'We Have Succeeded In Surviving': An Interview With Exiled Tajik Islamic Party Leader Muhiddin Kabiri
According to Tajikistan's government, the disbanded Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) is a "terrorist organization" with evolving ties in the global network of extremist groups. The IRPT helped recruit citizens of Tajikistan to go to Syria and Iraq and join the ranks of jihadist groups, and even recently conspired with the militant group Islamic State (IS) to carry out attacks inside Tajikistan, Tajik authorities allege.
Most others view the IRPT differently.
When the Justice Ministry revoked the IRPT's registration as a political party in August 2015 (after years as the only legally registered Islamic political party not just in Tajikistan but across the entire former Soviet space), the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan issued a statement expressing concern about the ban on the IRPT and saying, "International observers believe these actions are politically motivated and intended to eliminate the IRPT -- Tajikistan's last remaining opposition group -- and intimidate its supporters," adding that "it is vitally important to distinguish between peaceful political opposition voices and violent extremist acts."
For its part, Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted, "The ruling comes amid a worsening government crackdown on dissent, and after a long and harsh government-orchestrated campaign against the party."
Subsequent attempts by Tajik authorities to convince other governments and international organizations to recognize the IRPT as a terrorist group have largely failed. Interpol withdrew its "red notice" for the IRPT's leader in February 2018, and many IRPT leaders and their families who fled the country have since found asylum in Europe.
However, Tajikistan's government maintains its position that the IRPT is responsible for or involved in wrongdoing on Tajik territory. Tajik officials often make public references to the IRPT, typically branding it a terrorist or extremist group.
Since being banned in Tajikistan in 2015, the IRPT has had limited opportunities to present its side of the story in response to government accusations. (An exception is the OSCE's annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw, which IRPT representatives have regularly attended since 2016.) The government's charges against the IRPT have been well-covered by international media and are referenced in the stories appended as links to this article.
In an effort to provide a fuller picture of the dispute between the Tajik government and the IRPT, Qishloq Ovozi asked the leader of the former Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, Muhiddin Kabiri, to respond to questions about his organization. Kabiri responded in writing during the first half of December to questions from Qishloq Ovozi.
You're welcome to skip ahead to that interview if you like, but here's some useful context.
The IRPT was part of an alliance, called the United Tajik Opposition, that battled the Tajik government during the country's 1992-97 civil war. The June 1997 peace accord -- which was also endorsed by Iran, Russia, and the United Nations -- ended the war and allowed opposition groups to be registered and integrate into Tajikistan's political arena, even guaranteeing them 30 percent of government posts at all levels.
The deal was subsequently regarded by many international experts on conflict resolution as a successful model for resolving other civil wars, including the Afghan war between government and Taliban forces.
Muhiddin Kabiri became the IRPT's leader after the death in August 2006 of Said Abdullo Nuri, a signatory to the 1997 peace accord on behalf of the opposition. Before it was banned by the government, the IRPT was the second-largest political party in Tajikistan, with around 40,000 officially registered members. However, it had steadily been losing prominence: In Tajikistan's March 2015 parliamentary elections, the IRPT lost its last two seats in parliament and its last government posts.
The Tajik government's expulsion of the IRPT from the country began with the revocation of its registration as a legal political party on August 28, 2015. The move was followed in September by a chain of events that concluded with the government branding the IRPT an extremist group.
On September 4, 2015, Tajikistan's government claimed that Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda had launched an attack on a police station in Vahdat, outside Dushanbe. Tajik authorities called Nazarzoda's purported attack an attempted coup and connected the IRPT to Nazarzoda. The IRPT denied links to Nazarzoda. Nazarzoda had been a member of the opposition at the start of the civil war, but he left for Kazakhstan in 1993 and only returned once the war was over, quickly finding a place in the Defense Ministry. There is no public evidence to suggest Nazarzoda was connected to the IRPT after his return to Tajikistan. He was killed in a security operation on September 16, 2015. By the end of September 2015, the Tajik Justice Ministry had declared the IRPT a terrorist organization.
