Forty-eight-year-old Izzat Amon has spent half his life helping Tajik migrant laborers in Russia.
On March 25, Russian authorities detained Amon and forcibly returned him to Tajikistan, where he faces charges of fraud in connection to his work in Moscow.
In a hastily convened hearing before his deportation, a Russian court also deprived him of his Russian citizenship
Amon is not the first Tajik to be apprehended in Russia and sent back to Tajikistan. But his case differs from others.
Amon is not a member of a Tajik opposition party, although he did recently criticize Tajikistan’s government.
Amon's case illustrates that under authoritarian Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s rule, any civic or legal activism independent of his government’s control is viewed as an existential threat.”-- Steve Swerdlow, University of Southern California
In Moscow, Amon offered the sorts of services to Tajik migrant laborers that even Tajik officials say are needed. Also known as Izzat Kholov, Amon has lived in Russia since 1996, when he obtained his Russian citizenship.
In 2000, he moved to Moscow and helped establish the Center for Tajiks of Moscow -- an organization that has helped Tajik citizens properly register with Russian authorities, as well as to find places to live and work. Amon’s organization has also helped Tajiks facing legal issues in Russia.
Amon has publicly chided Tajik authorities for failing to sufficiently press Russia on the issue of rights abuses against Tajik migrant laborers.
Steve Swerdlow, an attorney and associate professor of human rights at the University of Southern California, has closely followed crackdowns against the rights of Central Asians in Russia. He says Tajik migrant laborers “are among the most vulnerable people in Russia.”
Judging by the number of reports of Tajik nationals who’ve been beaten and even killed in Russia, it is difficult to dispute his conclusion.
Swerdlow says the targeting of Amon by Tajik and Russian authorities violates several binding international human rights commitments made by each country. That includes a prohibition on returning a person to a country where they are likely to face torture, as well as arbitrarily depriving an individual of their citizenship.
But Amon’s case also reflects the extent to which Tajikistan’s rights crisis has worsened during the past several years.
“Known in Moscow’s human rights community primarily as an advocate for Tajik migrants’ rights, Amon is far from the typical opposition figure Dushanbe has been accustomed to targeting,” Swerdlow says. “His case illustrates that under authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon’s rule, any civic or legal activism independent of his government’s control is viewed as an existential threat.”
Amon has worked for more than two decades with Russian authorities to help Tajiks migrants, who number in the hundreds of thousands. He has a reputation as a person who solves problems.
His understanding of Russia’s system for migrant laborers cannot be easily replicated. Amon’s forced return to Tajikistan will leave a vacuum for many Tajiks trying to navigate Russian laws and regulations.
In fact, it may have been Amon’s popularity among migrants that worried authorities back in Tajikistan.
In 2019, Amon briefly contemplated forming a new political party called Changes, Reforms, And Progress. He’d planned to court voters among migrant laborers with an eye on being elected to parliament and representing their interests there.
Amon released a video in which he said Tajik migrants “have been outside the government…and have had no influence. We wanted to participate in the further political reconciliation of our country by establishing a party.”
Amon also said: “We who have provided 70 percent of the country's budget for 30 years [through remittances] must unite and bring about radical changes in the country.”
But Amon abandoned the idea of forming a political party due to a requirement in Tajikistan’s election laws that says candidates must reside in the country for at least 10 years prior to elections.
Tajik authorities were displeased with Amon in 2006 when he resisted an effort by then-Tajik Ambassador to Russia Abdulmajid Dostiev to bring all Tajik migrant and diaspora organizations in Russia under one umbrella. Amon and another leader of a Tajik migrant group, Karomat Sharifov, refused to join. Sharifov was the head of the Tajik Labor Migrants organization in Russia.
Tajik authorities became concerned about Sharifov’s activities in Russia after he publicly criticized Moscow’s policies on migrant laborers.
Sharifov also had a Russian passport. But in December 2017, a Russian court ruled he’d violated a law on “foreigners” illegally entering Russia or remaining in the country after their entry visas expire. The court ordered Sharifov’s deportation to Tajikistan.
Sharifov was not arrested in Tajikistan, but he died there at the age of 57 under suspicious circumstances in May 2020.
