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Majlis Podcast: Central Asian Dissidents -- Persecuted At Home, Harassed Abroad 

  • Bruce Pannier

Tajik dissident and exile Umarali Kuvvatov was shot dead in Istanbul in 2015. He had previously been living in the United Arab Emirates, but had moved to Turkey after Dushanbe requested his extradition.

Tajik dissident and exile Umarali Kuvvatov was shot dead in Istanbul in 2015. He had previously been living in the United Arab Emirates, but had moved to Turkey after Dushanbe requested his extradition.

Those who run afoul of the authorities in Central Asia face two choices: wait until they come for you, or run.

Among the political or religious opposition figures, rights activists, independent journalists, and others who have found themselves "wanted" by local authorities, some have chosen to flee.

For about a decade after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, running could mean simply traveling to Russia, or another country from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), to live in relative safety. But the reach of Central Asian authorities has grown longer and now extends outside the CIS.

A recently released report from the London-based Foreign Policy Center entitled "No Shelter: The Harassment Of Activists Abroad By Intelligence Services From The Former Soviet Union," examines the cooperation in extraterritorial practices of security services, including those from Central Asia.

To discuss the report, RFE/RL arranged a Majlis, or panel, to talk about how security services are able to operate outside their countries, harass those wanted back home, often on questionable charges, and carry out kidnappings, and even assassinations.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From the United Kingdom, two of the authors of the report -- Adam Hug (@AdamHug ), policy director at the Foreign Policy Centre, and Dr. John Heathershaw (@HeathershawJ) of Exeter University, who is an associate professor of International Studies with a particular focus on Central Asia and peace and conflict studies – took part. Ruslan Myatiev (@adalatseeker), the editor at the Alternative News of Turkmenistan website joined the discussion from Europe, as did Kyrgyzbek Konunov, a Tajik journalist and cofounder of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society in Tajikistan. Both Myatiev and Konunov fled their countries to escape persecution. I had a few things to say as well.

Fortunate To Flee

Myatiev said he was fortunate that both he and his immediate family were able to flee Turkmenistan. But he explained that, although they were out, there were still relatives back home.

"One of the tactics the Turkmen security service uses is intimidation, [putting] pressure on relatives, intimidating them with all different things -- issues at work, problems at work, problems with being enrolled in a university, all different threats, after which they [the relatives] prefer not to communicate with me, or with my family members. and they see us as the source of these problems."

Konunov's description of Tajikistan suggests that Dushanbe employs similar tactics. "Of course most of us have families left behind and friends, etc." Konunov said, "And, of course, they become the target of persecution and harassment from the government side because, even from my personal experience, there were cases when my friends were harassed by the authorities and eventually I had to stop communicating with almost all of my contacts back home."

This is an old tactic, which has not lost any of its effectiveness in trying to coax exiles back home.

But authorities no longer wait for some exiles to be pressured into returning after hearing tales of abuse of family members and friends.

Heathershaw noted that part of the report deals with "a great deal of continuity from the Soviet era, particularly in terms of the connections between the security services' offices, the culture of the KGB essentially."

Renditions, Disappearances

In some cases, such cooperation between Central Asian security services and Russia's security service has led to "rendition or disappearance," Heathershaw said. He explained wanted nationals are sometimes detained, for example, in Russia but when it becomes apparent that the process of legally extraditing people back to their homelands will be arduous or impossible, "persons are released onto the street and then taken off of the street."

Such people usually resurface in courtrooms or prison cells back in their home countries. The report details some of these cases of disappearance or rendition.

As the Foreign Policy Center report, and many other reports, say, in many cases those dissidents or perceived enemies of Central Asian governments who are sent back home face torture or death.

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The report also points that out one of the more recent changes facilitating the work of Central Asian security services abroad is the appearance of diasporas. Security services are able to plant their people in these communities abroad so that, as Hug put it, "traditional surveillance is being done by people within the diaspora community."

Central Asian communities abroad have grown during the 25 years of independence. This is true in Russia, where several million migrant laborers from Central Asia are located, but also in places like Turkey, where the leader of Tajikistan's opposition Group 24, Umarali Kuvvatov was assassinated in March 2015.

"The Umarali Kuvvatov case seems to be one where, amongst the Tajik diaspora in Turkey, we see some infiltration of his group, his associates, by those who sought to remove him and eradicate him, to assassinate him," Heathershaw explained.

Recurrent Patterns

The report also looks at how even groups like Interpol can be used by governments, such as those in Central Asia. "Interpol is being used as a tool to pressure people even when there is no realistic chance that they will be extradited to those countries," Shaw said. He said issuing Red Notices for people wanted in their homelands "is a tool to put pressure on those activists and stop them going about their business, stop them traveling, putting them on edge."

Heathershaw noted that this was part of the reason for publishing this recent report, so that "you can see recurrent patterns of politically-motivated requests through Interpol, recurrent patterns of abusing these systems."

The Foreign Policy Center report comes out as Interpol is working on reforms that should be unveiled in 2017.

Hug conceded that for now "there are definite capacity issues in Interpol and a definite lack of specialist knowledge." Some of the figures who fled Central Asia were sufficiently well-known and when they were detained by Interpol, they were released fairly quickly.

But for many hundreds of people who have fled Central Asia seeking asylum far away "there's going to be lots of people within that who don't have access to the resources and networks that some of these more high-profile figures have."

The panel discussed these issues and others in greater detail. An audio recording of the Majlis can be heard here:

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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