On June 16, 31-year-old Tajik researcher and a former Global Voices editor Alexander Sodiqov was arrested in the town of Khorog by the Tajik State Security Service (GKNB) while he was with a local opposition leader. He was accused of “espionage and subversion.”
Tajik civil society, international organizations and Global Voices have emphasized [ru] that Sodiqov was conducting academic research on civil society and conflict resolution in Central Asia and that his research was in no way destabilizing to the Autonomous Region of Gorno-Badakshan (GBAO), where Khorog is situated.
While there are key differences, Sodiqov's case bears similarities to that of Ursunboy Usmonov, a long-time BBC journalist and Tajik national arrested and put on trial in Tajikistan for associating with a banned religious group three years ago. Usmonov was released after a month.
Currently, Tajikistan's siloviki - security chiefs – have directly or indirectly defended the decision of operatives of the GKNB (a successor to the Soviet-era KGB) to detain Sodiqov. GKNB head Saimumin Yatimov said [ru] on June 19 that foreign intelligence agencies were “undermining the safety of the [Tajik] people”, while MP Amirkul Azimov, a former head of the security council, said [ru] on June 21 that “Sodiqov's research activity does not mean he cannot commit crimes.”
Sodiqov and Usmonov
The Tajik state has a long record of political persecution, so it comes as no surprise that Sodiqov is not the first person to have his professional activities misconstrued as criminal.
In June 2011, Tajik police detained Usmonov, releasing a statement that said he was suspected of being a member of the banned Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The organisation has a complicated history with Tajikistan's secular government, which has accused its members of terrorism. Hizb-ut-Tahrir itself claims to be a non-violent Islamic movement committed to establishing a caliphate in Central Asia.
Similarly to Sodiqov, Usmonov had come into contact with members of the group for interviews, which were aimed at understanding and reporting sensitive religious and political issues in Tajikistan.
Civil society, international media and foreign diplomats strongly criticized the arrest of Usmonov, who had also provided objective reporting on the construction of a controversial but strategic hydroelectric dam.
Usmonov, who worked for the BBC for 10 years, was held for a month by Tajik authorities and put on trial in Tajikistan's northern city of Khujand. Usmonov was accused of possessing extremist literature and failing to report the activities of the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir organization to law enforcement agencies.
Like Usmonov, Sodiqov was interviewing people the government was unhappy with.
Two days after his arrest, a video of Sodiqov which his research partner says is heavily edited was aired on GBAO regional television on June 18 and 19. Because the footage of Alexander appears to be heavily edited, Global Voices is not embedding the video or treating his words in it as direct quotes. In the video Sodiqov gives a biography of himself and a chronicle of how he came to be in Khorog on June 16, with details of his research with Dr. John Heathershaw of the University of Exeter.
Despite editing, at no point does Sodiqov claim he was doing anything other than academic research.
The video appears most heavily edited in parts where Sodiqov appears to paraphrase the words of Alim Sherzamonov, the local protest leader Sodiqov was meeting at the time of his arrest.
Sherzamonov also believes [ru] the footage of Sodiqov was heavily edited. In particular, he denies the parts in the video that make it sound like he discredited the Aga Khan, a leading philanthropist and a spiritual leader to most of the GBAO population, who are ethnic Pamiris of the Ismaili-Shia faith. The bulk of Tajikistan is majority Sunni.
The Aga Khan Development Foundation has been working actively in Tajikistan since 1995 responding to the effects of a five-year-long civil war in Tajikistan in which many residents of GBAO fought on the losing side. (For an excellent background on the rivalry between Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmon and GBAO's de-facto spiritual leader the Aga Khan, read Joshua Kucera's The Aga Khan's Tightrope Walk in Tajikistan.)
AKDN, which also funds the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan and other educational projects for mountainous communities, claims to work toward the vision of an “economically dynamic, politically stable, intellectually vibrant, and culturally tolerant Tajikistan.”
That sounds like the Tajikistan Alexander Sodiqov, Ursunboy Usmonov and many others would want to live in.