There was something of a victory for the embattled Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) on March 2 when the IRPT’s leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, announced that Interpol had taken his name off its wanted list.
It was a rare triumph for the IPRT, which just two weeks earlier saw one of its members in exile (as so many are) “forcibly and extrajudicially returned… from Istanbul to Tajikistan,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The removal of Kabiri from the Interpol “Red Notice” list is also a sign international law enforcement organizations are being more diligent in ascertaining whether requests from governments to declare their citizens wanted are genuine concerns for safety or political vendettas.
IRPT spokesman Mahmudjon Faizrahmonov welcomed the news of “the removal of Interpol's Red Notice against Mr. Kabiri, a peaceful and moderate politician,” and said Interpol’s decision was “a setback for the Dushanbe government’s efforts to portray its opponents as militants and terrorists.”
“Militants and terrorists” is exactly how the Tajik government has described the IRPT, at least recently. The party was banned in September 2015 and not long after declared an extremist group.
That came after 18 years of fairly successful coexistence between the government and the IRPT. The two were combatants during the 1992-97 civil war, but the conflict ended with a peace deal that gave places in the government to the IRPT and its wartime allies.
The IRPT was the only registered Islamic party in Central Asia. The IRPT spoke against radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Iraq and Syria.
This stance by the IRPT was valuable to the secular government of President Emomali Rahmon since the Islamic party’s authority to speak out against extremism, like the extremism in neighboring Afghanistan, resonated far more loudly and credibly with Tajikistan’s population than that of the government or state-appointed clerics.
It is against Interpol's constitution for individuals to be targeted because of their political or religious beliefs…but this has not stopped authoritarian governments like Tajikistan targeting political exiles.”-- Edward Lemon, Columbia University's Harriman Institute
But the IRPT’s places in government gradually dwindled and the party lost its last two seats in parliament in elections on March 1, 2015, that some, including the IRPT, calimed were rigged. That June, the party had its registration taken away and when the allegedly renegade Deputy Defense Minister Abdulhalim Nazarzoda supposedly rebelled in early September 2015, Tajik authorities quickly connected Nazarzoda to the IRPT.
For the record, Nazarzoda was with the opposition during the civil war, but he left not long after the conflict began and only returned after it was over. He had been in the Tajik military since just after the war ended and had been a high-ranking officer since 2005, so there were questions about his strange decision to start an insurrection and even more questions about his purported ties to the IRPT.
Such questions did not matter to Tajik authorities, who then banned the IRPT and declared it an extremist group, just like Al-Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State militant group.
Kabiri was outside the country at the time, but 14 senior members of the party who were in Tajikistan after the party was declared an extremist group were arrested and given lengthy prison terms, including two life sentences, following what HRW called “a flawed trial.” Dozens, at least, of other IRPT members were also imprisoned and the Tajik government asked Interpol to place many of the IRPT leaders and members outside the country on the international wanted list.
But while Kabiri is free, there are concerns that IRPT member Namunjon Sharipov “faces a real risk of torture and other ill-treatment in Tajikistan,” according to HRW.
Sharipov is a high-ranking member of the IRPT from Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region. Since August 2015, he has been living in Istanbul, where he operated a teahouse, but on February 20 he called RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, to say he had “voluntarily returned” to Tajikistan.
Sharipov said he planned to visit the northern town of Isfara and then return to Istanbul in “about a week,” but as of early March there was no word he had flown back to Turkey.
HRW said in its report about Sharipov that his son explained that “on three consecutive days starting on February 2, the consul of the Tajik Consulate in Istanbul visited Sharipov at the teahouse, encouraging him to return voluntarily to Tajikistan.”
Turkish police detained Sharipov on February 5. Family members were able to see him several times, but on February 16 he was apparently put on a plane to Dushanbe.
Sharipov’s family and lawyer say Sharipov is being detained in Tajikistan and was forced to make statements like the one to Ozodi. HRW noted, “On several previous occasions, Tajik activists who have been forcibly returned to the country have been forced to make such statements to the press under duress.”
Kabiri and Sharipov’s fates are different, but the sort of ordeals they have gone through were described in a report John Heathershaw and Edward Lemon authored in October 2017.
The authors said the Tajik government targets exiles by placing them “on international wanted lists through Interpol and regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.”
However, there are also cases when exiles “are forcibly transferred, or rendered, back to their home country.”
Lemon, currently a postdoctorate fellow at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, told Qishloq Ovozi: “It is against Interpol's constitution for individuals to be targeted because of their political or religious beliefs…but this has not stopped authoritarian governments like Tajikistan targeting political exiles.”
Lemon said, “Interpol has been reforming. In 2015, it announced that it would no longer issue Red Notices for those with confirmed refugee status.” But Lemon added, “Even after having a Red Notice delisted, not all national police agencies will remove your file from their own national databases” and “governments can also continue to target individuals by issuing 'diffusions,' arrest requests sent directly to member states without being reviewed by Interpol.”
The Tajik government now calls the IRPT an extremist group, but when the IRPT was registered it was the second largest political party in Tajikistan with some 40,000 members and likely more than twice that many supporters. And it was a genuine opposition party.
With no strong opposition party remaining in Tajikistan, President Rahmon has made some interesting moves.
The IRPT was officially banned on September 29, 2015.
In December 2015, Tajikistan’s parliament, which was by then completely packed with members from pro-presidential parties, voted to give Rahmon the title of “founder of peace and national unity – leader of the nation.”
Rahmon’s daughter Ozoda was appointed chief of the presidential staff in January 2016.
In May 2016, a referendum was held on changes to the constitution that struck presidential terms limits -- Rahmon is currently serving his fourth term -- and lowered the eligibility age for a presidential candidate from 35 to 30. Rahmon’s eldest son, Rustam Emomali, turned 30 in December.
Rustam Emomali was appointed mayor of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, in January 2017.
And the Norway-based religious rights group Forum 18 just reported on February 26 that during 2017, “1,938 mosques were in 2017 forcibly closed and converted to secular uses.”
Likely none of these recent changes would have gone uncontested if there had been a strong opposition party still present in Tajikistan.