Firuza Mirkhamidova was visiting family in her native Tashkent in October when she received an unexpected phone call. Her husband, Abdulvosi Latipov, had unexpectedly been released from jail in Volgograd, where they lived.
She and the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Mikhrona, hastily boarded a train to make the four-day trip back to Russia. Latipov would periodically call her mobile phone, telling her about plans for a feast of fresh shashlik and watermelon to celebrate their reunion after his nearly two years in detention.
On the eve of Mirkhamidova's arrival, the couple spoke a final time. Hours later, Latipov vanished without a trace after armed men stormed his house, attacking his relatives, and allegedly dragging him from the scene.
"Armed men wearing black clothes and masks came into the house," Mirkhamidova says, repeating the family's account of the incident. "They tied everyone up, using heavy tape to bind their arms and legs and cover their eyes. They tied them up and beat them, and then put a lock on the door when they left, so no one could get out. When [the relatives] came to two hours later, they had to crawl out through a window. They went to another house to see if they could find Abdulvosi, but he was gone. They had taken him."
Nearly a month after his disappearance, Latipov's whereabouts remains unknown. But Mirkhamidova believes her husband, a Tajik national, was abducted and smuggled back to Tajikistan, where he faces charges on a range of alleged terror-related crimes tied to the country's 1992-97 civil war.
Latipov's disappearance is one of the latest in a spate of apparent abductions of Central Asian nationals living in Russia who are wanted in their home countries for religious extremism and other charges viewed by rights-watchers as politically motivated.
Nearly a month after his disappearance, the whereabouts of Abdulvosi Latipov remains unknown. (file photo)
Human rights groups in Russia say as many as 10 citizens of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian countries are believed to have been surreptitiously kidnapped and returned home in the past year. In each of the cases, the nationals had applied for asylum in Russia, fearing extradition to their home countries, where they were likely to face an unfair trial and even abuse.
The apparent abductions have alarmed watchdog groups like Amnesty International, which say Russia is obligated to investigate suspected abductions and protect the rights of asylum-seekers on its territory who are likely to face brutal treatment at home.
Officially, Tajikistan has denied any knowledge of Latipov's location. But sources within the Tajik Interior Ministry have told RFE/RL that Latipov is currently being held by law enforcement officials at an undisclosed location in Dushanbe.
Amnesty researcher Rachel Bugler says the fate of previous Tajik abductees has raised legitimate fears about Latipov's treatment if he has in fact been returned home.
"The reason we're particularly concerned in this case," Bugler says, "is that there has been a series of cases where Tajikistani nationals have been forcibly abducted by Tajikistani security services operating freely on the territory of the Russian Federation and returned to Tajikistan, where in some cases they have subsequently been subjected to torture and ill treatment."
Such cases have raised doubts about how Russia divides its loyalties between its near abroad and the European community.
As a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- a regional security grouping driven by Moscow and Beijing -- Russia is obligated to honor extradition requests from all fellow member states, which include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. (By extension, security forces from all SCO members are allowed to operate freely on Russian territory.)
But as a member of the Council of Europe, Russia is also beholden to rulings by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, which provides for the temporary protection of plaintiffs whose cases are pending before the court and who can demonstrate they are at risk of torture -- even if Russia has already ruled that it sees no potential danger.
Latipov, who had been jailed in Volgograd following a Tajik extradition order, made an emergency application to the Strasbourg court after Russian authorities rejected his request for asylum.
The move allowed Latipov to request a temporary freeze on the Tajik extradition request. But Elena Ryabinina, a lawyer and expert on Central Asian refugee rights, says such steps can simply prompt security services to resort to more drastic measures -- like kidnapping.
"These abductions can definitely be considered a trend, but the circumstances are specific," Ryabinina says. "Abductions are used when there is no legal way to transfer a person to the state requesting his return. Most often, this is happening with cases where people have had their extraditions blocked by the European Court."
Vanished Into Thin Air
In the most recent incident, an Uzbek citizen vanished shortly after being released from a pretrial detention center, or SIZO, in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod.
The man, Azamatzhon Ermakov, was unexpectedly freed on November 2 while serving a sentence for allegedly carrying a hand grenade. His lawyer, paying a scheduled visit the same day, was told his client had already been released.
From there, the trail went cold instantly. Neither the lawyer nor Ermakov's relatives have had any contact with him since, and there are no reports of Ermakov being seen at any point following his release.
But several signs indicate the likelihood of an abduction. Ermakov, like Latipov, had appealed to the European Court of Human Rights after his asylum requests were repeatedly denied by Russia.
A devout Muslim who faced prosecution at home for religious extremism -- a charge he has repeatedly denied -- Ermakov was desperate to avoid extradition to Uzbekistan, a country notorious for prison torture and ill treatment.
Even prosaic details appear to support the notion that Ermakov was kidnapped. Novgorod's airport offered a direct flight to Tashkent on the night of his release. Human rights lawyer Nadezhda Yermolayeva says there is every reason to suspect the Uzbek was abducted within minutes of being freed and immediately put on a plane home.
"The best time [for abducting a person] is the moment when they're released," Yermolayeva says. "On the one hand, it's the moment when you know the person's precise location -- in the SIZO, or close to it. And on the other hand, it's also the moment when the government, the state, and the prison system no longer bear any responsibility for him. From that moment, he falls outside the legal framework, so it's the ideal time for a disappearance."
Less than a week before his release, Ermakov had reportedly spoken to his lawyer about his fears of being abducted.
Under such circumstances, many Central Asian asylum-seekers ironically look to terms in Russian jails and detention centers as the best protection against involuntary transfers.
The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office recently ruled that the detention of a third asylum-seeker, Tajik national Ismon Azimov, could be extended for six months.
Azimov, who faces charges in Tajikistan related to alleged activities with the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, had been due to leave detention on November 2.
His detention was extended after Amnesty and Russian rights groups issued an urgent call arguing Azimov was at "imminent risk" of abduction and torture if released.
With additional reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Khiromon Bakoeva in Prague