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Qishloq Ovozi

Muhiddin Kabiri is the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan

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.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Former Uzbek Interior Minister Zakir Almatov (second from left) is shown with other Uzbek security officials in Tashkent in 2005.

In a surprise move, Zakir Almatov has returned to Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry after more than 12 years.

Perhaps more than any other Uzbek official, Almatov’s name is linked with the violent events -- some say massacre -- that took place in Uzbekistan’s eastern city of Andijon on May 13, 2005.

He left his post as interior minister at the end of 2005, citing health reasons, and had largely faded from memory.

But on February 27, the now-68-year-old Almatov reappeared in the newly created post of adviser to the interior minister, who since September has been Pulat Bobojonov.

The move is surprising because President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who has been Uzbekistan’s leader since September 2016, has been working to suggest the country is moving away from the often disastrous policies and legacy of his predecessor, Islam Karimov.

But now Mirziyoev has brought back one of the most controversial figures from the darkest days of independent Uzbek history.

Almatov was appointed interior minister shortly after Uzbekistan became independent in late 1991 and remained there until late 2005.

Officially, 187 people were killed in Andijon in 2005. Accounts from eyewitnesses suggest the number was several times higher, many of them unarmed civilians.
Officially, 187 people were killed in Andijon in 2005. Accounts from eyewitnesses suggest the number was several times higher, many of them unarmed civilians.

He was one of the most powerful people in the country before the bloodshed in Andijon.

On the morning of May 13, 2005, a peaceful protest that had been in progress for a week by locals in Andijon who were demanding that detained local business leaders be freed was hijacked by escaped prisoners and an armed group that crossed into Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan in the early hours of the night.

The new arrivals turned the demonstration into an insurrection. Government buildings were seized, officials and police were taken hostage, and some were executed.

As interior minister, Almatov led the negotiations with the leaders of the armed group. Almatov was said to have offered the leaders of the group safe passage out of Uzbekistan, but the talks went nowhere.

In the late afternoon, Uzbek troops, many of them Interior Ministry forces, entered Andijon from all sides of the city and started firing on the crowd.

The vast majority of people on the streets of Andijon at the time were peaceful protesters or locals, but the troops appear to have made no distinction. Officially, 187 people were killed, but accounts from eyewitnesses suggest the number was several times higher, many of them unarmed civilians.

There was broad international condemnation of the violence in Andijon and calls for an international investigation. But, backed by Russia and China, Uzbekistan resisted and subsequently curbed many of its ties with Western governments and organizations.

Almatov stepped down from his post several months later, citing health reasons. He was genuinely ill and required medical treatment, which he found in Germany despite being on an EU travel ban for his role in the Andijon violence.

And Andijon was not the only violent incident in Uzbekistan involving Almatov.

Shortly after independence, in January 1992, Almatov had helped put down the “student riots” in Tashkent that began over cuts to stipends but which grew into a large, but not violent, protest.

Officially, two students were killed. Again, witnesses suggested the figure could have been above 200.

Mirziyoev has been increasingly critical of alleged abuses by officials under Karimov.

Many of the high and mighty under Karimov have been cast out publicly by Mirziyoev in recent months in what the president portrays as a campaign against the corruption and avarice that festered among a chosen few while Karimov was in power.

That makes Almatov’s return to Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry all the more strange.

Some believe Mirziyoev’s ethics campaign is simply a cover for installing loyal cadres into key positions.

Almatov might now be counted among these loyal cadres. Mirziyoev was prime minister when the Andijon violence happened.

Almatov’s return also contains a bit of irony.

After the Andijon bloodshed, the Uzbek government and Karimov rejected all criticism of the government’s methods of restoring order in the city; but even so, Almatov’s power was clearly weakened.

The head of the National Security Service (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov, appeared to be taking advantage of Almatov’s situation, and some of the powers of the Interior Ministry were transferred to Inoyatov’s security service. Those powers were recently transferred back to the Interior Ministry just prior to Inoyatov’s dismissal as head of the SNB at the end of January.

The Interior Ministry once again appears to be the dominant internal security force in Uzbekistan, which arguably makes the reappearance of Almatov in the ministry even more disturbing.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views 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. Content will draw 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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