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“How I Almost Became a Spy”: This Tajik Editor-in-Chief Considers the Absurdity of Alexander Sodiqov's Arrest

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Umed Babakhanov, Editor-in-Chief of Tajikistan's Asia Plus news agency. Image used with Babakhanov's permission.

This post is part of our campaign #FreeAlexSodiqov: GV Author Detained in Tajikistan. It is a translation of a post originally written in Russian by Umed Babakhanov, Editor-in-Chief of the independent news outlet Asia Plus.

The scandalous arrest of Tajik academic Alexander Sodiqov on charges of espionage has already captured the attention of media around the world. A number of prominent human rights organizations, dozens of universities and more than 30,000 academics from around the world — from Russia and Kyrgyzstan to the UK, USA and France — have spoken in his support.

Nevertheless, Tajik security services claim that they have evidence of Sodiqov's espionage activities.

It just so happened that I unwittingly became involved in this “spy story”. And twice!

As conveyed via a press release of the GKNB [successor to the KGB] in GBAO [the autonomous region of Tajikistan where Alex was arrested], Alexander was arrested June 16 in Khorog

…for carrying out a task for the secret service of a foreign country…Preliminary inspection showed that Sodiqov was invited by email on June 9 to meet with a representative of a foreign state … The meeting was held on June 10 this year, firstly face-to-face with notes taken, and then in the evening at the residence of the main representative of a foreign secret service working under diplomatic cover. He was assigned a specific task by the said person and a sum of money to complete it. During the meeting in Dushanbe, A. Sodiqov was requested to go to the city of Khorog as part of a conspiracy to meet a Tajik national, Alim Sherzamonov, and gather information of an intelligence nature from the latter by means of a pre-prepared questionnaire.

On this basis, A. Sodiqov been formally charged under article 305 of the Penal Code, “Treason”, which carries a maximum prison sentence of up to 20 years including confiscation of property.

But what does this story have to do with me? I will explain from the beginning. On June 10, I received (also by e-mail, just like Alex Sodiqov!) two invitations from the British Embassy in Tajikistan. The first invited me to a dinner on June 11 at the ambassador's residence in honor of the arrival in Dushanbe of a British political scientist from the University of Exeter, Dr. John Heathershaw. The second invitation was for Friday, June 13, to a reception celebrating the birthday of Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain.

I had intended to go to the dinner at the British ambassador's residence, but as it turned out I was also invited to a reception at the Russian Embassy to celebrate Russia Day on the same date — June 11. In order to pay my respects to both parties , I decided to go on June 11 to congratulate the Russians, and on June 13 to congratulate Her Majesty's subjects. And so I did.

As has been established, Alexander Sodiqov was working on an academic project with Dr. Heathershaw at the time he was detained in Khorog. And probably, it was around the time of this very dinner held in the professor's honor that Alexander received this notorious questionnaire and money for travel. (In the GKNB press release the date of the meeting at the ambassador's residence is listed as June 10, but perhaps this is a mistake, since on June 10 the British ambassador was still in Khorog, and only returned to Dushanbe on June 11. I do not know whether other British diplomats have the right to receive visitors at his residence in his absence).

A few days later, my deputy told me that while I had been away from the office she had agreed for us to meet with some foreign scholars, who were carrying out research in Tajikistan. Half an hour after she told me this she came to my office with Alex Sodiqov, whom I had known as a student, and a person unknown to me, who introduced himself as Doctor Heathershaw of the University of Exeter.

Dr. Heathershaw told us that he had been engaged in conflict management and other problems relating to Tajikistan for more than 10 years, and had written several books and dozens of scholarly articles. (Later, on the [Exeter] university website I discovered further details — he really does work at this university as a senior lecturer, and genuinely has written many scientific papers on our region). The professor said that he was conducting research on conflicts in [the Central Asian] region during the summer, and that Alexander had agreed to help him. Our conversation lasted about an hour, after which the guests thanked us and left.

After a couple of days I became aware of the detention of “Sodiqov the spy”.

Ever since this saga began, I have been asking myself questions to which I do not have answers: if I had gone to dinner at the ambassador's residence on that day, would I too, have been considered a spy or a spy's accomplice? Are other Tajik academics that also attended this “secret meeting” that evening also considered spies? If the member of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Alim Sherzamonov, who was meeting with Sodiqov [at the time of his arrest], is a carrier of “information of an intelligence nature”, am I also a carrier of such information? If so, did I inadvertently, during our meeting with the British academic, give away state secrets?

Should I and my fellow journalists meet with foreign journalists or foreign acdemics in the future, or would it be better to avoid them and spare ourselves being accused under the 305th article? Should we engage with some of the most controversial themes in our society — corruption, drug trafficking, geopolitical issues, Islam, energy and food security — or it will doing so be regarded as gathering intelligence?

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