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Tajikistan's Islamic Opposition Under Pressure

Party leaders say succession of incidents shows they are being targeted by government.
By Qayumarsi Ato
  • Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan. (Photo courtesy of Hikmatullo Saifullozoda)
    Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan. (Photo courtesy of Hikmatullo Saifullozoda)

Tajikistan’s leading opposition force, the Islamic Rebirth Party (IRP), has complained of a concerted government campaign designed to discredit and weaken it ahead of a parliamentary election due next year.

Central Asia’s only legal Islamic party, the IRP has just two out of 63 seats in parliament, but its 42,000 members make it the second-largest political force after President Imomali Rahmon’s People’s Democratic Party.

IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri told IWPR that he expected systematic attacks on the party ahead of the February 2015 polls.

On July 8, the government newspaper Jumhuriyat published an article warning Kabiri not to follow the example of Egyptian politician Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Freedom and Justice Party.

The leading Muslim Brotherhood figure was elected president following popular unrest that led to the removal of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. However, Morsi lasted only a year in power before he was deposed by the military in July 2013 and charged with inciting murder and violence.

Pointedly noting that Kabiri should learn lessons from Morsi’s rise and fall, the article said the Muslim Brotherhood “wanted to take power in Egypt… but managed to govern for only a year”.

The article was a riposte to a speech which Kabiri made ahead of National Unity Day on June 27, the anniversary of the 1992-97 civil war in Tajikistan.

The IRP was the dominant force in the five-year insurrection against Rahmon’s administration. The 1997 peace deal saw the opposition disarm its guerrillas and its leaders granted a share in government, although they have since been eased out.

“We are ready both to support and to criticise [the authorities] so that the situation improves,” Kabiri told supporters. “But if that doesn’t work, why shouldn’t political parties including the IRP seek to correct the situation and ensure that people capable of doing a better job of running the state better come to power?”

Kabiri raised concerns that the IRP was facing increasing levels of harassment, a claim supported by a number of recent incident.

On April 28, Kabiri’s chairman Saidumar Husaini and a number of party activists were beaten up by a mob trying to disrupt a meeting in Khorog in the southeastern Badakhshan region. Another party meeting, this time in the southern Kulob region, suffered a similar attack on June 10.

The IRP offices in the northern towns of Khujand, Penjikent, Isfara and Spitamen were closed by local authorities who claimed they stood on sites due for redevelopment. The municipal authorities promised to provide them with other plots of land, but so far these have not materialised.

In April, the authorities took over a market west of the capital Dushanbe owned by Kabiri’s wife, claiming that they needed the site for a new sports centre. Kabiri said the confiscation was clearly political as the authorities had declined his offer to build a sports facility himself. (Sports, Politics and Private Property in Tajikistan has more on the case.)

IRP insiders argue that these events indicate that the government is trying to undermine the party as a political force, in a change from the previous policy of discrediting individual members. In the last year, IRP members have been accused of polygamy and sex tapes purportedly showing them have circulated. Former members have also been enlisted to record video messages warning people not to join the party.

In a serious allegation, state media reported that some of the Tajik nationals who have gone to Syria to fight for Islamic militant groups were IRP members.

“Previously, they levelled accusations against some of our party members, but these days they are going after the party itself,” another deputy party leader, Mahmadali Hayt, said.

The leading rights activist Oinikhol Bobonazarova, who was the joint candidate for an opposition coalition that included the IRP in the 2013 presidential election, said that the authorities feared political pluralism.

She said they viewed the IRP as the only force capable of posing a serious electoral challenge.

“Every new idea it [the party] has is considered dangerous, so the regime applies pressure as the only way of maintaining its rule, and is not ready for constructive dialogue,” she added.

Izzat Amon, head of the Moscow-based Union of Tajik Youth, said political awareness was rising in Tajikistan.

“Today the majority of young people want to join a party,” Amon said. “Every young person with an opposition mindset and no voice wants to join a party, and to enlist its help in addressing the many problems facing society.”

He added that the authorities’ actions could signal an attempt to either drive the party out of action or to force Kabiri, whose influence is rising, to end his political activity.

Amon said that could extend to charging Kabiri with some offence. “What’s happened in recent years shows that they wouldn’t baulk at that. They can implicate anyone in a crime and find him guilty,” Amon said, referring to the case of Zayd Saidov, a former industry minister arrested soon after he set up his own political party. (See Tajik Opposition Figure Gets 26 Years.)

According to political journalist Fahriddin Kholbel, the authorities now see the IRP as a risk because its growing strength makes it a viable challenger at the polls. Instead of addressing waning public trust in government, the authorities are responding by persecuting the opposition party, he said.

Pro-government figures deny that the authorities are trying to undermine the IRP, and argue that this claim is made to divert attention from the fact that the party is weak.

“Neither the government nor state institutions is trying to do this [curb the IRP]. There is no pressure and no attempt to make the party disappear,” said Amirkul Azimov, head of the parliamentary committee for security and defence and a member of the president’s party.

Saifullo Safarov, deputy head of the Centre for Strategic Studies, a think-tank affiliated with the president’s office, also insisted no action was being taken against the IRP.

“Tajikistan’s constitution allows for an Islamic party to operate. All parties are equal before the law and are guaranteed equal opportunities,” he said. “If the government wanted to inflict damage on the party, it would be doing more to assist secular parties. That would weaken the IRP – yet the government hasn’t done that to date.

On the closures of IRP offices in a number of towns, Safarov said the decisions had been entirely legal and were taken with the sole aim of investing in urban improvement. He said the party would be given land in other areas, and pointed out that the party’s headquarters in the capital Dushanbe had not been affected.

Qayumarsi Ato is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.

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