Not content with demanding its nationals return home from studying abroad, reports are circulating [ru] that the government of Tajikistan is now regularly monitoring these former students.
Despite international borders opening for Tajiks since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Tajik government appears to be doing its best to close down opportunities for travel – for some citizens, at least. Since 2010, officials have been ‘encouraging’ students enrolled in courses related to Islam in other Islamic countries to abandon their studies and come back to Tajikistan.
Around 3,000 students have returned from Islamic universities and madrassahs in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. No one really knows how many students remain abroad or how many have managed to get around the travel restrictions since they were introduced, but there were suggestions back in 2010 that there were around 4,000 Tajiks studying in Pakistan alone.
The government’s stated reason for returning these students home is the risk that they will be radicalized abroad. The directive is in line with other steps that have been taken to try and limit the growing popularity/resurgence of Islam in Tajikistan. Such measures have included restrictions on clothing and personal appearance (in short: hijab or beard – bad, suit and tie – good), age limits on mosque attendance and asserting control over who is permitted to provide Islamic education.
Yet the risk identified by the government appears to be unfounded: whilst there is evidence that a small number of Tajik nationals have joined ISIS and/or travelled to Syria and Iraq, Central Asian security expert Edward Lemon has cogently argued that the perceived threat should not be over-estimated.
Nevertheless, the state continues to pursue those who made the choice to follow instructions and return home from their study abroad. In January 2019, Radio Ozodi (Liberty) reported [ru] that these former religious studies students are now obliged to report to their local office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs twice a year for ‘registration and an interview’.
The purpose of these twice yearly meetings is to establish that the former student is still living in the same place i.e. has not gone back abroad. A number of former students explained that they are also being asked by local officials what the purpose of their study abroad was, what they are currently doing, and who they are friends with.
Human rights activists have pointed out that the rights of these former students are being violated [ru] on the presumption that they remain innocent until and if proven otherwise.
Yet all the evidence points to the government taking little heed of these warnings. Rather, it is likely to continue poking away at citizens’ ability to freely express themselves, to learn and to practice religion, to wear what they want and go where they want. And perhaps frustration and dissatisfaction with that is what might in the end cause people to take a path towards radicalization – not a handful of Islamic studies students.
Imagine you were unjustly accused of massive corruption and fired from your job. It’s an indignity. But then imagine that you’ve been fighting for well over a decade in no fewer than 14 courts to clear your name, each time with an unsatisfactory ending – or simply no real conclusion at all.
During that time, you haven’t been able to find work in your area of expertise, you’ve been prevented from joining professional associations, and your family have been affected.
This is the incredible situation that Professor Khidirnazar Allakulov, former Rector of Termez State University in Uzbekistan, has found himself in since being fired in 2004.
It also represents a blatant and prolonged abrogation of his human rights. The United Nations Human Rights Committee which reviewed his case in late 2017 held that:
Uzbekistan failed to implement domestic judgments upholding Professor Allakulov’s right to retraction. This failure deprived him of the possibility to rehabilitate his reputation, honour and dignity, violating his rights under article 17 of the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
This is from UN Human Rights on Facebook – not a source I would normally use, but it’s a very clear and compellling summary of the full UN Human Rights Committee findings available in five languages including Russian and English.
The story begins in 2002 when Allakulov was appointed as Rector of Termez State University. Within three years he was fired on the basis of allegations made in a national newspaper branding him a criminal and accusing him of defraduing the university [ru].
Professor Allakulov claims that during his short tenure as Rector, he actually rooted out some of the corrupt activity at his institution. He provided evidence to local authorities on nearly 1,000 students who had somehow managed to enrol at Termez State despite not having achieved the required entrance exam grade (some had not even taken the exam at all). Furthermore, he says he made the admissions requirements fairer and ensured that entry to the university was strictly on the basis of the entrance exam results. He also managed to return $600,000 of university money that had been ciphoned off or stolen by officials at the institution.
And these actions, he suspects, are what led to his rapid downfall.
Although he was acquitted in every single one of the 14 court cases held at district, regional and national levels, Allakulov has been unable to satisfactorily clear his name. His aim remains to have his honour, dignity, and professional reptuation restored, according to an article published this week in Sputnik Uzbekistan [ru].
