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Tajikistan: Leading Politician Faces Extradition

Opposition parties say charges against Democratic Party leader are politically inspired.
By Anvar Mahmudov

The opposition in Tajikistan have voiced concern at the arrest of Democratic Party leader Mahmudruzi Iskandarov, saying it is a deliberate attempt by the government to root out opponents ahead of next year’s elections.


Iskandarov was arrested on Moscow on December 9, on an extradition warrant from Tajikistan. Chief prosecutor Bobojon Bobokhonov told a December 11 press conference that Iskandarov faces six separate charges including embezzlement, attempted murder and terrorism.


Iskandarov, 50, is head of the Democratic Party, one of the leading opposition groups in Tajikistan. Its uneasy relationship with the government dates from the 1992-97 civil war, when it was part of the United Tajik Opposition, an armed coalition in which it was junior partner to the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP.


In those years, Iskandarov was a guerrilla commander, with his stronghold in his home region around Tajikabad in the eastern mountains.


After the paramilitaries were demobilised and the Democrats and the IRP were recognised as legally-functioning political parties, Iskandarov was made director of the state gas provider Tajikgaz, as part of the power-sharing deal which ended the conflict.


Now he stands accused of embezzling around 40 million US dollars while head of the gas company from 2001 to 2003. Tajikgaz is currently the focus of a corruption probe in which the chief prosecutor says a total of 26 separate criminal cases have been launched.


Russian news agencies report that the Democratic leader is also accused of maintaining an illegal contingent of 11 bodyguards – and weapons to arm them – while Tajikgaz boss.


Other charges relate to an incident in August this year, when former guerrilla commander Yeribek “the Sheikh” Ibrahimov, who fought together with Iskandarov during the civil war, got into a dispute with local police in Tajikabad and attacked their building. A police officer died in the clash, and Ibrahimov was arrested and apparently confessed to leading the raid, saying he did so under extreme provocation.


Although he was in Moscow at the time of the incident, Iskandarov has now been charged with organising the attack. The chief prosecutor gave an account of how the accused is alleged to have incited the violence, although it remains unclear why he should want to cause instability.


Finally, Iskandarov is accused of the attempted murder of the prosecutor in Tajikabad, alleged to have taken place during the same incident.


According to Bobokhonov, the suspect was first questioned about the gas embezzlement in August, but soon afterwards was placed on the wanted list after he failed to return from what he said would be a two day trip to Moscow.


The authorities say the arrest has nothing to do with politics and that the charges are well-founded. “We’re not persecuting anyone. Iskandarov will answer for criminal offences,” Bobokhonov said at his press conference.


Opposition parties see it as no more than a move to sideline a prominent party leader and intimidate others ahead of the parliamentary election scheduled for February. In the 1999 election – the only one held since the civil war – the pro-presidential People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan, PDPT, won easily, taking 30 of the seats in the 63-member parliament, with the Communists a distant second with 13, and the IRP getting only two.


The Coalition for Fair and Transparent Elections of which the Democratic Party is a member held a press conference on December 11 attacking the arrest. “Coalition leaders condemn the arrest of Mahmadruzi Iskandarov and demand that the authorities cease persecuting and pressuring coalition members,” the parties said in a statement.


The coalition brings the Democrats together with the IRP, the Social Democrats and the Socialist Party.


The statement said Iskandarov’s arrest was symptomatic of a regime which talks about free elections, political party rights and media freedom, while at the same time imposing restrictions in all these areas and attempting to marginalise the opposition.


“We regard the actions taken by the government – in the shape of the prosecutor general’s office – as unacceptable and deliberately designed to prevent political parties taking part in the national election in a free and equal basis, and in particular to weaken and split the Coalition for Free and Transparent Elections,” said the statement.


Legal experts believe it is likely that the Russian authorities will extradite Iskandarov. In February, they sent back former interior minister Yaqub Salimov, who is now awaiting trial in Dushanbe on charges of treason and armed insurrection.


The opposition coalition attacked Moscow’s apparent pliability on such extradition cases involving political figures, saying, “It shows once again that Russia is not in a position to guarantee asylum for political émigrés from Tajikistan.”


Tursun Kabirov, an independent political analyst, agreed that the arrest was probably politically motivated.


“It’s possible that Iskandarov has broken the law and has to be punished. But the fact that he was arrested just before his party was to hold a congress that was due to draw up a list of candidates – and that the elections themselves are imminent – may be evidence that the incident has a political element to it,” he said.


“Iskandarov is head of one of the leading opposition parties who has recently criticised the head of state more than once… The loss of a leader will greatly weaken the Democratic Party’s position,” said Kabiri.


After being sacked as Tajikgaz chief in November last year, Iskandarov had a meeting with President Imomali Rahmonov at which he reportedly turned down the offer of another job but parted on amicable terms with the Tajik leader. Some reports say that Rahmonov persuaded him not to take the Democrats – an important political force – into the opposition coalition.


Iskandarov’s relations with the Rahmonov administration deteriorated after he publicly attacked amended election legislation approved in June, which he saw as discriminatory against smaller parties. Some analysts believe that the authorities viewed this as a breach of promise, and that they promptly ordered that Iskandarov be put under pressure.


Rather than extending the campaign to opposition leaders, the authorities seem to be focusing on Iskandarov and his associates. His brother-in-law Ahmad Zakirov, who heads the gas firm Tursunzadegaz, has been arrested as part of the wider Tajikgaz investigation.


Anvar Mahmudov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Dushanbe.


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