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Moscow Extradites Controversial Tajik Politician

Russia sends former interior minister back to uncertain fate in Tajikistan.
By Zafar Abdullaev

Russia’s decision to extradite a leading enemy of President Imomali Rahmonov to face trial in Dushanbe is being seen as a political gift to the Tajik leader.


Former Tajik interior minister Yakub Salimov was extradited on February 24 after several months of detention in Moscow, where he was arrested at the request of the Dushanbe authorities.


Tajikistan’s prosecutor general Bobojon Bobokhonov told the media that the former minister has been charged with treason, armed insurrection and banditry – allegations which could lead to the death penalty.


However, Bobokhonov’s office confirmed that “Russia handed over Salimov under a guarantee that he will not be sentenced to death” – one of the main points under debate during the months of negotiations that led up to the extradition.


Russia has placed a moratorium on using the death penalty, but the measure continues to be applied in Tajikistan despite international pressure.


News of Salimov’s extradition sent shockwaves through political circles. Exiled opposition activist Dodojon Atovulloev, editor-in-chief of the Charogi Ruz newspaper, told the media, “It is simply immoral to extradite a political opponent of a president in charge of a country which has no fair trials.”


Salimov is a well-known figure in Tajikistan. During the civil war, he was a leading member of the People’s Front, a militia which brought President Rahmonov to power, and he was awarded the post of interior minister in 1993. After a spell as ambassador to Turkey, he was appointed as head of the country’s customs service.


But in 1997, Salimov’s armed followers clashed with forces loyal to police official Sukhrob Kasymov. Street battles in Dushanbe were exacerbated when army colonel Mahmud Khudoiberdiev weighed in on Salimov’s side with his own military force.


The authorities accused Salimov of trying to stage a coup – the current charges against him relate to the clashes – so when his side was defeated, he fled the country. He reportedly moved to the United Arab Emirates, making occasional trips to Russia.


Some analysts believed that the former minister was trying to build a power base while in exile. There were even rumours that he might stand for president against Rahmonov, although this would have been difficult since the outstanding criminal charges against him would have meant immediate arrest if he stepped inside Tajikistan.


At any rate, the government was sufficiently irked by having such a potential opponent of such stature out of its reach that it asked Russia to arrest and extradite him.


“Salimov was one of the leaders of the opposition camp and was viewed as a real competitor for President Rahmonov,” according to independent political scientist Tursun Kabirov. “More than that, Salimov’s eventual trial may be designed to scare off other opposition leaders within Tajikistan.”


The elimination of such a powerful opponent – even if the danger he posed was only slight –strengthens Rahmonov’s position ahead of next year’s parliamentary election, and a presidential election in 2006. He has already been boosted by changes to the constitution last year allowing him to stand for re-election.


Kabirov believes that the removal of Salimov helps give the president a clear run for victory in the election, “A loss of personal freedom for some opposition leaders will allow the incumbent president and his ruling party to ensure guaranteed success in the next election campaign.”


But having guaranteed Moscow that it will spare Salimov’s life, Dushanbe will now have to tread carefully in deciding what happens to a high-profile captive who was once close to the current regime.


“Salimov knows a lot, and is a serious political and military figure,” said Kabirov.


“In my view, the most plausible outcome is a public confession by Salimov, repentance for his alleged crimes – and a subsequent pardon by the president.”


Zafar Abdullaev is the director of the Avesta news agency.


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