‘They are blaming foreign governments for things they can't control,’ says Sodiqov

25/09/2014 09:40
Asia-Plus
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DUSHANBE, September 25, 2014, Asia-Plus – An article “How Alexander Sodiqov Was Freed Following Espionage Charges” by Jennifer Clibbon that was posted on CBC News website on September 23 notes that  many graduate students will tell you your relationship with your PhD supervisor can make or break your career.  In Alexander Sodiqov's case, his supervisor may have saved him from years in prison, the article says, noting that Edward Schatz, a professor in political science at the University of Toronto, led the global campaign to free Sodiqov, his doctoral student.

Sodiqov's case made headlines after he was arrested in June in his native Tajikistan and accused of espionage and treason.

"Ed was amazing. He coordinated the whole campaign in Canada to help me," Sodiqov said.  He returned to Toronto this month, after almost three months under investigation in Tajikistan.

Back in June, Sodiqov had been one day into a summer job interviewing Tajik civil society leaders for a British academic, when secret police swooped in and locked him up, accusing him of espionage.

Sodiqov said, “They told me I was charged under article 305 of Tajikistan's criminal code [for treason and espionage] which carries a sentence of between twelve to twenty years.  I felt, oh my God, I am going to spend my life in jail.”

The exact rationale for this charge remains murky, and may never be explained. But the wider context is anti–Western feeling and the fact that Tajikistan's security services are cracking down on domestic non-governmental organizations, emulating Putin's Russia, Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in an interview from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

At the time of his arrest, Sodiqov was interviewing Alim Sherzamonov, a politician and activist in Badakhshan, a remote, semi-autonomous region bordering Afghanistan, which had seen intermittent violence in recent years involving federal authorities.

Sodiqov was born in 1983 in the former Soviet Tajikistan, studied first at Leeds University in the U.K and then was accepted in 2011 into the University of Toronto's doctoral program.

His fate galvanized scholars around the world because they felt it signals a chill for scholarly research in the former Soviet sphere. They set up a global petition, signed by thousands, to lobby the Tajik government.

“In the past you'd get a message that you're in dangerous territory.  Now there's no warning that it's going to come,” Sodiqov told CBC News.  “They are blaming foreign governments for things they can't control.”

At the University of Toronto, Schatz and other graduate students set up a website, produced a video, gave interviews to the media, and used social media to post updates on Sodiqov's case.

Maybe because of this pressure, Tajik authorities let Sodiqov out of jail in July. But he was not allowed to leave the country and return to Canada with his wife, Musharraf, and their two-year old daughter, who is a Canadian citizen. Tajik authorities said they still wanted to investigate Sodiqov.

Two weeks ago, the Tajik secret police in Dushanbe called up Sodiqov and said he was now free to return to Canada. "I was shocked," he said.

The news came on the eve of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit on September 12, a high profile event in the region, which gathers leaders from the Central Asian countries, Russia and China.

Sodiqov, however, remains under investigation in Tajikistan and the charges have not been dropped.

Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch says this case is a great example of how pressure works.  “Sodiqov benefitted from a wide array of actors pressing for his release.”

“This is how it works: try to raise the temperature so governments get a sense that this is not going away.”

“But there are so many people in Tajikistan's prisons who haven't benefited from other people's pressure. The Alex Sodiqov case is one of those rare bright spots from a region that sees arrests and imprisonments on flimsy pretexts,” Swerdlow said.

According to Swerdlow, among the “stans,” Tajikistan had in the past been more open than Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, which have the most repressive records in the region. This may be changing, Swerdlow explained.

There has been increasing repression in Tajikistan, associated with last year's presidential elections and the authoritarian rule of President Emomalii Rahmon.

"There's anti-West propaganda in [Tajik] state media and accusations that unspecified 'external forces' are attempting to destabilize the country," Swerdlow says. 

“Whether these fears are due to Dushanbe's worries about its inability to resolve simmering discontent among the population of the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region — where Sodiqov was first detained — or whether this is more of an absorption of Kremlin propaganda, it's a dangerous tendency taking Tajikistan down the wrong path,” he said.

“While an international campaign was able to achieve Alex Sodiqov's freedom, the larger human rights picture in Tajikistan has markedly deteriorated,” Swerdlow added.

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