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Qishloq Ovozi

Tajik authorities threatened Humayra Bakhityar's ailing father to pressure her to return.

Tajikistan's government has earned an unfavorable reputation in recent years as authorities have stepped up a campaign to eliminate any form of opposition.

And it seems anything goes -- any tactic can be employed -- to secure the regime of Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan's leader since 1992.

The recent case of 33-year-old Humayra Bakhtiyar is a prime example.

Bakhtiyar is a citizen of Tajikistan currently living in Europe, where she works as an independent journalist, which she has been doing for about 12 years.

Bakhtiyar's "crime" in the eyes of Tajik officials is that she reported on rights violations and other abuses by government authorities when she lived in Tajikistan and after she fled the country three years ago.

In a June 21 message on Twitter, Bakhtiyar said Tajik authorities were pressuring her to return to Tajikistan -- saying that if she didn't her father would be arrested.

Qishloq Ovozi contacted Bakhtiyar to find out more.

She said police had recently called her 57-year-old father, Bakhtiyar Muminov, to come for a talk on June 12 -- which was her birthday -- despite her dad having suffered a heart attack that required surgery in April.

Police told Muminov he had to convince his daughter to return to Tajikistan or he would lose his job as a schoolteacher. Police told her father he had no moral right to teach children if he was unable to raise his own daughter properly.

The police placed a call to Bakhtiyar and had her father repeat their questions into the phone.

According to Bakhtiyar, the threats continued. Police called Muminov several days later and told him if he could not convince his daughter to return he could be arrested and his sons could also face difficulties.

Turning Point

Life for opposition politicians, activists, and independent journalists in Tajikistan has become much worse since former Industry Minister Zayd Saidov announced in April 2013 that he planned to form the New Tajikistan (Tojikistoni Nau) political party.

By the end of 2013, Saidov had been convicted on charges that included polygamy, relations with a minor, and financial crimes. He was sentenced to 26 years in prison.

It was the opening salvo, and Bakhtiyar said it was also in 2013 when she was working for the independent newspaper Ozodagon that Tajik authorities tried to force her to stop working as a journalist.

Much more would follow and hundreds of people are estimated to have fled the country to avoid persecution and possible imprisonment.

Family members back home in Tajikistan have been targeted before.

When political activist Ilhomjon Yakubov spoke at the OSCE's annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw on September 21, 2016, a crowd gathered outside his family home in Tajikistan's northern city of Khujand the next day, calling Yakubov an "enemy of the people," a "terrorist," and a "traitor."

The gang returned the next day, throwing stones and attempting to break into the house. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Yakubovs called the police but no one came.

HRW reported on September 26 that "security services officers went to Yakubov's mother's house and warned family members that unless Yakubov returns to Tajikistan to face 'justice' they would confiscate the family's property."

'Enemy Of The People'

Another activist, Shabnam Khudoydodova, also spoke at the conference in Warsaw the same day.

HRW reported that a day before Khudoydodova spoke, "a crowd of students, teachers, [and] school directors from various schools, city officials, and members of the local TV station gathered in her 9-year-old daughter'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."

The day Khudoydodova spoke in Warsaw, "Demonstrators attacked Khudoydodova's 10-year-old niece, hitting and kicking her, apparently mistaking her for Shabnam's daughter." Some of these demonstrators broke into the family home and beat three relatives who had tried to keep them out.

Khudoydodova's mother went to report the incidents to the police on September 23, but a police official reportedly said: "How dare you attempt to complain about this?! Why are you not ashamed of your daughter?"

The police official reportedly added: "You should be happy [the demonstrators] did not pour gas on your home and burn it to the ground! Tell your daughter to shut up and not to write or say anything. We will soon catch her and hang her in front of your eyes!"

Protesters then appeared outside the OSCE office in Dushanbe on September 22, throwing stones at the building.

Shabnam Khudoydodova's daughter Fotima was eventually allowed to leave.
Shabnam Khudoydodova's daughter Fotima was eventually allowed to leave.

Children As Hostages

All of these actions are impossible in Tajikistan without the approval of the authorities. Attempts at unsanctioned demonstrations have been quickly broken up in the past and those identified as ringleaders were taken into custody.

There are several other examples of using relatives in Tajikistan to pressure opposition figures outside the country.

In the summer of 2018, Ibrohim Hamza Tillozoda was a 4-year-old with cancer that doctors in Tajikistan admitted they could not treat in the country's medical facilities.

Tillozoda is the grandson of Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the now banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, who is currently living in exile in Europe. Kabiri was convicted in absentia of undisclosed charges at a closed-trial in October and given a lengthy but unpublicized prison sentence.

Tajik authorities refused to allow Tillozoda to leave the country and receive medical treatment elsewhere. An intensive campaign by international rights organizations and on social media finally forced the authorities to relent and allow Tillozoda and his mother to leave Tajikistan.

Khudoydodova's daughter was also eventually able to leave after a similar campaign.