Allakulov states in the Sputnik article that he has written to the President and state officials 12 times since 2006, but is uncertain that his appeals have reached the head of state.
He is counting on a recent fresh appeal to President Mirziyoyev, who took over from long-time post-Soviet leader Islam Karimov in December 2016, and hopes that it will fall on more sympathetic ears.
This does seem to be a time of renewed optimism for Uzbekistan, and I reported last week on the prospects for higher education following the state visit of the Uzbek President to the US, the first since 2002. Earlier this week, human rights supporters celebrated the visit of the first delegation of Amnesty International into Uzbekistan since 2004.
In this case, I truly hope that Mirziyoyev lives up to the nascent reputation he is building for greater openness and tolerance in Uzbekistan and agrees to the long overdue restoration of Professor Allakulov’s civil and political rights.
Tajik researcher Alexander Sodiqov, a PhD student at the University of Toronto (Canada) was arrested on Monday and his whereabouts are currently unknown. He was in Khorog, regional capital of the Autonomous Region of Gorno Badakshan in eastern Tajikistan, undertaking academic research as part of an Economic & Social Research Council (UK Research Council) funded project on recent political turmoil in the region.
News of Alexander’s disappearance has spread fast amongst the small community of Central Asian researchers around the world and support for him is strong. Today the UK’s Guardian newspaper has a good story which provides a helpful update on the situation: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/19/fears-grow-for-canadian-researcher-arrested-in-tajikistan.
The two petitions mentioned in the Guardian article can be found at:
http://www.avaaz.org/ru/petition/Gnu_Yatimovu_Predsedatelyu_Goskomiteta_Nacionalnoy_Bezopasnosti_RT_Prizyvaem_osvobodit_Aleksandra_Sadykova/?nIuqKhb – an open letter from Central Asian scholars expressing concerns about the situation
http://scholarsforsodiqov.blogspot.co.uk/ – for scholars of Central Asian affairs who share a concern for Sodiqov in particular and for scholarship about Central Asia in general, please email ed[dot)schatz@utoronto[dot)ca with your NAME, UNIVERSITY AFFILIATION, and COUNTRY to be added.
Please do what you can to raise awareness about this unacceptable situation, and help call for Alexander’s release, and for improved relations between national and local governments in Tajikistan and researchers wishing to analyse developments in the country. If you’re on Twitter, use #FreeAlexSodiqov.
The Avaaz petition has the following English language translation:
We, a group of Tajik students and graduates of foreign higher educational institutions, are concerned about our friend and colleague, Alexander Sadiqov, who was arrested June 16, 2014 by law enforcement agencies in Khorog, Tajikistan. We are alarmed by the fact that the research activities of Alexander Sadykov, aimed at exploring the positive experience of the countries of Central Asia in relation to conflict resolution measures, has been labeled by law enforcement agencies of Tajikistan as an act of espionage supported by foreign countries.
Evidence to the contrary includes his professional and scholarly writing on the internet as well as his prolific writing as a journalist which he has been very public about sharing. Moreover, according to Professor John Heathershaw of the University of Exeter, (UK), Mr. Sodiqov possesses all of the required documents confirming that the study was approved by the Academic Council of the University.
We welcome the efforts of the Government of Tajikistan in building an open democratic society and note that the process also involves open exchanges of ideas, knowledge and information. Open exchange is impossible without the participation of the academic and educataional institutions and associated scholars and students of which Mr. Sodiqov belongs to as a current PhD student at Toronto University.
The ongoing detention of Alexander Sodiqov makes us – students, young scientists and researchers, feel at risk and vulnerable as we conduct our research and other related activities both abroad and in Tajikistan. Having the privilige of getting an advanced degree, we, as a group, always try to use our knowledge and skills for the prosperity of our country. The vast majority of the citizens of Tajikistan who are educated abroad, come back home and continue to make contributions to the development of the country and civil society within education, the economy, health care and many other areas.
Concerning the arrest of Mr. Sodiqov, we – students and graduates of foreign universities – respectfully urge Tajik law enforcement agencies to inform the public about the fate of Alexander Sodiqov and take all possible measures for his release. We also hope that the detention of our colleague – a PhD student and known researcher on Central Asia – is an isolated case that will be resolved quickly by Tajik law enforcement agencies.
