rife. Those students seeking to study outside the country, with an interest in Islamic theology, are forbidden from doing so without express permission from the state. More than restriction, there is persecution. In June 2014, state security services arrested Alexander Sodiqov, a Tajik citizen and PhD student at the University of Toronto whose research had been focused around "the failure of Western approaches to conflict management" in the former Soviet bloc. He was alleged to have been working for an unnamed "foreign intelligence service". After five weeks, and an outpouring of international pressure on this attack on academic freedom, he was released, although the Tajik government have not dropped charges.

In its campaign to suppress criticism the government blocks a number of websites, imposing mass blackouts on social media sites, email and messaging and even a complete shutdown of internet service. Khudoydova, the female activist who received such public lambasting last month, had been singled out for the derogatory marks made about President Rahmon on Facebook. Far worse was the fate of Umarali Kuvatov, the leader of the online activism group ‘Group 24’, who was shot in Istanbul in March 2015. Those who oppose the regime are targeted inside and, frighteningly, even outside the country’s borders. 

What we should glean from the menacing  state of affairs within Tajik society now, is a timely warning on the relationship between political and academic freedom. Academic institutions and individuals have hounded political activists for exercising their freedom of speech. No doubt there are academics whose voices we have not even heard on the subject given the tense and repressive atmosphere. However, when popular movements mobilise against the values which underpin our work, it is a warning of the darker path a state may be treading.  

Elizabeth Dykstra McCarthy