Humayra Bakhtiyar said police and the state security service started summoning her father to come for talks in 2018. She said her father once called her and asked her to return, saying officials had promised nothing would happen to her.

There have been instances when people the government considers opponents have been "forcibly and extrajudicially" returned to Tajikistan from countries such as Turkey and Russia. Once back in Tajikistan they have been hustled in front of state television cameras to publicly repent for alleged problems they have cause for the government.

Tajikistan's government has become infamous for abusing the Interpol system to harass opposition figures who have fled the country, as Exeter University's Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) project has documented.

Bakhtiyar has no intention of returning to Tajikistan. She said charges have already been filed against her that could see her serving anywhere from eight to 20 years in prison.

But as Tajik authorities are demonstrating yet again, even if they can't get someone to return to Tajikistan, they can still make their lives miserable by pressuring their kin at home.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov fires a pistol while riding a bike in his most recent video.

If you've ever seen state television news from Turkmenistan, you've seen him.

He's big.

He's bad.

He's the pistol-packing, knife-throwing president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. And he has just showed off his alleged martial skills to the world yet again, in a recent clip aired on Turkmenistan's Altyn Asyr TV news.

Berdymukhammedov has a flair for theatrics. Not necessarily good theatrics.

The latest Berdymukhammedov-the-warrior video reminds me of the ones of him playing musical instruments and singing. You can see he is holding a guitar or sitting at the piano, but the shots continuously cut away from his face to some hands, making it impossible to tell if it really is the president playing the music.

It's the same with the most recent "Rambo" video. Berdymukhammedov is shown holding a gun, then there is a cutaway to a hand firing a pistol, then a hole appears in the target (I'll get back to that at the end).

But, as I mentioned in an earlier article about Berdymukhammedov's New Year music video assault on Turkmen TV viewers, making fun of these clips is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Ever since the release of the first macho video from Arkadag -- which means "protector" and is what he wants people to call him -- in early August 2017, I've been watching to see where this daredevil of the Gara-Gum Desert would turn up next. I even went back a little before that to see where Arkadag had been before the summer of 2017, when he decided it was time to show his troops how to fight.

Of course, in the Golden Age of Happiness and Prosperity, or whatever official age it is in Turkmenistan, there is no major internal threat to Berdymukhammedov's government. The threat seems to be a hypothetical force from outside the country because it is at Turkmenistan's border posts where one finds Berdymukhammedov clad in military fatigues -- or sometimes a jeans jacket -- packing heat, calling in air strikes, or sometimes even, seemingly, piloting attack helicopters.

So, what border posts has he visited?

On March 31, 2016, Altyn Asyr TV showed Berdymukhammedov visiting the border post at Serakhs, on the Iranian border.

In January 2017, he visited the Khazar border post in Turkmenbashi City on the Caspian coast for the launching of a new naval vessel, coincidentally named "Arkadag." In October of that same year, Berdymukhammedov arrived by helicopter at the Avaza border post on the Caspian coast, inspected the troops, and drove away in an all-terrain vehicle.

On January 10, 2018, he was back behind the wheel of an all-terrain vehicle speeding through the desert to inspect another -- this time unnamed -- border post.

There were no reports of Berdymukhammedov visiting border posts along Turkmenistan's frontiers with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Those borders must be safer than Turkmenistan's Caspian coast.

But there is one border where it appears Berdymukhammedov is rarely seen; the frontier with Afghanistan. It took some digging, but it turns out Berdymukhammedov did visit the Turkmen-Afghan border once, in late February 2018.

Since early 2014, there has been fighting in northern Afghanistan and it has spilled over the border.

In February 2014, three Turkmen border guards were killed, and three months later three more Turkmen soldiers were killed in a different area along the Afghan border. There have also been sporadic reports of stray bullets and shells landing on Turkmen territory, and of other casualties among Turkmen troops.

Surely this is the place where someone with Berdymukhammedov's alleged combat prowess is most needed. And indeed, on February 24, Arkadag traveled to the new border post at Serhetabat on the Afghan border.

If that date rings a bell, it should. Because on February 23, 2018, the leaders of Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan were all with Berdymukhammedov in Serhetabat to attend the ceremonial welding together of a segment of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline.

Security in that particular area along the border had probably never been so tight as it was for the brief period preceding and immediately following that event.

In fact, Berdymukhammedov even made a visit to Herat, Afghanistan for a brief few hours on February 23 for more ceremonies and speeches. That is the only visit Berdymukhammedov has ever made to Afghanistan.

One could get the impression he didn't want to stay there for long -- even though it is a relatively secure city in Afghanistan.

And now, back to the bicycle-riding, pistol-shooting Berdymukhammedov from a few days ago. In a segment of the video that Eurasianet writer and editor Peter Leonard posted on Twitter, I couldn't help but notice that at the 28-second mark, Arkadag's shot looks like it missed the mark entirely and kicked up a bit of dust in the field behind it -- although remarkably the target still falls.

Who can say where the big, bad Berdymukhammedov will turn up next.

The only thing we can be fairly sure of is that it will be somewhere far from any real danger.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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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