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

Tajikistan: A Brief Homecoming

Dissident journalist comes back home after years in exile, but leaves quickly when he feels threatened.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Dodojon Atovulloev
Dodojon Atovulloev on arrival at Dushanbe airport.

A celebrated Tajik journalist returned home this week after more than a decade in exile – only to leave again four days later after receiving a warning his life was in danger.

Dodojon Atovulloev has lived abroad since he fled Tajikistan in 1992 at the height of a bloody civil war, publishing the opposition newspaper Charogi Ruz and running a website in Russia

For years he has been regarded as persona non grata by the administration of President Imomali Rahmonov, which regarded his critical reporting of abuses and corruption as a thorn in its side.

His arrival in Dushanbe on June 26 appeared to signal an official attempt at a rapprochement – he would not have risked coming back without an invitation or at least tacit approval for the trip.

Prior to Atovulloev’s return, Mansur Saifitdinov, the chief editor of the governing party’s newspaper Minbari Khalq told Germany’s ARD TV, “Dodojon Atovulloev is one of our country’s best journalists, and we want him to return.”

Atovulloev said he based his decision on repeated statements by Tajik officials that he could now return safely and even resume his work as a domestic journalist.

“Believe me, life in exile is no fun – fleeing your country with small children, changing your apartment every year, and hearing that people with a license to kill have been ordered to murder you,” Atovulloev told journalists at a press conference he gave on his return to Dushanbe. “All these years, I’ve only dreamed of one thing – going back home…. I came to hold talks about printing my newspaper here safely, to stop my internet site from being blocked, and to practice my profession in my home country.”

But those hopes were soon dashed. In an interview with IWPR back in Moscow, Atovulloev said that the whole time he was in Dushanbe, he and his friends were watched by police, and people involved in his trip were harassed. The director of the private hotel where Atovulloev stayed was summoned for a “chat” at the Tajik security ministry.

The journalist said he was told by people in President Rahmonov’s inner circle that his presence in Tajikistan was undesirable.

During his visit, Atovulloev said, he ran into someone at the printing house where many government-owned newspapers are based. This person – whom Atovulloev did not name – told him he could be killed.

Sensing a threat, Atovulloev got on a plane on June 30 and flew back to Russia.

“The government and the president’s inner circle were fooling everyone when they said that I could safely return to my country. My attempt to do so showed that the opposite was true,” he said angrily on arriving in Moscow.

Atovulloev believes President Rahmonov – whom he has frequently criticised in his newspaper – did not really want him to return and start publishing Charogi Ruz inside Tajikistan.

Rahmonov’s press secretary, Abdufattah Sharipov, was dismissive of Atovulloev’s claim that he was in danger.

“It is absurd to say that Atovulloev was threatened and followed. The [1992-97] war is over, the situation in the country is stable, and he can come here whenever he wants,” Sharipov told IWPR. “It’s his country too.”

The president did not harbour any personal hostility towards Atovulloev, Sharipov added, commenting, “Feelings of enmity are alien to President Rahmonov”.

Atovulloev has been chief editor of Charogi Ruz since 1991. When he fled to Russia he continued publishing the newspaper in exile, and copies were smuggled back to Tajikistan and passed from hand to hand.

In June 2001, Atovulloev was detained at a Moscow airport and spent five worrying days in prison waiting to be extradited on criminal charges of insulting the Tajik president, inciting communal tensions, and calling for a coup. He was only released following international pressure on Russia not to hand him over.

He then sought political asylum in Germany, returning to Russia only when the Tajik authorities dropped the charges the following year.

Many friends and colleagues were sceptical when he announced plans to go back and work in Tajikistan. Rajab Mirzo, the editor of Ruzi Nav, one of a new breed of independent and critical newspapers that have appeared in Tajikistan in recent years, was one of them.

“Dodojon is our teacher - we learnt everything from him. But we are unable to publish even a fraction of the amount of critical material printed in Charogi Ruz,” said Mirzo. “Yet we still have constant problems with the authorities. They create obstacles for us by denying access to printing services, sending in tax inspectors, and even turning off the lift on the day the newspaper is coming out.”

Speaking before the trip took place, Mirzo said, “The chances of Dodojon being allowed to work in Tajikistan are zero.”

Other commentators suggested that things had changed in the years Atovulloev had been away, and he could no longer be regarded as the lone voice of critical journalism.

“He’s lagging behind the realities while other local newpapers have forged ahead,” said political scientist Rashid Abdullo. “In Tajikistan people are now used to having media that express sharply critical opinions that don’t coincide with the official view – they include Ruzi Nav, Nerui Sokhan, Tajikistan and Asia-Plus… The function of his newspaper is now being carried out by several papers.”

Back in Moscow, Atovulloev has not given up on his dream of getting back to his country.

“This trip still did a lot for me. I saw my colleagues, and felt a new burst of energy. The trip gave me the certainty that I must continue my work,” he told IWPR. “And, just as in 1992, I continue to tell myself that by next Navruz [traditional new year, in March] I will be back home.”

Galima Bukharbaeva is an IWPR staff member.

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