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

Tajik Opposition under Pressure

Jailing of leading party figure fits a pattern of wider clampdown on politicians opposed to President Rahmonov.
By Rustam Nazarov
The jailing of another leading opposition politician in Tajikistan has added to concerns that the government is intent on eliminating any potential challenge to its authority.



On June 28, Rustam Faiziev, deputy chairman of the Taraqqiyot party, was given a prison sentence of nearly six years, for two counts of “insulting and slandering the president” and “inciting ethnic, racial and religious hostility”.



The sentence came just two months after the head of the Democratic Party, Mahmudruzi Iskandarov, turned up in detention in a Dushanbe jail – somewhat mysteriously, since he had last been seen as a free man in Moscow after Russian judges turned down a Tajik request for his extradition. Activists from the smaller Social Democrats have also been arrested, and the Islamic Rebirth Party – the second most powerful opposition group after the Communists – has come under pressure in the south of the country.



The lengthy sentence handed down to Faiziev was punishment for a letter he had written containing criticism of President Imomali Rahmonov. Presiding judge Nur Nurov said the open letter was distributed to media in Tajikistan and was “of an insulting and illegal nature”. He said the letter accused Rahmonov of a number of serious crimes and called the president to face criminal charges.



The judge also said that the head of Taraqqiyot, Sulton Quvvatov, had been charged with the same crimes as his deputy, but that the investigation had been suspended pending his recovery from a heart operation. “As soon as Quvvatov’s health is declared satisfactory, the case will be resumed,” said Nurov.



Even though it is a minor party with a seemingly innocuous agenda focusing mainly on the economy, Taraqqiyot – or Progress - has faced unusual levels of official hostility ever since Quvvatov, a former chief tax inspector and Rahmonov ally, set it up in 2001. The party has never been granted legal status, and is thus prevented from fielding election candidates.



The case against Quvvatov and Faizov began last summer when police raided the party’s offices and seized documents deemed to insult the president – which under Tajik law is a criminal, not civil law matter. The authorities were particularly riled by a letter the party leaders had drafted and were planning to send to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to press their case for official registration.



Some analysts believe the authorities have a particular problem with Quvvatov because like President Rahmonov and much of the political elite, he is a southerner from the Kulyab region. That created close bonds when Quvvatov was a loyal police officer and later taxation chief under Rahmonov, but it made for friction when he attempted to built a separate political identity through a party that, in a society where regional origin matters as much as ideology, was likely to recruit from Rahmonov’s own Kulyab constituency.



But the assault on Taraqqiyot is only part of a wider campaign in which the authorities seem to be marginalising the various opposition parties and prosecuting their most troublesome members.



Many analysts agree that the apparent crackdown is a continuation of the pressure the authorities applied on their opponents to ensure that the ruling People’s Democratic Party won the February parliamentary election, which was exacerbated when the opposition went on to protest vocally about alleged ballot-rigging.



“There is no doubt these arrests are political motivated,” said political analyst Tursun Kabirov. “It was representatives from these parties who were most active in speaking out against the election fraud committed by the ruling party, and they openly boycotted the ballot results.”



The authorities may also have been shocked into adopting harder-line policies by the implications of the March regime change in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, and the turbulence in Uzbekistan in May, when police in Andijan turned their guns on crowds of demonstrators.



More evidence that opposition parties are in trouble was provided by the guilty sentences passed against two members of the Social Democratic Party in late June. A court in the Matcha district of the northern Soghd province jailed Nasimjon Shukurov and Nizomiddin Begmatov to jail terms of 18 and 12 months, respectively, for “hooliganism”.



“We do not agree with the verdict and we intend to prove our party members innocent through an appeal process at the regional-level court,” said deputy party leader Shokirjon Hakimov.



Hakimov believes the sentence was a politically-motivated tactic to put pressure on party chairman Rahmatillo Zoirov. “They want to discredit him as a lawyer since he personally acts as the defence for party members and supporters, and also as a politician [to show he] is unable to protect members of his party.”



The Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, which once led a guerrilla war against Rahmonov’s government but has since joined the political mainstream, has also seen some of its members coming under pressure. Party activist Dilshod Karimov, from the Bokhtar district in southern Tajikistan, has been arrested and charged with “insulting representatives of the authorities” during the February election. Others in the same district are under investigation.



The IRP’s chief of staff in Dushanbe, Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, said that the party was looking into the matter.



“These people actively campaigned for the party ahead of the election, and perhaps the local authorities are unhappy about that,” he told IWPR.



In careful wording that reflected the generally non-confrontational stance taken by the IRP in its dealings with the Rahmonov administration, Saifullozoda said, “our party is now working to clear up the misunderstanding and secure the release of our members from custody”.



Although the next election is still far off – a presidential ballot in autumn 2006, which Rahmonov is expected to win – analysts are predicting that there will be no let-up in the pressure on the opposition.



“In the context of political instability in the Commonwealth of [former Soviet] Independent States and Central Asia, and the threat of further [Georgian-, Ukrainian- and Kyrgyz-style] ‘colour’ revolutions, including in Tajikistan, the authorities are trying to suppress any opposition activity as much as they can,” said Kabirov.



“Especially since repressive policies – which are tolerated by the international community – really do produce results. A graphic example of this is the way [Uzbek president] Islam Karimov’s regime suppressed the rebellion in Andijan.”



Rustam Nazarov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan