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Tajikistan: Extradition Of Former 'Kingmaker' Salimov May Hinge On Moscow

Former Tajik Interior Minister Yakub Salimov may soon return to his homeland for the first time in nearly six years after being detained in Moscow on a warrant issued by Dushanbe. Salimov was once one of Tajikistan's most powerful officials and a key figure in the 1992-97 civil war. RFE/RL reports on what his possible extradition might mean for a country still recovering from the devastating conflict.

Prague, 1 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A decade ago, some considered him the most powerful man in Tajikistan. Now, he may spend the rest of his life in jail.

Dushanbe is seeking the extradition of Yakub Salimov, who has been in custody in Moscow since being detained last month on a Tajik warrant.

During the 1992-97 civil war, Salimov alternately served as Tajikistan's interior minister, ambassador to Turkey, and customs committee chairman.

But none of this was mentioned when Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobohanov spoke briefly yesterday to RFE/RL about the charges facing Salimov if and when he returns to Tajikistan. He simply said Salimov was "detained on charges of participation in attempted coups d'etat in 1997 and 1998."

When the civil war began in the spring of 1992, Salimov became the leader of an armed unit in the Popular Front paramilitary force. The Popular Front sided with former communists still in power a half-year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to battle an unlikely alliance of Islamic and democratic groups.

Salimov grew powerful. He would later tell a Russian newspaper that it was he -- together with a small group of other Popular Front commanders -- who selected Tajikistan's current president, Imomali Rakhmonov, to lead the country. The decision was made at a secret meeting in the northern Tajik city of Khujand in November 1992.

Salimov told the newspaper that the Popular Front commanders agreed the relatively unknown Rakhmonov would prove easy to manipulate and even easier to dispose of once he had served his purpose.

But Rakhmonov maintained his hold on power through the civil war. Observers say this was only due to the approval of Salimov and others. Local legend suggested Salimov -- who, like Rakhmonov, came from the Kulob region -- still had the upper hand. He reportedly slapped Rakhmonov at a session of parliament and beat the Tajik leader on other occasions.

While Salimov was interior minister, the ministry forces were nearly double the size of the 11,000-man national army that was severely strained by the raging civil war. Even as the conflict edged dangerously close to the capital, the generously manned Interior Ministry forces refused to participate in the fighting.

Even the loyalty of Defense Ministry troops came into question. When Rakhmonov attempted to replace several highly placed government officials in early 1996, a Salimov ally, Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiyev, mobilized his pro-government unit and marched on the capital. The new appointments were withdrawn and Khudaiberdiyev's unit returned to its base. The process was repeated one year later with the same result.

Salimov, who had briefly been in Turkey serving as Tajik ambassador, returned to head the customs committee. The civil war ended soon afterwards, with the signing of the National Peace Accord in June 1997. But Salimov, Khudaiberdiyev, and other Popular Front commanders did not agree to the deal, which diminished their own power while granting amnesty and government posts to the Islamic opposition.

Less than two months after the peace deal was signed, Khudaiberdiyev mobilized his force again and moved toward the capital. This time, Tajik government forces fought back. Salimov and other peace-deal opponents fled the country.

Khudaiberdiyev returned in November 1998, mounting attacks in northern Tajikistan in what the government would later describe as a second attempted coup d'etat.

Wanted by Tajik authorities, Salimov settled into a life in exile but did not give up his opposition activities.

Today's edition of the Russian daily newspaper "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" quotes Oleg Panfilov, the head of the Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations, as saying: "As far as I know, [Salimov] was arrested because he is in rigid opposition to Tajik authorities." Panfilov said Salimov's arrest was part of the Tajik government's policy of ridding itself of opponents.

Dodojon Atoullayev, the owner of the Tajik opposition newspaper "Charoghi Ruz," on 29 June told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that Salimov was in Moscow to coordinate activities with other opposition figures.

"Several days ago, Yakub Salimov, the former interior minister, the former ambassador to Turkey, came to Moscow. We met several times," Atoullayev said. "His goal was to discuss opposition activities. We last met on 20 June. The next day he was picked up during a document check when it was discovered his name was on a list of persons wanted in Tajikistan. He was sent to the [Federal Security Service-run] Lefortovo Prison."

Salimov is likely to claim he is a legitimate opposition figure. But his connection to the mutinous actions of Colonel Khudaiberdiyev is well established. If he is extradited, he will also probably face a number of corruption charges stemming from his time as customs committee chairman. And neither Rakhmonov nor the now-legitimized Islamic political groups are likely to remember the former kingmaker with much kindness.

(Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)