Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

High-Profile Conviction Seen as Major Setback for Tajik Opposition

The hefty sentence handed down to a leading politician is viewed as a warning from the authorities to an already weak opposition.
By IWPR staff

The jailing of a leading political figure in Tajikistan last week has come as a massive blow to the opposition’s hopes of reviving itself in time for elections next year.

Democratic Party leader Mahmudruzi Iskandarov, 51, was sentenced 23 to years imprisonment on October 5 for a series of convictions ranging from embezzlement to terrorism.

His allies say the charges were fabricated by the Tajik authorities as a way of eliminating a powerful opponent, and say the whole judicial process was flawed, including Iskandarov’s arrest in an apparent snatch operation by Tajik security services.

They say charges were only brought against the politician when he indicated he would run against President Imomali Rahmonov in the 2006 election.

“Mahmadruzi Iskandarov’s fate was not decided today, but much longer ago,” Rahmatillo Zoirov, leader of the Social Democratic Party, told journalists. “And it is highly significant that today, October 5 - President Rahmonov’s birthday - a sentence was handed down against one of his opponents for the presidential post.”

The deputy head of the Democratic Party, Rahmatullo Valiev, added, “This [sentence], plus the lack of free and independent media, and the fraud that took place during the February 2005 parliamentary election, show that Tajikistan has turned aside from the democratic path of development and is moving towards a totalitarian regime.”

Political analyst Sobirjon Sharipov believes that the effect of this case will be to further fracture the opposition in Tajikistan, rather than galvanise it into action.

“The opposition is currently fragmented as never before,” said Sharipov. “Each of the opposition parties has suffered extremely damaging setbacks. For the leaders of these parties, the sentencing of Iskandarov has been a good lesson to continue the battle at the upcoming presidential elections.”

The Islamic Revival Party, IRP, the third largest party after Rahmonov’s ruling People’s Democratic Party and the neutrally-positioned Communists, are already in trouble as its long-term leader has had to step down temporarily due to illness. The party suffered another major setback in late September when one of its members in the southern Hatlon region, Saifiddin Faizov, was given a four-year sentence on what the party says are fabricated charges.

At the same time, three new parties have appeared which look suspiciously like stalking-horses for the regime. Analysts fear that the Agrarian Party, the Party of Economic Reforms and the Progressive Youth Party – all of which have said expressly that they are not opposition groups – are artificial constructs designed to broaden electoral support for the incumbent president.

Sharipov concluded, “The trial of Iskandarov and of activists from other opposition parties, together with the creation of tame political parties, indicate that the opposition has all but ceased to exist. The guilty verdict against Iskandarov was a decisive blow.”

The lawyer defending Iskandarov, Azam Badriddinov, intends to appeal against the sentence, which he says is based on unsubstantiated allegations. “I want to state that this sentence has confirmed the suspicion that both the preliminary investigation and the trial itself had the express goal of finding him guilty,” he said.

Iskandarov is a prominent politician who headed the state gas supplier Tajikgaz in 2001-03 as well as leading the Democrats. During the 1992-97 civil war, when both the Democrats and the IRP were part of an armed insurgency, Iskandarov was a guerrilla leader in the mountains. Like other opposition leaders, he came into mainstream politics under a coalition arrangement that was part of the 1997 deal that ended the conflict.

He appeared to enjoy a reasonably good working relationship with the Rahmonov administration, but his relations with the president grew increasingly strained over the course of last year, in part because he expressed vocal opposition to legislative changes he believed weakened the election chances of political parties.

His conviction is on six counts - terrorism, “banditry”, employing bodyguards and keeping weapons illegally, abuse of office and embezzlement of government funds. As well as the jail sentence, the court fined him 470,000 US dollars to compensate for the alleged fraud.

The most serious charges relate to an incident in August 2004 in Iskandarov’s home area of Tajikabad high in the eastern mountains. Yeribek “the Sheikh” Ibrahimov, who fought alongside Iskandarov during the civil war, got into a dispute with local police and is said to have led a force of armed men who attacked the Tajikabad police station and prosecutor’s office. One policeman died, and Ibrahimov was subsequently arrested and – according to the authorities – gave a confession.

Ibrahimov and five other men were tried and given long jail terms the day before Iskandarov was sentenced in a separate trial. The men said their confessions had been extracted under torture, but the court did not take their retractions into account in convicting them.

The Democratic Party leader was not in Tajikistan at the time of the attack, but prosecutors built up a case in which he appeared as the principal figure behind the armed group.

Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov used several press conferences to cite evidence allegedly given by Salamsho Muhabbatov, a former guerrilla commander, to the effect that he had seen Iskandarov give 50 dollars to his driver and tell him to “start a war”. However, in court Muhabbatov denied saying any such thing, adding that this small sum of money was only to cover petrol costs for Iskandarov’s car. Muhabbatov was not questioned by investigators working on the Iskandarov prosecution, and only appeared in court when summoned as a defence witness.

Iskandarov denies all the charges against him, and dissociates himself from Ibrahimov. In his closing statement, he told the courtroom that the whole case was politically motivated, and that he had been subjected to violence during interrogation.

His defence team also dispute the lesser charges of illegally maintaining bodyguards and keeping weapons, both of which they say he was entitled to do.

One of the most worrying aspects of the case is the way Iskandarov was brought to trial. He was detained in Moscow in December last year but the Russian authorities released him on April 3 after rejecting the extradition request made by the Tajik prosecution service.

But on April 13, Iskandarov - now a free man - was spirited away by a group of unidentified men who eyewitnesses said were dressed as Russian police. Prosecutors in the town of Korolev, near Moscow, are still investigating this apparent abduction.

On April 26, Bobokhonov gave a press conference to announce the arrest of his suspect – but inside Tajikistan, rather than in Russia. “He was detained in Dushanbe and placed in the detention centre of the security ministry,” he said, refusing to give more details except that the arrest had taken place four days earlier.

Iskandarov’s Russian lawyer says officials at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport deny that any passenger named Iskandarov went through passport control en route to Tajikistan, a key element in the story presented by prosecutors in Dushanbe.

The Democratic Party now hopes to raise its concerns about the trial and alleged kidnapping with the international community. United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tajikistan on October 13, but it is not known whether the opposition succeeded in getting the case raised.

The US embassy in Dushanbe has issued a statement expressing concern about the trial, pointing out “troubling aspects of the case includ[ing] his extra-legal return from Russia in April, his allegations that he was abused in detention, and the difficulties his family and lawyers experienced at times gaining access to him while he was in pre-trial detention”.

The embassy also called on the Tajik authorities to ensure next year’s election is fair, as “democratic reform is the key to genuine and long-term stability in Tajikistan and the entire Central Asian region”.

Sharipov believes, however, that the US will not go much further in pressuring Dushanbe on this case, as the overriding concern is to maintain good relations with the Central Asian republic, especially in view of the deteriorating relationship with neighbouring Uzbekistan in the wake of the May 2005 Andijan violence.

“Alas, the two superpowers which wield the most influence in the Central Asian region - Russia and the US – have closed their eyes to this case despite being well aware of the [procedural] violations,” said Sharipov. “Russia has done this on several previous occasions, for example by extraditing former interior ministry Yakub Salimov, who was then sentenced to 15 years in prison.

“The United States, which has now lost its influence in Uzbekistan, cannot afford an imbalance in the alignment of [external] forces in Tajikistan.”

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