Sharofiddin Gadoev, 35, a Tajik political activist from the Netherlands, was arrested in February 2019 during a visit to Moscow and forcibly deported to his native Tajikistan. About two weeks later, the Tajik government, under pressure from human rights organizations and European countries, released him from prison in the capital, Dushanbe, and allowed him to return to Europe.
But his ordeal is not over. Although he is now free in his adopted Netherlands, he said his relatives in Tajikistan had been subjected to beatings by Tajik authorities, had been threatened and had their movements restricted.
“My father was severely beaten by law enforcement agents [in] 2014. After that, he could not walk anymore without support. As a result of that beating, his health considerably deteriorated and, in 2016, he died,” Godoev told VOA, adding that his aging mother and elder sister, who still live in Tajikistan, were now being constantly pressured by government.
His situation is not unusual. Last Friday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Tajik government of a “campaign against all dissent,” saying the authorities targeted critics abroad with “kidnapping, extradition, forced disappearance, and harassment and persecution of family members of exiled critics.”
From businessman to activist
Gadoev, who now leads the political movement “Reforms and Development in Tajikistan” from abroad, used to be a businessman who owned a transportation company in Dushanbe. He said he had to flee the country in 2012 after authorities started targeting him for openly criticizing the government.
During his arrest last February, Tajik authorities insisted that Gadoev had voluntarily returned to the country. However, the Dutch Foreign Ministry later said he was arrested on suspicion of “criminal activities” linked to his past business.
“My cousin, Umarali Kuvvatov, who was also an ardent critic of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, was shot dead in Istanbul in 2015,” Gadoev said.
Kuvvatov was the head of Group 24, an opposition political movement that the Tajik government banned in October 2014 for alleged extremism.
While in diaspora, Gadoev said, he was arrested two more times under Interpol Red Notices — in Spain in 2014 and in Poland in 2018 — with politically motivated requests by the Tajik government. The intimidation campaign, he said, has lately been expanded to his other relatives to pressure him into silence.
“Last month, my brother-in-law was arrested in Greece under an Interpol Red Notice placed by Tajik authorities,” Gadoev said, adding that the relative, Sadi Rahmatov, is still in Greece custody awaiting a court decision to release or extradite him to Tajikistan.
VOA did not receive a comment from Tajikistan’s foreign ministry and embassy in Washington on accusations made by Gadoev and other opposition activists.
A campaign against dissent
Tajikistan, a former landlocked Soviet republic in Central Asia, is a Muslim-majority nation of over 9 million people. Rahmon, who won his fifth seven-year presidential term this October, has been running the country since 1992.
HRW and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said Tajik authorities last month summoned, interrogated and threatened the family members of activist Fatkhuddin Saidmukhidinov to force him to cease his online criticism of the government from exile.
"The authorities should immediately stop harassing Saidmukhidinov’s relatives over his activism,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.
Saidmukhidinov is a supporter of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), an opposition group that won two seats in the 2010 election. The Tajik government banned the group as an extremist terrorist organization in 2015.
The U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan in a statement said that the ban was “politically motivated and intended to eliminate the IRPT — Tajikistan’s last remaining opposition group — and intimidate its supporters.” It urged Tajikistan to “distinguish between peaceful political opposition voices and violent extremist acts.”
Vladislav Lobanov, assistant researcher on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at HRW, told VOA that Tajik authorities use bogus extremism charges under a law on counterextremism to detain and imprison people, merely for peacefully exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression.
“Since mid-2015, more than 150 persons received lengthy prison terms on politically motivated grounds, including life imprisonment,” Lobanov said, adding that the main targets were opposition political figures and activists, lawyers, journalists and relatives of peaceful dissidents.
According to a 27-year-old Tajikistan-born activist from Germany who runs Habar TV, a YouTube news channel with nearly 10,000 followers, the intimidation of family members haunts many activists, who feel anxiety and guilt. The activist, who prefers to go by his last name, Tashaev, said the Tajik government had forced his relatives to beg him not to criticize authorities.
“Each time my relatives are called to the State Security Committee of Dushanbe, they will be told that if they talk to me, they should tell me that everything in Tajikistan is well,” he told VOA.
'Pretext of fighting extremism'
Brigitte Dufour, director of the independent International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) in Brussels, Belgium, said the Tajik government’s campaign, particularly against media activists abroad, hopes “to silence critical voices under the pretext of fighting extremism.”
She said that since the president signed a new counterterrorism law in January, he has granted Tajik authorities wide-ranging powers over the country’s internet.
“The government continues to block and, in some cases, disable websites of independent media outlets and political opposition groups, social media platforms and internet messengers,” Dufour said.
Last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged the U.S. government to increase pressure on Tajik authorities for “genuine” reform.
The report, Promoting Religious Freedom and Countering Violent Extremism in Tajikistan, concluded that Tajikistan’s current approach to countering violent extremism was counterproductive and not in the long-term interests of regional stability or security.
“It is critical for all U.S. policymakers working on the region to recognize that security and human rights are not mutually exclusive, but symbiotic,” Jason Morton, policy analyst at USCIRF and the author of the report, told VOA.
Morton charged that Washington in its current engagement in the region prioritizes the security dimension at the expense of basic human rights like religious freedom.