The circumstances of Amon’s forcible return to Tajikistan are equally troubling, as they have become all too familiar.
Amon confided to friends months ago that he knew Tajik authorities wanted him sent back to Tajikistan. He’d told friends that he expected charges of being involved in terrorist activities to eventually be filed against him.
RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, reports that Amon was accused on March 4 in Moscow’s Tverskoi court of illegal employment in Russia. It was then that he was threatened with deportation, which the court ordered on March 16.
His wife, Sayora Taghoeva, who remains in Russia, said the family hired a lawyer in order to appeal the deportation order.
One of Amon’s colleagues told Ozodi that Russian police detained Amon on March 25 and took him to an unknown location. His family was never informed by Russian authorities of his detention.
Amon was back in Tajikistan by March 27.
Asia-Plus reported on March 27 that Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry denied that Tajik law enforcement agencies had any connection to Amon’s detention in Russia. But later, the Interior Ministry announced several charges of fraud against Amon in Tajikistan.
Human rights campaigners note that those fraud allegations are similar to charges brought against Tajik rights lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov, who has been serving a 28-year prison sentence in Tajikistan since 2015.
Russia has never been a safe haven for Tajiks who are wanted by authorities back in Tajikistan. But it is one of the easiest destinations for Tajik citizens to reach. For some Tajik migrants, Russia is the end of the line as they do not have the possibility of legally traveling to other countries.
Swerdlow says forced returns and sometimes outright kidnappings of Central Asian dissidents on Russian soil have turned the country into a “graveyard for Tajik dissent.”
Edward Lemon, an assistant professor at the Washington-based Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, has written extensively on transnational repression by Central Asian governments.
“This kidnapping is certainly not an isolated incident,” Lemon says. “Despite being a small and impoverished state, the Tajik government has developed a relatively extensive network to control the opposition abroad, subjecting them to intimidation, harassment, attacks, detention, and rendition.”
Lemon says that during his research on transnational repression, he has recorded 63 cases of Tajik citizens who’ve been targeted abroad since 1991. He says most have come “since 2015, when the government cracked down on the opposition, forcing many opposition members, journalists, and academics to flee the country.”
All of those cases involved Tajiks who were in Russia or Turkey.
Swerdlow says there have been similar cases in Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as further afield in Greece.
Both Lemon and Swerdlow say Amon’s case resembles that of Maksud Ibragimov, a Tajik businessman living in Russia who established an organization called Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan. Ibragimov was detained in Russia in November 2014, based on a warrant issued by Tajikistan.
As a Russian passport holder, he was released without being deported. Soon after his release, he was stabbed by an unknown assailant near his Moscow home.
Ibragimov was arrested again in January 2015 and brought to the local prosecutor’s office before he was released again without being charged.
Lemon recounts that “when he left the building, he was detained by unidentified men who took him to the airport and put him in the baggage hold of a plane.”
“The Tajik government did not acknowledge that Ibragimov was back in Tajikistan until June 2015, when he was sentenced to 17 years in prison on a host of charges, including extremism,” Lemon said.
Russian authorities have cooperated with Dushanbe more recently on the return of other Tajik dissidents. They include the opposition figures Shobuddin Badalov (2020, detained in Nizhny Novgorod); Sharofiddin Gadoev (2019, kidnapped from Moscow); and Naimjon Samiev (2018, detained in Grozny).
Among all of those cases, only Gadoev made it out of Tajikistan. His release has been attributed to intervention by the Netherlands, where he’d received refugee status.
The current situation does not bode well for Amon, as the fraud charges against him may only be the beginning. Tajik authorities are notorious for piling on charges against perceived opponents of the government in order to portray them as acting illegally and immorally.
But for now, the most urgent concern for Amon’s family and colleagues is that he has not been seen or heard from since arriving in Dushanbe. That has raised fears that he may be being subjected to torture.
Swerdlow and Lemon say it is going to take a lot more than wishful thinking to change this awful trajectory. At a minimum, they hope the Dushanbe embassies of the United States and European Union states will raise concerns about the cases of Amon and other political prisoners.
They say Western embassies also should monitor Amon’s trial and explore options for reuniting him with his family abroad.