THE BLOG
05/23/2013 11:10 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

In Need of Change, Tajikistan Gets a Crackdown

by Nate Schenkkan ( Follow on Twitter at @nateschenkkan)
Senior Program Associate, Eurasia

When Zayd Saidov announced in April that he and some other leading businessmen in Tajikistan were founding a political party, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid criticism of President Emomali Rahmon and adopt a mild, pragmatic tone. "The political conflicts in our society today take on destructive forms and an unacceptably protracted nature.... Some position themselves as supporters of political Islam, others of secular statehood, a third group considers themselves democrats, a fourth group remains dedicated to communism, and so on." Saidov's party, New Tajikistan, promised to cut through all the talk and address the real "economic and social" issues that Tajikistan was facing. The argument was so studious in avoiding Rahmon, who has been president for 19 years, that some observers suspected New Tajikistan of being a "pocket party" created by the government to split the opposition vote in November's presidential election.

If so, apparently the government had second thoughts. Last weekend, when Saidov, a former minister of industry, returned to Dushanbe from abroad, the Anti-Corruption Agency arrested him at the airport. He faces charges of theft and, oddly, polygamy.

New Tajikistan is only the latest party to be suppressed by the authorities as the presidential election draws closer. On May 10, a regional leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), Sherik Karamkhudoev, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for "organizing a criminal grouping" and "participating in mass disorders." The charges date to last July, when a general in the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) was murdered in the isolated Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, and the government sent thousands of military and law enforcement personnel into the area, supposedly to arrest the alleged culprits. The government cut off all communications to the province as troops occupied part of its capital, Khorog, and launched a massive operation that killed a still-unknown number of soldiers, antigovernment combatants, and civilians.

Karamkhudoev, the IRPT's regional representative in Gorno-Badakhshan, vanished in the early hours of the operation. There was no news of his whereabouts until he turned up two weeks later in a GKNB cell in Dushanbe, over 300 miles away. One of his local IRPT colleagues, Sabzali Mamadrizoyev, allegedly disappeared into the hands of the security services as well. Only he turned up dead.

The government charged Karamkhudoev with organizing the "disorders" in Gorno-Badakhshan, and tried him alongside another defendant in Dushanbe. Journalists and outside observers were not allowed to observe the closed trial, which the defense said was egregiously flawed. Karamkhudoev's family, his party, and his lawyers alleged that he had been tortured in detention. Nevertheless, the court convicted on all counts.

The IRPT has had other troubles in recent months. On April 19, the party's deputy leader was attacked outside his home. The assailants, who are still unknown, beat him to the ground and then kicked him in the head. As the IRPT prepared to hold its 40th-anniversary conference later that month, with hundreds of attendees expected from the international Tajik diaspora, the Dushanbe airport lost the ability to issue visas on arrival for "technical reasons," stranding dozens of would-be participants. Moreover, the IRPT's website has been inaccessible inside the country for three weeks.

The list goes on. Another opposition leader is languishing in a Dubai prison, awaiting possible extradition on corruption charges at the request of the government of Tajikistan. When a former prime minister with refugee status in the United States visited Ukraine, the Tajik government tried to have him extradited as well. On March 15, Salimboy Shamsiddinov, a leader of Tajikistan's ethnic Uzbek community who had criticized the government, disappeared. He is still missing. Another leader of the Uzbek community affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan (SDPT), Ravshan Mutalibov, was arrested three weeks ago in Russia after customs officials found heroin in his bag. The SDPT says the drugs were planted.

If all this seems a bit repetitive, that's because it is. The pattern of political repression has been fairly consistent under Rahmon, who took office in 1994. Meanwhile, Tajikistan is still the poorest country in the former Soviet Union, and a shocking 47 percent of its gross domestic product consists of remittances sent home by migrants working abroad, mostly in Russia. The country is the top conduit for Afghan heroin moving north to reach the Russian and European markets. Corruption is unrelenting. Yet as the November election approaches, there is no expectation that voters will be allowed to give new leaders an opportunity to correct the failures of the incumbent.

When he introduced New Tajikistan, Saidov was right to say that the country needs to focus on fixing its fundamental economic and social problems. But contrary to what he claimed, the thing keeping it from doing so isn't political competition. It's the lack thereof.

This post originally appeared on Freedom House's blog, Freedom at Issue. To read the original, click here.