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Tajikistan: Opposition Leader Kidnapped?

Concern is mounting among members of the Tajik online community that strongman president Emomali Rahmon is attempting to steamroller all signs of political opposition ahead of the 2013 presidential elections. The latest suspected victim of a far-reaching purge is Umarali Quvvatov, a charismatic and digitally active opposition leader, who “disappeared” from a Dubai-based detention centre on March 17. Internet users believe he is the subject of an audacious international kidnapping by Tajik security services.

The hunt on opponents of Rahmon, who has ruled the Central Asian country for nearly two decades, went into overdrive with an alarming military operation in Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan province (GBAO) in July 2012, which evoked memories of the country's torrid civil war for inhabitants of the region. More recently, an attempt on the life of a Tajik journalist, Bakhtiyor Sattori, in Moscow in February, and a request during the same month to extradite former Tajik Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullojonov, currently being detained in Ukraine, pointed to an intensification of the crackdown.

Umarali Quvvatov. Image courtesy of Ahliddin Sobir, 2012.

Umarali Quvvatov at a rally in Moscow, 2012. Image courtesy of Ahliddin Sobir.

Disappearance

Of this year's attacks, Umarali Quvvatov's case has prompted most discussion among internet users. A former business mogul in the republic, he fled from what he claimed was an imminent arrest by the Tajik authorities in summer 2012 and lived in Moscow for about four months. During this period, Quvvatov founded an opposition political movement, announced his intention to take part in presidential elections, and mounted harsh criticism at Rahmon and his family. His vociferous criticism of the Central Asian country's veteran ruler has earned him a significant digital following on video-sharing sites such as YouTube, as well as Platforma, the largest Tajik-moderated public page on Facebook.

In December 2012, Quvvatov was arrested at the Dubai airport at the request of the Tajik authorities. He is accused by the government of involvement in large scale financial fraud. Over the last several months, Dushanbe sought to secure Quvvatov's extradition to Tajikistan. But on March 19, his lawyer Nikolay Nikolaev posted [ru] on Twitter:

@NikoDN От сокамерников Кувватова стало известно, что 2 дня назад Кувватова ночью увезли из камеры в неизвестном направлении. Связи больше нет.

@NikoDN From Quvvatov`s cellmates it was found out that two days ago Quvvatov was taken from his cell in an unknown direction. All connections with him have been lost.

The alleged incident has provoked a lot of suspicion among followers of his bright, but apparently short political career. Many observers suggest Quvvatov's harsh criticism of the regime of Emomali Rahmon may be the real cause of his problems. In one speech made in Moscow and uploaded on YouTube on December 16, 2012, Quvvatov referred [ru] to Rahmon as “the real Satan”, who treated Tajikistan as a “family clan business” and was driving the country back towards the “middle ages”.

Such pointed attacks on the ruling family have earned Quvvatov a reputation as a particularly bold member of the opposition. In a comment under one of the videos, user Ilhom Safarov notes [ru]:

Ну он действительно молодец и достоин уважения, пока никто не осмелился так упорно выступать. говорит он действительно правду, ведь на самом деле президент заполонил полностью всю нашу страну, его семья распоряжатся нашим гасударством как своей собственостью, но мы не собственность, мы тоже люди и тоже хотим жить нормально. сколько можно терпеть этого правителя?

Well, he is a really decent guy and deserving of respect; no one else has dared to speak out this way yet. He actually says the truth because you know really that the president has ensnared all our country, his family treats our state as their private property. But we are not his property, we are human beings and we also want to live well. How long can we stand this ruler?

Umarali Quvvatov meeting with members of the European Parliament. (Image from Group 24's website, 2012).

Umarali Quvvatov (third from left) meeting with members of the European Parliament. (Image from Group 24′s website, 2012).

Skepticism at home

Despite commanding some support, Quvvatov, as a once-successful businessmen, also has his doubters in the country. Before appearing as an ardent opponent of Rahmon, Umarali Quvvatov was a successful entrepreneur, the head and founder of two private companies that transported oil products to Afghanistan through Tajikistan. Quvvatov claims that his share in these businesses was taken by force by Shamsullo Sohibov, the son-in-law of the president. The politician has made his conversation with a person who he claims is Sohibov available on YouTube (Part One, Part Two) [ru, tj]. On these videos, the person insists that Quvvatov abandon his share of the joint business in return for ‘personal protection'.

Under one article about Quvvatov on news.tj (portal run by the independent media group Asia Plus), a user under the nickname of sergey comments [ru]:

Еще один бред АП….из обыкновенного барыги….сделали якобы политика….Кувватов кинул на деньги компанионов..на эти деньги купил пару передачь на ТВ К+ еще должен млн.долларов…купил за 500.000 рублей выступленя на митинге в Москве..вот и политик…

Yet more nonsense from AP [Asia Plus]… they have made a politician out of an ordinary profiteer… Quvvatov ripped off his companions money… and bought a few appearances on K+ TV and still owes them a million dollars… he also bought his performance at the meeting in Moscow for 500,000 rubles… and that's how you have a politician.

However, the majority of internet users in Tajikistan seem to support him. Quvvatov has also attracted some followers due to his religious views. In one of the interviews that he gave [ru] to RFE/RL's Tajik service, Quvvatov described himself as a “Sufi”, practicing the tradition that focuses on the “esoteric” dimension of Islam. In Tajikistan, Sufis are popularly known as “pure Muslims”, which partly explains the support for Quvvatov among some religious people. Under one article about Quvvatov, Olim commented [tj]:

Умарали Куватов шахси мусулмон буд доимо намози чумаро дар масчиди прс -мир Москва омада мехонд. худованд нигахбонаш бошад.

Umarali Quvvatov has always been true Muslim. He always came to Friday prayers at the Prospect Mira Mosque in Moscow. God be with him.

Currently, the fate of Quvvatov remains unknown. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan claims [ru] that Umarali Quvvatov “has not disappeared anywhere”. His representative, Nikolayev, responded [ru] to that statement via his Facebook page:

…То, что с Кувватовым прекратилась связь более 4 суток, тоже объективный факт. После ежедневных звонков семье, мне, разговоров с адвокатом было бы нелогично со стороны мужа, отца, задержанного- игнорировать возможность общения с близкими… Мы не знаем , что случилось с Умарали Кувватовым, однако МВД Таджикистана- знает. Такое уже было, когда тот же орган скрывал похищение лидеров таджикской оппозиции, которые спустя несколько месяцев обнаруживались в застенках МВД Таджикистана, а затем стыдливо лишь констатировали факт такого события.

…That there has been no connection with Quvvatov for more than 4 days is also an objective fact. After daily calls to his family, me, and his lawyer, it would be illogical for a detained husband and father to ignore the opportunity to talk to his close relatives… We don't know what has happened to Umarali Quvvatov, however the Ministry of Internal Affairs does. This has happened before, when the same ministry concealed the kidnapping of other leaders of the Tajik opposition, who after a few months re-emerged inside the walls of the Ministry, which then shyly confirmed the fact.

Many supporters of Quvvatov offer up similarly dismal sentiments. On Platforma, Rustamboi Safarov commented [ru] under a post concerning Quvvatov's disappearance:

ZHalj!! Naverno uzhe sidit s chernim meshkom na golove v podvale GKNB((

What a pity! He is probably sitting with black bag over his head in the basement of the GKNB [State Committee for National Security]((

This post is part of the GV Central Asia Interns Project at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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