Since 2015, the authoritarian government of Tajikistan, ruled by President Emomali Rahmon since 1994, has intensified its crackdown on all forms of potential dissent within the country. The government declared the leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), a moderate party whose representatives have repeatedly stated their commitment to the democratic process, a terrorist organisation in 2015. It has jailed human rights lawyers, restricted the rights of religious groups, censored the media, and increasingly regulated civil society.
Hundreds of citizens have fled the country, with many travelling to Turkey, one of the only countries to have a visa-free regime and direct flights to Tajikistan. In October 2016, Rahmon called on the Turkish government to extradite all what he called Tajik terrorists being harboured in Turkey. The government of Turkey has acquiesced to this request, opposition activists said, by tacitly and actively supporting the government of Tajikistan by allowing its agents to enter Turkish territory to kidnap, monitor and intimidate Tajik exiles.
Turkey has become a dangerous place to be an exile from Tajikistan. A number of Tajik opposition activists have been detained in Turkey or at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport at the request of the government of Tajikistan, but many have secured their release by arguing that they would face an unfair trial and torture should they be extradited. Faced with these legal barriers the government of Tajikistan has taken to more informal measures.
Namunjon Sharipov, a leading member of the IRPT from the north of Tajikistan, fled to Istanbul in mid-2015, establishing a popular teahouse in Istanbul. In early February, he started receiving visits from an employee of the Tajik secret services, who implored him to return home. He refused. On Feb. 4, Turkish police, acting at the behest of the government of Tajikistan, arrested Sharipov, a businessman and IRPT member, at his teahouse. According to Human Rights Watch, which has been documenting the targeting of Tajik political exiles, 12 days later officials from the government of Tajikistan visited Sharipov in the Istanbul removal centre. They told him he would be released and allowed to travel to a third country. Instead, he was unofficially transferred to their custody by the prison guards and seen by witnesses at Ataturk airport being escorted onto a flight back to Tajikistan.
This is not the first time the government of Tajikistan has bypassed legal procedures to target exiles in Turkeythat Tajik citizens have been targeted in Turkey. Turkish police detained Umarali Quvvatov, leader of Tajik opposition Group 24, a loose grouping of exiled activists, in December 2014 following a request from the Tajik government. But the extradition request was not granted by the court and he was then released. Following this setback for the government, Quvvatov was poisoned and then shot outside of the home of his friend Suleiman Kayumov in the Fatih area of Istanbul on March 6, 2015. An Istanbul court later sentenced Kayumov to life in prison for poisoning Quvvatov, but the gunman himself has never been caught. Coming after a long struggle by the government to silence Quvvatov, some have speculated that the Tajik government was ultimately behind the killing. But as Tajik political scientist Parviz Mullojanov quipped shortly after the murder, “it’s unlikely that they will ever be able to prove it.” Nonetheless, Quvvatov’s assassination sent shockwaves through opposition circles, forcing many Turkey-based exiles with whom I have spoken to question whether the country was safe for them anymore.
Other exiles have been subject to harassment and intimidation by the security services of Tajikistan. Former Radio Free Europe journalist Gulnora Ravshan, who was living in the Turkish city of Bursa, was followed and threatened on a regular basis following Quvvatov’s assassination by a Tajik-speaking man. In other cases, the Turkish police have been more active in its collusion with the Tajik government.
As part of my research for my forthcoming book on the targeting of political exiles from Tajikistan, I spoke with journalists from the Istanbul-based Tajik media organisation Payom.net who told me that in December 2016 they planned to hold an open day. Invitations were sent to 100 representatives of the local government, diaspora organisations, local media and NGOs. Arriving to set up for the event, staff from Payom.net found the entrance sealed and the way barred by police officers. When challenged as to why they were present, the police refused to answer. The office remains closed.
Later, the organisation obtained a copy of a letter from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan requesting that the Tajik consulate in Istanbul intervene to prevent Payom.net from carrying out its reporting.
While the precise reasons behind the Turkish government’s compliance remain difficult to determine, it is likely linked to its efforts to curtail the Gülen movement, which had established six schools in Tajikistan, with 2,648 students enrolled by 2015. But in 2015, the government of Tajikistan abruptly announced the closure of the schools.
The timing does not seem to have been coincidental , coming at the same time the government of Tajikistan sent a request to the Turkish government to extradite Group 24 leader Quvvatov.
Regardless of its motives, the Turkish government appears to be aiding and abetting the authoritarian government of Tajikistan as it illegally targets exiles living on Turkish territory.
As a member of the Council of Europe, and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and UN Convention Against Torture, the involvement or complicity in these extrajudicial activities violates the government’s commitment to these agreements and shows its solidarity with a regime that has consistently targeted members of its observant Muslim population, passing laws to ban children from praying in mosques, forcibly shaving hundreds of men with beards and undertaking a state-led campaign to encourage women to remove their hijabs, all in the name of counter-extremism.