Tajik authorities detained 13 of the IRPT's leaders who were still in the country after the Nazarzoda incident. They were all later convicted. IRPT deputy leaders Saidumar Husaini and Mahmadali (Muhammad) Hayit were sentenced in June 2016 to life imprisonment.
UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye said after the sentencing, "The crackdown on the IRPT over the last year silenced one of the few opposition voices in the country, seriously compromising the prospects for public participation in Tajikistan's political life."
In May 2018, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Hayit's detention violated several articles of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and recommended Hayit's immediate release.
All are still in prison.
In 2017, Tajikistan amended legislation to allow courts to try and sentence suspects in absentia. Kabiri's trial in absentia started in February 2018. In the closed-door proceedings, he reportedly faced 16 charges, including inciting racial, national, regional, or religious hatred and plotting the violent overthrow of the government.
Why would we 'order' a terrorist attack against citizens of European countries when are living in European countries, where they have given us protection, freedom, and shelter?"
Tajikistan's Supreme Court found Kabiri guilty in early October and sentenced him to a lengthy prison term. Information about just how long the prison sentence was, and of what charges Kabiri was found guilty, was not made public.
Here is a slightly edited translation of Kabiri's Russian-language responses to Qishloq Ovozi's questions.
Qishloq Ovozi: You were recently tried in absentia and sentenced to a long prison term. What is your response to the trial process and the charges against you?
Muhuddin Kabiri: Already a year ago, the authorities were forced to introduce amendments to legislation so that they could convict me in absentia, without any lawyers or court proceedings.
Especially after Interpol removed me from the international wanted list and not one country or international organization recognized the charges of the authorities against us, [Tajik authorities] took this step.
I and my representatives not only did not take part in this process, I don't even know what specifically they accused me of. I do not even have a copy of the court decision, which by law must be presented to anyone convicted.
From the very start, the entire process contradicted all laws and logic. Therefore, it has no judicial force and I do not recognize it.
Qishloq Ovozi: Tajikistan's government says the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) is an extremist group and that you worked together with the so-called Islamic State (IS) extremist group in planning attacks in Tajikistan, such as the attack on the foreign bicyclists at the end of July. How do you respond to these accusations?
Kabiri: After the attack on the bicyclists, we condemned that terrorist attack and called for the creation of an international commission to investigate this crime. This was an extremely vicious crime that deserved condemnation.
This was a heavy blow not only to Tajikistan but to all Muslims. After all, many [critics] are waiting for such a moment in order to further accuse Islam, Muslims, or those connected with Islamic opposition groups of all sorts of sins. That is what has been done by Tajikistan's authorities.
It is as if they prepared in advance for this incident and quickly, without any preliminary investigation, accused our party. Even after ISIS claimed responsibility, the authorities continued to blame us.
Tajik authorities are speculating on the situation with radicalization and terrorism. The impression is being created that they are interested in the presence of the constant threat of terrorism in the region and in the country. They are doing everything they can so that this topic remains relevant for everyone, the population and the international community. [It's being done] so that people don't think or talk about the economy, social life, free elections, corruption, etc.
Most importantly, they want to show the world that in Tajikistan there never has been and never will be a peaceful opposition, and that any political activity by citizens will turn into radicalism and chaos. This is why [the Tajik authorities] are interested in the constant presence of this threat so that, under the guise of battling terrorism, they can carry out a genuine war on the opposition, those who think differently, and those who do not agree with their policies.
We are convinced that the Tajik authorities chose these tactics for the long haul and do not intend to correct their mistakes. They are counting on the fact that the West, Russia, and China have no other recourse and will all be forced to accept whatever the Tajik authorities do or say.
As concerns the authorities' other absurd accusation -- that we asked [Islamic State] to carry out this terrorist attack -- this is not even worth responding to. IS and other extremist groups consider us to be their ideological opponents, and we consider them as such. We have always been against violence, totalitarianism, and sowing ideology in society -- for whatever reason, religious or secular. One can see we differ from those other groups.
As concerns the reasons why [President Emomali Rahmon] decided to cast us and other genuine opposition forces from the legal political field, this was connected with his plans to ultimately create family rule in the country."
