This summer has brought Tajikistan a lot of attention, most of it of the very negative variety.
In July, Tajikistan became the site of Central Asia's first deadly terrorist attack on Westerners and also the first attack in the region seemingly inspired by the militant group Islamic State (IS). If that wasn't enough, Tajik authorities have continued a spectacular crackdown on manifestations of dissent in the country -- illustrated by persistent Internet blocking and the continued imprisonment of hundreds of government critics, including lawyers, political activists, and, now, a journalist.
Among the many ominous human rights developments this summer in Tajikistan, two forms of repression took center stage and led to an unusually robust international outcry: abuses against children and attempts to silence free speech.
On August 22, the Sughd regional court will consider Hairullo (Khayrullo) Mirsaidov's appeal of his sentence on what Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other rights groups have called "bogus charges" of embezzlement, misuse of state funds, and false accusations against a local official for corruption.
Besides his long record as a journalist who worked for outlets including Asia Plus, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Al-Jazeera, and Deutsche Welle, Mirsaidov more recently made his mark managing Tajikistan's national KVN comedy troupe, which enjoyed several winning streaks performing in international competitions.
In November 2017, Mirsaidov authored an open letter to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, appealing to him to investigate the head of the Sughd Department of Youth Sport. Mirsaidov said the official had sought a $1,000 bribe from the funds allocated for the KVN team. Reportedly, there was no investigation of the bribe attempt, but charges were filed against Mirsaidov and he was arrested on December 5.
Almost as soon as Mirsaidov was arrested, his friend, journalist and filmmaker Michael Andersen, jumped into action, initiating the #FreeKhayrullo campaign on Twitter. The campaign took some time to gain steam. But by July, when Mirsaidov was sentenced to 12 years in prison, the reaction by key diplomatic missions in Tajikistan was surprisingly swift and stern.
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) media-freedom representative Harlem Desir said he was "alarmed by the stringent and disproportionate sentence handed down to the journalist." The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that Mirsaidov's conviction "signals that the authorities are cracking down on reporting of corruption, rather than on corruption itself."
Following Mirsaidov's conviction, the #FreeKhayrullo campaign really took off, with people around the world (Los Angeles, Mexico City, Copenhagen, London, Kyiv, and Jakarta, to name a few cities) posting selfies with signs that read #FreeKhayrullo. Probably the most notable success is that even the U.K.'s own ambassador to Tajikistan, Hugh Philpott, adopted the campaign's hashtag calling on Tajik authorities to release the journalist and stepping outside the usual strictures of diplomatic parlance.
This intense outside pressure might be the reason why on August 15, when the Sughd regional court met to hear Mirsaidov's appeal, it quickly rescheduled the hearing for August 22.
Kids As Collateral
The first rallying cry has been Dushanbe's policy of retaliating against the relatives of government critics abroad, using tactics that include mob violence, threats of rape, and travel bans. Twice this summer, rights groups raised alarm when Tajikistan barred the children of opposition figures in exile from leaving the country; in one case, the child prevented from traveling abroad was desperately in need of life-saving medical treatment unavailable in Tajikistan.
These children are a kind of human collateral, a means for the government to lure perceived critics back to the country, or at least make them think twice about engaging in public criticism.
On August 4, Tajik security service officers pulled 10-year-old Fatima Davlatova and her 65-year-old grandmother, Jamila Hudoidodova, off their plane at Dushanbe airport. The two were starting a journey to see Fatima's mother, Shabnam Hudoidodova, a former member of Tajikistan's banned Group 24 political movement and now an independent activist living in Europe.
The officers interrogated them for hours, telling Fatima and her grandmother they were not allowed to leave because they were on a "wanted list."
The ban came just three days after Tajik authorities relented and allowed 4-year-old Ibrohim Hamza Tillozoda to leave the country so he could receive treatment abroad for testicular cancer.
Human rights organizations like HRW and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee issued statements and appeals for much of July while Ibrohim's mother, Mizhgona, tried to get her son out of Tajikistan as his tumor doubled in size in less than a month.
Ibrohim's grandfather is Muhiddin Kabiri, the chairman of the now banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The party was part of a coalition that fought the Tajik government during the 1992-97 civil war. The June 1997 peace deal gave the IRPT government positions, and the IRPT stuck to the terms of the peace deal.
But President Rahmon was intent on neutralizing all opposition, including the IRPT. The party was able to field candidates in Tajikistan's March 2015 parliamentary elections but banned as a party and declared a terrorist organization by the end of October. All of its senior leaders who stayed in the country were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 2016, including two who were sentenced to life in prison.
This summer's travel bans on Fatima, her grandmother, and the Kabiri family were the culmination of years of persecution by authorities that began at the same time as the crackdown on the opposition.
A flashpoint for the abuse of activists' relatives in Tajikistan occurred in September 2016, one day after representatives of Group 24 and the IRPT made presentations at the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw, Poland.
HRW said at the time that "in the city of Kulob at the family home of Shabnam Hudoidodova...a crowd of students, teachers, school directors from various schools, city officials, and members of the local TV station gathered in her 9-year-old daughter's (Fatima's) classroom.... The crowd taunted her, calling her the daughter of a 'terrorist' and 'enemy of the people,' and followed her home, where she lives with her grandmother and other relatives."
Returning the next day, HRW said, "demonstrators attacked Hudoidodova's 10-year-old niece, hitting and kicking her, apparently mistaking her for Shabnam's daughter." People then broke into the house "beating at least three relatives who attempted to keep them out, shouting that the relatives were 'terrorists.'"
Mob violence targeting dissidents' relatives also occurred in at least three other locations that day, potentially indicating a level of coordination that could point to government orchestration.
In addition to violence, reports suggest the authorities have forced relatives to make videos denouncing their activist family members. In December 2015, when Kabiri was scheduled to speak publicly in Washington at an event organized by Freedom House, "authorities came to the home of Kabiri's 95-year-old father and detained him with seven other family members," forcing them to record a video condemning their relative that the authorities then put on YouTube. The same tactic has been used on the relatives of Group 24 activists.
In January 2016, authorities prevented Kabiri's father, Tillo, by then 96, from boarding a plane to Istanbul, where he had planned to receive medical treatment. As with Fatima Davlatova, security services forced him off the plane after he had already cleared passport control. He died in October 2016.
One might have thought Tajik authorities would continue such abuses with impunity or become immune to the negative press. But in a dramatic reversal, following an international outcry by rights groups and scrappy social-media campaigns to #FreeHamza and #FreeFatima, Tajikistan finally bowed to the pressure. On August 2, Kabiri's 4-year old grandson and his mother departed for Istanbul. August 11 was the next breakthrough, when Fatima and her grandmother were allowed to leave as well.
The success of #FreeHamza and #FreeFatima suggest that even in the toughest cases, pressure sometimes works.
Activists are hoping that a combination of public and private pressure will lead to a dismissal of charges or eventual release for Mirsaidov, and perhaps an improvement in Tajikistan's rights record. And they have some reason to feel a consensus is slowly building in their favor. In May, two UN bodies issued rulings declaring that the imprisonment of two other prominent political prisoners, opposition figures Zayd Saidov and Mahmadali Hayit, violates international law. Additional rulings on other political prisoners are almost sure to follow suit.
Stronger support for human rights in Tajikistan by international actors is urgently needed. They can start by lending their support to #FreeKhayrullo and similar campaigns, showing that Tajikistan's practice of using relatives as bargaining chips and silencing critics needs to end now.
Bruce Pannier is the editor of RFE/RL's Central Asia blog, Qishloq Ovozi. Steve Swerdlow is a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL