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Slaying Of Tajik Opposition Leader Draws Nemtsov Comparisons

  • RFE/RL's Tajik Service

Turkish police at the scene in Istanbul where Umarali Quvatov was shot from close range on March 5.

Turkish police at the scene in Istanbul where Umarali Quvatov was shot from close range on March 5.

Umarali Quvatov was a fierce critic of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, the founder of a banned opposition party considered to be extremist by Dushanbe, and a tycoon-in-exile who faced fraud charges at home.

So his March 5 slaying on the streets of Istanbul, where he settled after fleeing Tajikistan in 2012, immediately led to questions of whether it was a politically motivated assassination.

Many came from fellow political opponents of Rahmon, whose ruling People's Democratic Party just won a landslide victory in flawed parliamentary elections.

"Considering that Quvatov was a politician, his death concerns us," said Rahmatullo Zoyirov, chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, which failed to win seats in the March 1 elections.

"His killing was not accidental. It was pre-planned," he told RFE/RL's Tajik Service the morning after the killing.

Murky Details

Details on Quvatov's killing and the continuing investigation are scant. According to Turkish media, the 47-year-old Quvatov was shot once in the head from behind, at close range, by a Tajik-speaking man. The unidentified assailant immediately fled the scene.

ALSO READ: Tajik Opposition Tycoon Quvatov Killed In Istanbul

The attack took place in Istanbul's central Fatih district at approximately 10:30 p.m., after Quvatov and his family had dined at the home of a Tajik citizen identified only as "Suleyman."

Quvatov's cousin and leading Group 24 member, Sharofiddin Gadoev, told RFE/RL by telephone that the man was Sulaimon Qayumov, who had been living in Turkey for a few months and had portrayed himself as a Quvatov sympathizer.

Qayumov, who reportedly left the crime scene before investigators arrived, was arrested on the morning of March 6, according to Turkish media.

A video report by aired images of Quvatov's dead body, covered with newspapers, lying on a street cordoned off by police. His sobbing wife and children can be seen being led to emergency vehicles before Quvatov's body is driven away.

Counterterrorism experts are reportedly involved in the homicide investigation.

Open Season On Opposition?

A representative of the Tajik Foreign Ministry, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity early on March 6, said the ministry had only heard about the incident through the media and was awaiting official information from Turkey.

But the killing, coming just days after the slaying of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, led some to draw parallels.

Rajabi Mirzo, an independent political analyst, described Quvatov's death in a Facebook post as a "shameful and terrible event" that could be compared with Nemtsov's killing. "Nemtsov was killed the day before the announced a rally, and Quvatov after the announcement of the [parliamentary] election results," he wrote.

Tajik Communist Party Chairman Shodi Shabdolov, who recently called the March 1 elections "a political farce," described Quvatov's killing as a "bad signal."

"He had no special authority or influence in Tajikistan," Shabdolov said of Quvatov. "But he acted as an opposition leader, and killing him in this way, perhaps, could lead to protests."

Quvatov's supporters, meanwhile, have taken to social media to mourn the loss of their leader, with some suggesting the Tajik authorities were involved.

Leading Group 24 member Gadoev, who lives in exile in Spain, directly accused Tajik security services of the killing in a video posted on YouTube on March 6.

"The Tajik government had been asking many governments, many times, to catch and extradite Umarali Quvatov to Tajikistan but did not succeed," he said. "Killing him was the only way to silence the opposition."

No Friend Of The President

Quvatov's short political pedigree does not compare with that of Nemtsov's, but the former tycoon had certainly riled the Tajik authorities in recent years. Rahmon's government accused him of creating an extremist organization and seeking to change the constitutional order in Tajikistan.

Quvatov was once known as a successful businessman with close commercial ties to Rahmon's family. But amid business disputes and allegations of fraud, Quvatov left the country in 2012 and went on to become an ardent critic of the Tajik government and media.

He established his opposition Group 24, which the Tajik Supreme Court banned just before a planned antipresidential rally in Dushanbe in 2014. His extradition was sought by Dushanbe after he was arrested in Turkey for visa violations, but he was released in February and relatively little had been heard from him since.

Doubts Raised

Despite his reputation as a thorn in Rahmon's side, and the many who are quick to connect the Tajik government to Quvatov's killing, Dushanbe itself has reserved comment pending further information.

Saifullo Safarov, deputy director at the Center for Strategic Studies, a Dushanbe-based think tank that is close to the presidential office, suggested Quvatov's death was related to his business activities.

He said the Tajik government had no reason to go after Quvatov or other opposition figures living out of the country.

"The government does not care about them," Safarov said. "They are free to live abroad."

Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondents Salimjon Aioubov and Khiromon Bakoeva in Prague, and Mirzonabi Kholiqov in Dushanbe