Since the authorities brazenly and maliciously accuse us of cooperation with IS, there are logical and direct questions one can pose. For example, why would we "order" a terrorist attack against citizens of European countries when are living in European countries, where they have given us protection, freedom, and shelter? How is that in our interests? If the Tajik opposition were willing to do such a thing, why against European tourists? Why not against the criminals in government, who are responsible for the deaths, suffering, and humiliation of thousands of the country's citizens?
There are some other important questions that authorities don't answer. Why did they kill all the members of the group [of suspects in the attack on the cyclists] after they were apprehended and left only the leader? Why do [the authorities] persistently not want to connect this crime with IS? Why don't [the authorities] listen to the recommendations and advice of international organizations, experts, and diplomats who year after year tell them to stop putting pressure on the peaceful opposition, rights activists, journalists and those who think differently [from the authorities], insofar as it is fomenting radicalism among the population?
It is impossible to say that [the authorities] don't understand or don't know this. There are people working [in the government] who have academic degrees, who have contact with experts and international organizations. They even have experience working abroad. In fact, they understand very well, but they have strong interests in the situation developing this way. Everything is going according to their plans.
Qishloq Ovozi: The IRPT was banned toward the end of 2015 and declared an extremist group in Tajikistan. You and some others were not in the country at that time, but thousands of IRPT supporters remain there. What can you say about their situation? Are you able to maintain communication with some of them? What about top IRPT officials Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, Mahmadali Hayit, and Buzurgmehr Yorov, the lawyer who agreed to defend IRPT officials in court, for example?
Kabiri: Immediately after the banning of the party, we issued a statement about halting our activities not only in Tajikistan but across the post-Soviet space. We stated that no one has the right to act in the name of our party in these countries until the next decision. That way, we helped thousands of our members and supporters who did not succeed in getting out to avoid investigations and pressure from the authorities.
Later, the authorities themselves declared they would investigate former members of the party if they carried on political activities in our party's name after the ban. But unfortunately, they did not keep their word and more than 100 people were arrested or questioned during this time.
[The Tajik authorities] often detained people and, after receiving a certain sum of money, released them. And the more intractable or influential figures were thrown in prison on the basis of fictitious charges and forced to make statements against the party. Some of those who were investigated had stopped their political activities before the ban on the party.
The most recent example is Naimjon Samiev, the former head of the party's branch in the Sughd region, who left for Russia in 2014 and ceased his activities. In November 2018, they arrested him in Chechnya at the request of Tajik authorities and secretly, without a trial, brought him to Tajikistan.
Many migrants who earlier cooperated with us in Russia were forced to sign a statement at the embassy in Moscow in 2015 that they were ceasing their activities for the party. But this did not save them, and just the other day several people were forced to post video statements in which they said they were not members of our party. This shows that the repressive mechanism is still working.
A path to cooperation can be found even without a coalition, if there is a common goal and general vision of the future. That is what we are doing now with many groups and figures."
Concerning our political prisoners, we receive information about them from relatives and those close to them. Often, when they desperately need something. According to the information we receive, they are kept in inhumane conditions, humiliated and beaten. Under various pretenses the conditions of their incarceration are stiffened. For example, all the political prisoners are put on lists of those "likely to try to escape" and every two hours they are made to go through extremely humiliating procedures like squatting on their hands, or with their hands on their heads, until they fall over, even under heavy rain or [the hot] sun.
Recently, relatives of political prisoners who are outside the country formed a committee for their support and they conducted several rallies. One example is the meeting at the embassy in Berlin near the Bundestag. The UN Committee for Human Rights has already demanded that several political prisoners be freed immediately -- Zayd Saidov, Mahmadali Hayit, and Buzurgmehr Yorov. This committee is looking into the cases of several others, and we hope in the near future there will similar calls, for example, in the cases of Sayfullozoda Husaini and Rahmatullo Rajab.