With this letter, we, as representatives of science and education, also call on the leadership of the country to support research conducted by students in Tajikistan by both national and foreign universities
What is it about Tajik educational leaders and fashion? Not content with the controversy this caused last year (see my articles high heels for higher learning and high heels hit the headlines), the Pro-Rector of the Tajik Pedagogical University has followed in the (high-heeled?) footsteps of his Rector Abdujabbor Rahmonov by banning several female students from class yesterday… for wearing shoes without heels.
Pro-Rector Iskandar Aminov said “We don’t want these girls who’ve turned up in shoes without heels to fall ill in this weather. These girls are future mothers, and our roads are full of water. In those shoes they could get ill. It would be better if they wore heeled shoes. Scientific advice supporting this initiative suggests that girls [coming to university] shouldn’t be allowed in with shoes without heels.”
The six ‘girls’ (where has the respect gone for these poor women?) were sent home to change their shoes.
The story [ru], reported yesterday by Ozodagon, a Tajik news agency, is starting to spread very quickly on social media. People are discussing it vigorously; there is outrage (especially among women) that people are being dictated to about the way they dress; there is also bemusement that someone in such a senior position could genuinely think that there is ‘scientific’ evidence somewhere out there to support this.
Readers outside of Central Asia may well be wondering how on earth a university – supposedly a fount of knowledge and learning – could make such an outlandish proclamation. Those of you who are more familiar with Tajikistan are more likely to see this absurdity as yet another example of the misguided way that the country is supposedly being run.
Trying to catch up on reporting on Central Asian higher education, here’s an article from the UK’s The Guardian newspaper from October 2013 (thanks to David Wolfson for bringing it to my attention). It’s on partnerships between UK universities and institutions in Uzbekistan. Full text here:
Such partnerships pose potentially very difficult decision for the UK partners. They have to find a balance between
London Metropolitan University responds by saying ‘it was aware of the country’s [human rights] record, but that it was committed to both the exchange of ideas and the raising of educational standards.
The University of Bath goes a little further, with their spokesperson saying: “Working to improve academic standards is an apolitical act and in no way constitutes support (tacit or explicit) for the political regime of the country. The work … was carried out in a collegiate spirit of helpfulness and support. It reflects the capacity of higher education in the UK to strengthen civil society.”
Nonetheless, there is no escaping that making the conscious decision to work in Uzbekistan means negotiating the political and ethical environment, and any attempt to ignore that would be disingenuous.
A slightly delayed reposting of this press release from international organisation Human Rights Watch. The content is very measured but clear and has had good coverage (though still, the whole situation last week in Khorog has had no coverage in any of the main UK newspapers. I can understand why with the Olympics on our doorstep and atrocities in Syria, but that doesn’t stop the recent military operation in Khorog being any less shocking or upsetting). I was also pleased to play a very small part in the publication of the press release after liaising with the author and putting him in touch with others.
(New York) – Tajik authorities should respect human rights during a security operation in Gorno Badakhshan, a semi-autonomous region of easternTajikistan, Human Rights Watch said today.
Dozens of deaths and numerous injuries have been reported in the provincial capital, Khorog, after the Tajik government sent troops to the region to arrest those responsible for the fatal stabbing of the local state security chief on July 21, 2012.
“The situation in Gorno Badakhshan raises grave concerns,”said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, “Both sides need to take measures to prevent further harm to the general population.”
On July 24, it was widely reported that Tajik authorities dispatched hundreds of troops, along with helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, to Khorog to apprehend Tolib Ayombekov, a deputy commander of a Tajik-Afghan border unit and an opposition leader during the 1992-1997 Tajikistan civil war, and several of his associates. They were suspected of killing Maj. Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, local head of the State Committee for National Security. The agency had long accused Ayombekov’s associates of smuggling drugs, tobacco, and precious stones.
Ayombekov denies involvement in Nazarov’s death. Armed groups associated with Ayombekov engaged in violent clashes with government forces and demanded that they withdraw from the region.
Tajik officials declared a unilateral ceasefire and amnesty for certain fighters on July 25, but violence resumed within a day after Ayombekov refused to surrender to government troops. Various witness accounts reported gunfights across various parts of Khorog last week.
