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Tajik Warlord Arrested

Former interior minister presents himself as an opposition leader, but has a chequered past.
By Nargis Zokirova

One of Tajikistan's most colourful politicians has been arrested in Moscow, and could be sent back to face trial for an alleged string of violent acts.


Russian police arrested Yakub Salimov on June 23, the day after Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov bolstered his position in a controversial constitutional referendum.


Salimov was a leading figure in the Popular Front, a paramilitary movement which brought Rahmonov to power in 1992. He held the powerful post of interior minister before becoming involved in internecine strife within the ruling faction, and left the country in 1997.


Tajik prosecutor general Bobojon Bobokhonov told IWPR that extradition is imminent, and will take place around mid-July. He told IWPR that a warrant has been out for Salimov since 1997, and that he faces numerous charges including participation in a coup attempt, robbery, murder, and hostage-taking. Participation in an attempted coup d'etat alone would be enough for Salimov to be sentenced to death under Tajik law.


Bobokhonov had earlier said he was sending his deputy Azizmat Imomov to Moscow to negotiate Salimov's extradition. But when Imomov returned on July 5, he told IWPR that his trip had been a private one. Observers inferred from this that the extradition issue remains unresolved.


Under Russian law, the Tajik authorities have a month to plead their case. It is uncertain whether Moscow will extradite Salimov, and Tajik legal experts are divided on the matter. Both Russian and Tajik analysts point out that extradition on politically-related charges is effectively prohibited under Russian law.


Bigger political considerations are likely to play a part in Moscow's calculations - analysts say that sending him back could be a useful way of extracting concessions from Dushanbe, but that would spark outrage from Tajik exiles and human rights campaigners, since Salimov is seen as an important figure in the opposition abroad.


The charges relate principally to August 1997, when Salimov was in charge of Tajikistan's customs service and his armed retinue clashed with those of another senior Popular Front figure, Sukhrob Kasymov, then in charge of special forces in the interior ministry. The chief prosecutor says the running battles left 132 soldiers and civilians dead in the capital Dushanbe. Yet another mutinous government official, Mahmud Khudoiberdiev, later joined the fray on Salimov's side.


It is unclear why these minor warlords fell out so badly with President Rahmonov, since they all came from the same southern faction which had helped bring him to power, and they were supposed to be helping him fight the Islamic guerrillas in a civil war which ended only in 1997. According to one theory, they felt that once he sealed a peace deal with the opposition - which happened in June 1997, two months before the clashes involving Salimov - the president would have a freer hand to clamp down on his own commanders, so they wanted to stake out a stronger position for themselves by eliminating rivals.


After Salimov's men were defeated he left the country, and since then he is believed to have lived mainly in the United Arab Emirates, making periodic visits to Russia.


In November 1998, Khudoiberdiev led an armed insurrection in northern Tajikistan, which took government troops four days to quell. The authorities were quick to accuse Salimov of involvement in this coup attempt, and that appears to be one of the charges against him. However, National Security Minister Saidamir Zukhurov told a parliamentary hearing at the time that Salimov had played no part in the insurgency.


Some observers believe that Salimov may still have harboured political ambitions. In exile, he befriended former prime minister Abdumalik Abdulojonov, who represents the powerful north-Tajikistan faction that is still excluded from power. Later on, Salimov became head of the Republican Party of Tajikistan, which has no official recognition in the country.


Even the rumour that a powerful figure like Salimov might be planning to run in the next presidential election - something he has never said publicly - would be enough to rattle President Rahmonov. He is reported to enjoy some support among his former comrades both in the interior ministry and in the murkier corners of Tajikistan's commercial world.


Some observers speculate that Salimov's political activity abroad was enough of an irritant for the government to press for his arrest and extradition.


This theory would fit with the perception that Rahmonov is out to eliminate all possible political opposition. Just over a month ago, Tajik police arrested Shamsuddin Shamsuddinov, deputy chairman of the Islamic Revival Party, and there have been other moves against the party which - unlike Salimov's - is legal in Tajikistan and is a player on the political scene.


However, others think Salimov is not short of enemies who might want to catch up with him. Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy chairman of the Socialist Party of Tajikistan, thinks Salimov's arrest may have been orchestrated not by Rahmonov but by business partners or rivals.


Nargis Zokirova is a journalist with the newspaper Vecherny Dushanbe.


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