Qishloq Ovozi: The IRPT was part of Tajikistan's government for 18 years. Can you describe the IRPT's relations with the Tajik government during that time? What do you think was the reason, or the reasons, that Tajik authorities chose to remove you from the political scene in Tajikistan?
Kabiri: We entered the government with the 30 percent quota in 1998 and out of all the opposition groups, 54 people received posts at various levels, including local administrative posts. At the most, there were 10 members of our party and at the most they stayed in these posts until 2005. Therefore, it is impossible to say we were part of the government for 18 years.
As the authorities accumulated power into the hands of [President Emomali Rahmon], he gradually removed all representatives of the opposition from their posts, leaving only those who could not be called opposition figures. So, in fact, he dismantled the peace agreement by 2005, but the status quo was preserved.
As concerns the reasons why he decided to cast us and other genuine opposition forces from the legal political field, this was connected with his plans to ultimately create family rule in the country. He analyzed who and which forces could not resist this, independent of ideology or size.
For example, he understood that even the loyal Communists under the leadership of a person such as [former leader of the Communist Party of Tajikistan Shody] Shabdolov would support his plans without any particular enthusiasm. Already for him, ordinary and silent loyalty was not enough. He demanded complete obedience. We and the Communists always had but two places in parliament, but this turned out to be too much. He threw opponents into prison. Some people were killed in unclear circumstances. Others fled the country.
He oversaw the necessary changes in the constitution that gave him the right to lead the country for life and transfer power to his children, with the political field devastated and without even one voice inside the country to oppose him. Not only in parliament, but throughout the country there was not one public voice against [him or his government]. He got what he wanted, full power, the possibility to transfer this power to his children, and control over the wealth of the country.
But for how long? And it's unclear what kind of scenario he sees for the future for his children and his clan.
Qishloq Ovozi: What are your plans now?
Kabiri: We [base our plans on] the situation in which our region is now in and we do not set tasks that cannot be fulfilled. We have succeeded in surviving the shocking condition we found ourselves in and have adapted to the new realities and made the necessary reorganization. That is very important for any political forces in exile.
We are set to work in several directions. Work with our migrants so they do not fall under the influence of radical groups; build a constructive relationship with all governments and international organizations that are interested in a stable and democratic Tajikistan; set up members and supporters of the party and the National Alliance for a difficult, possibly long battle; and most important, that this battle should always be waged by peaceful means.
One could argue with our plans for uniting all opposition groups of Tajikistan, wondering if this is possible.
It is known we created the National Alliance of Tajikistan that four opposition parties and movements joined. Today, this is the most optimal thing. We set for ourselves the task of uniting all opposition groups to the greatest extent possible. No one, ever, anywhere would be able to unite all the spectrum of opposition in society and to set such a task would be unrealistic.
There is and always will be reasons why political groups cannot enter into a united coalition and this needs to calmly be taken into consideration. That was the way it was with the UTO, where many politicians or groups did not enter. Not joining this or that coalition does not mean groups cannot cooperate. A path to cooperation can be found even without a coalition, if there is a common goal and general vision of the future. That is what we are doing now with many groups and figures.
Qishloq Ovozi: What were the strategic mistakes the party made during these 18 years?
Kabiri: Of course, there were mistakes I made and the party made. For example, after the signing of the peace agreement, our party did not focus attention on strengthening civil society. This was a mistake. We attempted to do something, but it turned out not to be enough. Maybe for this reason, civil society was weak and even our support could not set it on its feet. That was surely the major mistake of the opposition in the past.
However, we did provide help to publications, NGOs, students, athletes, even to state institutions. I remember when the only religious musical orchestra in the country had financial difficulties. They appealed to us, and the leadership of the party paid for their charges and salaries. Naturally, this did not fall into the activities of a political party, but many awaited such help from us.
We need to separate political and religious activities at an early period. We understood this and started an internal process and thought the authorities should also be interested in this. We even hoped for moral support. But it turned out they were just interested in preserving the party in its original form until its closure. That we realized the intentions of the authorities so late was our mistake.
RELATED LINKS HIGHLIGHTING GOVERNMENT STATEMENTS ON KABIRI AND HIS PARTY: