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Tajik Man Fights The System, One Letter At A Time

Shamsi Zarif and one of his angry missives
Shamsi Zarif and one of his angry missives
VOSE DISTRICT, Tajikistan -- Shamsi Zarif loves writing letters. Few people, however, enjoy receiving them.

The 75-year-old has spent decades registering his grievances, firing off letters of complaint to everyone from local bureaucrats in his southern Tajik district to Soviet-era bigwigs in the Kremlin itself.

It's a habit that has earned the former Russian-language instructor a jail term, a forced psychiatric diagnosis, and a dim reputation among public officials.

But district resident Barot Safarov says Zarif also enjoys wide support among ordinary locals, who have repeatedly watched him challenge officials and win -- as in a recent case when hounded bureaucrats agreed to reverse an unpopular decision to shut down the district's village markets.

"This is a person who always raises his voice in defense of regular people," Safarov says. "When, for example, they closed the markets, he rose to their defense. He immediately understood who was going to suffer. He's always fought for kindness and freedom."

Ahead Of His Time?

Tajikistan has its fair share of feisty public complainers, who in the Soviet era were popularly referred to as "anonymshiki."

But Zarif, an honors philology graduate of Tajikistan's respected Kulyabsky State Institute, never fit the mold of classic neighborhood crank. Some of his most notorious complaints, in fact, have been breathtakingly ambitious.

In 1983, Zarif penned a letter to the Moscow headquarters of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, criticizing the cracks he saw in their political policies. If things continued the way they were going, he warned, the Soviet Union would be dead within a decade.

The message led to Zarif's immediate arrest for "lack of trust in communist society and obstructing the path to communism."

He escaped jail time, but it was only in 1991 -- after the collapse of the Soviet Union that he predicted -- that he was formally rehabilitated by Tajik prosecutors.

The notion of a man in remote Tajikistan challenging the apex of the Communist leadership might strike many as foolhardy.

Said Rahmon, a schoolboy acquaintance of Zarif's, admiringly describes his friend as "sick."

"He does, in fact, have an illness," Rahmon says. "There are different kinds of men. Some love the horses; some love to bet on bird fights; some love to drink. And then there are men who love justice. Shamsi Zarif looks for the truth and his entire life is dedicated to the battle for justice. Wherever people's rights need to be restored, that's where he'll be."

'It Takes A Hero'

In 2002, Zarif set his sights on a new law on family planning that called for Tajiks to have fewer children and help lower the national birthrate.

Incensed, Zarif sent a letter to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon condemning the policy as "a terror" and "genocide through peaceful means."

Authorities did not take kindly to Zarif's phrasing. He was handed a 2 1/2-year jail sentence. Upon his release, he was presented with a document certifying him clinically insane.

The diagnosis hasn't slowed his output -- Zarif claims to have written more than 200 letters of complaint in the past year alone.

But it has definitely hurt his chances of getting the thing he craves most: a face-to-face meeting with Rahmon himself.

In 2010, when the Tajik leader spent a day touring Vose District, security officials swept in and unceremoniously placed Zarif under house arrest.

"On June 13, while the president was here, the criminal-offense department and the Vose district KGB held me under house arrest from six in the morning until six at night," Zarif says. "Since then, no matter how many letters I've written, no one has answered my complaints."

District head Sulton Valiev confirms Zarif's account and makes no apologies for his treatment. "I'll never allow such a person to meet His Excellency," he says. "Shamsi Zarif is not worthy of a discussion with the president."

Such hardball tactics have only added to Zarif's allure as what his supporters call one of the last great "complainers and writers of statements."

Still, Orzu Hamidov, a local journalist, says there are few who are likely to follow in Zarif's letter-writing footsteps.

"There used to be the kinds of people who would write complaints and critiques, but those who remain are mainly among the older generation," Hamidov says. "There are hardly any of those people left among the young."

"In order to be a complainer, you need to be especially brave," Hamidov adds. "In a society like ours, it takes a hero to point out what's wrong."

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Mumin Ahmadi

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