Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Tajiks Hush Up Uzbek Spy Trial
Dushanbe has hushed up the recent conviction of an Uzbek man who was caught spying in Tajikistan, in an apparent attempt to strengthen improving ties with Tashkent.
Border and economic disputes have soured relations between the two over the last few years, but a rare visit by Uzbek president Islam Karimov last week promised to resolve many of the key issues.
The visit came just days after the September 30 sentencing of Uzbek spy Khamro Safarov to 12 years imprisonment. The trial would in normal circumstance have made headlines, but the authorities practically put a news blackout on the proceedings to avoid angering Tashkent.
Uzbekistan is Tajikistan's second biggest trading partner in the CIS after Russia and provides key transport routes out of the landlocked republic. However, the supply of gas and electricity from Tashkent and the transport of goods by rail are often disrupted.
President Karimov - who has made only one official visit to Tajikistan since independence - was in the country for a two-day Central Asian Cooperation Organisation summit.
The meeting, at which border and economic issues were discussed at length, appears to have gone well.
Tajik president Imomali Rakhmonov's decision not to publicise the Safarov trial may have been motivated by a desire not to jeopardise the forthcoming meeting.
Safarov was the first Uzbek to face charges of spying in Tajikistan since the break up of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago.
According to a source who was present throughout the closed-door trial, Safarov admitted he was working for the Uzbek special services when he was caught in Tajikistan's Sogd Oblast in March.
On his arrest, he was carrying a mini-video camera, a map with the location of ammunition depots and military units of the Tajik emergency situations ministry, and secret documents belonging to various state departments.
He admitted crossing the border illegally, and told the court that he had built up close contacts with high-ranking oblast officials as well as gaining information from several local residents.
Presiding judge Anvar Temirov refused to comment on the case, saying that he had signed a non-disclosure statement. The Tajik security ministry also declined to discuss the trial, as did the Uzbek embassy in Dushanbe.
For the moment relations between the two countries appear to be improving, but things could easily unravel.
"Even though the Tajik media decided not to publicise the trial of the Uzbek spy, it may still have a negative influence on the relations between the two countries in one way or another," commentator Sulton Khamadov told IWPR.
If the goodwill established at the Dushanbe meeting falters, Uzbek law enforcement bodies may retaliate by arresting a Tajik citizen for spying. Or, he warned, Tashkent could go one step further by exerting economic pressure on Dushanbe.
On the other hand, if relations continue to improve, Dushanbe may be persuaded to transfer Safarov to Uzbek custody - or even offer him an amnesty on Tajik Constitution Day in November.
While Uzbekistan supported the Tajik People's Front during the five-year civil war that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, relations began to deteriorate after the party came to power at the end of the conflict.
They worsened after the November 1998 attack on the Sogd Oblast by Tajik warlord Colonel Makhmud Khudoiberdyev, which was launched from Uzbekistan and led to the deaths of more than a hundred civilians.
Tashkent's repeated accusations that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, headed by the notorious Juma Namangani, was operating from bases in eastern Tajikistan, have heightened tensions.
The ongoing border difficulties - Tashkent imposed visa restrictions on Tajik citizens two years ago - have been exacerbated by the Uzbek border guards' practice of planting mines along sections of the boundary without consulting Dushanbe.
The Tajik state committee for protecting state borders claim the mines, which are ostensibly to prevent attacks by IMU rebels, have led to the deaths of around 60 Tajiks and have caused serious injury to more than 40 others.
Analysts are now holding their breath to see if the apparent progress made during the cooperation summit can be maintained, or if the saga will take a new twist before the year is out.
Nargiz Zakirova is a reporter with the Vecherny Dushanbe newspaper.
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