More than a week has passed since scholar and Global Voices community member Alexander Sodiqov was detained in Tajikistan, where he was conducting research on conflict resolution as part of an ongoing collaborative project with the University of Exeter.
The 31-year-old was arrested on June 16 in the town of Khorog in the Autonomous Region of Gorno-Badakshan (GBAO) by the Tajik State Security Service (GKNB) while he was with a local opposition leader as part of his academic work. Since then, organizations in Tajikistan and around the world have demanded his release.
Some fear Sodiqov's wrongful arrest could have consequences on international academic cooperation and carrying out research in the Central Asian region. Civic activists and journalists from a host of different countries gathered at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to discuss this and other aspects of the troubling case on June 26.
Similar events were held June 27 in Exeter, London, Astana, Washington, Freiburg and Heidelburg. An event in support of Sodiqov was also held in Paris last week.
Here are five excerpts of the conversation in Bishkek.
1. Dr. Mokhira Suyarkulova, Bishkek-based political scientist
I did not know Alexander closely but had come into contact with him via academic circles and with his work and I had even met him in Dushanbe before he went to Khorog. I understand his situation because our academic research in Tajikistan was also fairly sensitive. We were looking at the construction of the hydroelectric dams in Central Asia, and, in Tajikistan, specifically the construction of the hydroelectic dam Rogun. We tried to receive all official permissions to conduct research on this theme and where we didn't we decided not to conduct research via underground methods. However, despite this, when we arrived in the town of Rogun [where the Rogun hydroelectric dam is to be built] the [Tajik] the Security Services became interested in our presence, demanding copies of our passports at the hotel where we were staying. After that members of the security services tailed us during one of our meetings. Following that another member of the security services – who smelled strongly of alcohol – visited us during an interview and invited us into his car…we did not get in. After that we understood the government would not leave us alone and that we could be endangering people in Rogun by meeting with them, so we left the region. These types of events have consequences for anyone doing research in Central Asia but especially citizens of Central Asian countries that study abroad, or have partnerships with foreign universities. After Alexander Sodiqov's arrest, we see fully that citizenship defines your level of insulation from government authorities. Now I fear Alexander's arrest will lead to a process of self-censorship [in research on Central Asia], wherein people will limit themselves, ahead of conducting the research, in terms of the themes they will address in research, the questions they will ask, and the research methods they will use.
2. Dr. Olivier Ferrando, French political scientist
I knew Alexander. We had some panels together at Indiana [university] and at other conferences because we research very similar kinds of issues. Some of my most sensitive research centres around ethnicity and mobilization in southern Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Other than the case of my colleague Stephane Dudoignon in Iran, I have never encountered a case where a researcher has encountered as much trouble as Alexander has. We don't know why Tajikistan has decided to make this move – there is no agenda, there are no elections happening…clearly what we have here is the limitation of the freedom of expression. Now an academic can be accused of being a spy? I agree with Mohira. If you have a foreign passport you might be kicked out of a country or refused a visa – as happened to me once with Uzbekistan – but when you are a national of these countries they can accuse academics of betrayal of their country, of subversion, and these accusations are much more serious, because then we are talking about 12-20 years of imprisonment. This is difficult for me as someone who represents an institute that encourages international academic cooperation and that has an office in Dushanbe [Tajikistan]. Beyond the case of Alexander Sodiqov this threatens that cooperation. My institution supports for instance, the [Tajik] Institute of History, that produces a bulletin in English and French. It supports the creation of regional conferences, involving researchers from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. By arresting a figure such as Alexander Sodiqov, who represents an international project and international cooperation, the Tajik authorities have dealt a blow to all these efforts.
3. Dr. Emil Joroev, American University of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan
I would like to speak as a representative of Central Asia, as a person that isn't from London, or Toronto, or Washington, who is asking “Guys, what are you doing?”, but as a person from Central Asia asking “Guys, what are we doing?”
Alexander Sodiqov is based at the University of Toronto but is nevertheless a Tajik national whose research interests are based on Central Asia and Tajikistan. He is widely published. His academic interests include Political Science, International Relations and Human Rights. He is a serious young intellectual, and one with a young wife and child. He made the decision to go back to his homeland, within the framework of a contracted academic project based on conflict resolution. Conflict resolution is a theme that is growing in popularity in Central Asia. Alexander's partner in the project was Dr. John Heathershaw, someone who I might say is one of the biggest, most sincere friends Tajikistan could ever wish for. One of his books on establishing peace after Tajikistan's civil war is among the most popular pieces of academic research there is on Tajikistan. Here we are almost 17 years on from the establishment of that peace and I read Tajik president Emomali Rahmon is reminding the population of the importance of peace, mutual understanding and tolerance. I think it would be tragic if the security services of Tajikistan closed the door on the country's friends – people like John Heathershaw, who in the past decade or so has travelled through over more mountain passes and through more valleys in Tajikistan than even most Tajikistanis ever will – that are trying to make this beautiful and interesting country better-known to the wider world. I strongly believe that the security services have made a serious mistake. Heathershaw and Sodiqov are not foreign agents, but simply academic researchers. Tajikistan as a country is not one that has an interest in stamping down on academic research. We hope for a rational reckoning on the part of the relevant bodies that detained Alexander Sodiqov, and that they will soon release him.
4. Marat Mamadshoev, editor-in-chief of the Tajik news agency Ozodagon
I would like to draw attention to the similarities between Alexander's case and the detention of Ursunboy Usmonov, a BBC journalist and my colleague, who was accused, not like Alexander, of espionage, but of extremist activities after he interviewed members of the banned Islamic group Hizbut-Tahrir. During Usmonov's detention, he received beatings and cigarette burnings from the Tajik security services. This is the same Tajik security services that have received enormous technical and material assistance from the government of the United States. Circumstances show that citizens of the countries of Central Asia have no defense in the face of local security structures. These accusations are unlikely to be made against a foreign researcher. The accusations made against Usmonov and Sodiqov – wild and unsubstantiated – are made against Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and so on, by their own governments. Usmonov's case was viewed by a judge in a closed court, and I fear the same for Sodiqov's case. Sodiqov's relatives have already announced that they are dissatisfied with the lawyer provided to Alexander by the state, who is not responding to their calls. The main problem here is that Tajik civil society, experts, journalists – we have all become victims of this geopolitical war between Russia and the West. We are hostages of that war and our elite is extracting maximum benefits from it.
5. Kyrgyzbek Konunov, Tajik activist
There is chronicle to Sodiqov's arrest. For several weeks the Tajik government had been working on creating an anti-Western mood in Tajikistan. This was connected to the visit by representatives of the European Union and subsequently the United Kingdom to the GBAO region. Anti-Western publications began to appear in the press and so on. So Sodiqov's arrest is just a culmination of that. I think it is pertinent that Sodiqov was in Tajikistan as a conflictologist, studying the resolution of problems, because in Tajikistan there are a series of problems that [the government] prefers not to consider problems. The result is that they are never solved. By arresting Sodiqov, the Tajik government were making yet another attempt to show [Tajik] civil society that any attempts to cooperate with the external world will be unsuccessful. But I actually think that they have shown the opposite. The reaction of local and foreign experts, of Sodiqov's colleagues and international civil society to his wrongful detention has been unprecedented. If we succeed in forcing the government to release a man who is innocent of the crimes he has been accused of committing, then it will be a massive victory for Tajik civil society.