Tajik authorities have allegedly paraded University of Toronto researcher Alexander Sodiqov, who disappeared three days ago, on television in an apparent attempt to discredit him and an opposition politician. Friends and colleagues are growing increasingly concerned that Tajikistan’s heavy-handed authorities may be trying to make an example out of Sodiqov to discourage others from examining tensions between Tajikistan’s authoritarian government and minorities in the restive eastern province of Badakhshan.
Sodiqov, a 31-year-old Tajik national who lives in Canada, disappeared in Khorog on June 16 while carrying out academic fieldwork on civil society and conflict resolution in Central Asia. Tajikistan’s unaccountable and American-backed secret police service, the GKNB, initially confirmed it had detained Sodiqov and accused him of carrying out “subversion and espionage” – a charge it will be difficult for them to walk back. The GKNB has since refused to discuss Sodiqov's whereabouts.
Citing an anonymous Khorog resident, Tajikistan’s independent Asia-Plus news agency reported [ru] on June 18 that Sodiqov appeared twice on local state television looking confused, once the previous evening and once early on June 19. The resident told Asia-Plus that Sodiqov’s speech appeared to have been edited to discredit the opposition and a religious leader.
“He was pale, confused and probably they forced him to say something. He spoke in Russian. He spoke about research work that he was carrying out [on conflict] in Khorog. According to [Sodiqov] he met with [local opposition leader] Alim Sherzamonov and [Sherzamonov] told him that if in 2012 the people of [the eastern province of Badakhshan] had no faith in law enforcement, now they had no faith in the government and the Aga Khan Foundation or the Aga Khan himself. We doubt that Sherzamonov could say that and he himself denies it,” the source said.
If the resident’s comments are true, it appears Sodiqov is being used to discredit Sherzamonov, the opposition Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan’s regional representative in Badakhshan. Sherzamonov, with whom Sodiqov was allegedly speaking on the topic of community conflict at the time of his arrest, has openly admitted to participating in mass protests in Khorog on May 22-23, and claimed police wanted to arrest him at the same time they arrested Sodiqov, but were unable due to the intervention of his supporters. (The broadcast is unlikely to affect the status of the Aga Khan in Badakhshan, revered by many of the region’s native Pamiris as a benefactor and coreligionist whose development programs have plugged the holes left by the state.)
Sodiqov’s research partner John Heathershaw of the University of Exeter said the “heavily edited video” is “worrying.”
“This is Alexander’s first public appearance in 72 hours. It is important that the government of Tajikistan provides him with access to a lawyer and informs his family about his whereabouts. I reiterate that Alexander was doing purely academic work, as demonstrated by documents about the project which he was carrying on his person at the time of his arrest, and which I have subsequently provided to media organizations in Tajikistan. Alexander is an outstanding young Tajikistani scholar and not any kind of agent of a foreign government,” Heathershaw told EurasiaNet.org by email.
Tajik authorities have yet to confirm the charges against him or provide any update on his situation. The OSCE and Freedom House have both issued statements of concern. Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told EurasiaNet.org that the Tajik authorities have broken international law.
“Under international law, authorities commit an enforced disappearance when they refuse to acknowledge holding someone in custody or conceal the person’s fate or whereabouts, thereby placing them outside the protection of the law and increasing the risk of torture or ill-treatment,” Swerdlow said.
Friends and colleagues have organized at least two petitions demanding Sodiqov’s release. One posted on Avaaz.org, was organized by Sodiqov’s close family and friends while the other, Scholars for Sodiqov, was organized by Edward Schatz, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, where Sodiqov is working on his doctorate.
Tajik authorities are notoriously thin-skinned about anyone prying into their fraught relations with ethnic minorities in Badakhshan, which happens to be a key weigh station on the drug trafficking route between Afghanistan and Russia. Drugs have been implicated in past outbreaks of violence between authorities and locals, including during several shootouts last month.
Ominously, in a veiled statement that many will see as directed at Sodiqov, GKNB head Saimumin Yatimov said on June 19 that foreign spies are operating in Tajikistan as part of a “big geopolitical-ideological game,” Radio Ozodi quoted him as saying.
“Under the guise of non-governmental organizations, they [the spies] use methods that don't benefit the people of Tajikistan. In Tajikistan there are a few spy services – whose status I will not comment on here – that cooperate with organized criminals and spend big sums of money. They prepare them for the fight against our security, undermining the safety of our people,” Yatimov said.
The US government has provided millions of dollars of training for Yatimov’s GKNB over the years. The US Embassy in Dushanbe has said nothing publicly about Sodiqov’s disappearance.
David Trilling contributed reporting.