While Ayombekov’s whereabouts are unknown, officials say gunmen associated with Ayombekov have started handing over their weapons as part of the amnesty deal offered by the government. The Internal Affairs Ministry reported on July 30 that more than 60 weapons had been surrendered. In exchange, the government has promised that they will not face charges in connection with the recent fighting.
As of July 28, official sources reported that the violence had killed 17 government soldiers, 30 gunmen, and 20 civilians. Independent sources reported greater numbers of casualties among the general population. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the casualty reports. Officials also reported that 40 gunmen had been detained, including eight nationals from Afghanistan, which shares a border with the region.
In conducting arrests and other policing operations, government authorities, including soldiers, should abide by international legal standards on the use of force, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, to apply non-violent means as far as possible before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is necessary, law enforcement officials are required to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The UN principles allow lethal force only when it is “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
“Whatever serious crimes were committed in Gorno Badakhshan, the government needs to respond in accordance with international law,” Swerdlow said. “That means respecting the basic rights of those accused, as well as of the people in Khorog.
Tajik authorities have periodically blocked Internet, mobile, and landline connections to Gorno Badakhshan province since July 24, although communications were re-established on July 29. Asia Plus, the most widely read independent news source in the country, was blocked for several days. YouTube has been blocked in Tajikistan since July 26, after videos surfaced of small demonstrations in Khorog. There are reports that other Internet news sites remain blocked as well.
The head of the state communications service, Beg Zukhurov, claimed that a stray bullet had severed telephone, mobile, and Internet connections to the region.
Blocking communications to the region isolates families who may already be at great risk and prevents their relatives from obtaining information about their whereabouts and safety, Human Rights Watch said.
There were also reports that the authorities had blocked roads leading in and out of Khorog, in addition to closing the border with Afghanistan, although as of July 30 the roads were again open. Khorog residents with intermittent contacts with the capital, Dushanbe, said that blocking roads made it difficult for residents trying to flee the violence to leave the area. All sides should allow safe passage to those wishing to evacuate the region.
The Tajik government should also ease access to the region for Tajik civil society groups, the media, and international nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said.
The government may reasonably restrict the movements of certain people or groups in conducting its operations in Gorno Badakhshan, Human Rights Watch said. But these restrictions should be proportionate and should not result in a total closure that puts people at greater risk.
(c) Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/07/30/tajikistan-respect-rights-security-operations
The letter from academics at London Metropolitan University that I featured yesterday clearly ruffled some feathers at the university. In response, the Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University wrote this reply in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (thanks to David Wolfson for spotting this):
Thursday 16 February 2012 21.00 GMT
David Hardman et al (Letters, 14 February) correctly point out that London Metropolitan University is proud of its dedication to social justice. There are more ways, however, of addressing injustices in or elsewhere Uzbekistan than by severance of all communications.
Iran shows where that approach has not worked. The university is involved in Uzbekistan with a translation project, funded by the British Council, and an academic quality-assurance project, funded by the EU. In past years we trained human rights defenders in Uzbekistan, funded by the Foreign Office. We also receive international students from Uzbekistan. We believe these things contribute to dialogue between two very different societies. They build skills and connections, without lending legitimacy to regimes or military actions.
Presumably, if we should not have connections with Uzbekistan, we should not connect with other countries in the same human-rights band, such as China, India and Russia.
Professor Malcolm Gillies
Vice-chancellor, London Metropolitan University
The Guardian’s website is www.guardian.co.uk
Emma adds: Suggestions on a postcard (well, the electronic equivalent is to leave a comment below) for what will happen next at London Met…
I’d like to recommend a great article I’ve just read, The Soviet Fall and the Arab Spring.
By an experienced human rights researcher, the article provides six ideas “about what has to happen after the revolution to make change stick”.
The six ideas are:
1. There is nothing inevitable about transitions to democracy
2. Guard against misplaced blame (I found this a particularly interesting idea)
3. Institutionalize strong minority rights protections
4. International institutions matter
5. Establish concrete human rights benchmarks and give them teeth
6. Support a strong civil society
However, in the case of the post-Soviet countries featured in the article, it’s more of a sobering lesson in how human rights have not always been prioritised, and how motivation (political, individual) plays an important role in the success – or otherwise – of attempts to “make change stick”.