By Oleg Salimov (04/01/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On March 5, 2015 the leader of the Tajik opposition organization Group 24, Umarali Kuvatov, was assassinated in Istanbul. Kuvatov has previously been accused of extremism in Tajikistan, and Tajik law enforcement has pursued him since 2011. He was previously arrested in Dubai in December 2012 at the Tajik government’s request on charges of fraud. In April 2013, a Dubai court allowed Kuvatov’s extradition to Tajikistan, which was later postponed and Kuvatov was released from custody in August 2013, at the request of human rights organizations and European parliament representatives.
Kuvatov was arrested anew in Istanbul on December 14, 2014 while awaiting refugee status, according to the Human Rights in Central Asia association, and released on February 3, 2015. On March 5, 2015 Kuvatov was shot in the head in Istanbul and pronounced dead at the scene. Turkish authorities arrested three Tajik citizens on March 9 in connection to the crime. The investigation revealed that Kuvatov was poisoned that night while having dinner with one of the suspects. No motives are yet announced for the meticulously organized assassination. Tajik authorities refrain from commenting the incident.
Previously, Maxud Ibrogimov, leader of the Tajik opposition group Youth for Revival of Tajikistan, who disappeared in Russia at the beginning of this year, reappeared in Tajikistan. Tajikistan’s Prosecutor General’s office confirmed in January, 2015 that Ibrogimov is in the custody of the State Committee of National Security (former KGB) in Dushanbe. The Prosecutor General’s representative Rizo Khalifazoda stated that Ibrogimov is charged on several counts of Tajikistan’s Criminal Code, including extremism, although no other details on the charges were provided.
Prior to the kidnapping, Ibrogimov received numerous threats and survived an assassination attempt in Moscow in November 2014, which Ibrogimov’s supporters believe were linked to his political views. Ibrogimov’s organization, formed in October 2014, focuses on fighting corruption and the clan system, and engaging Tajik youth in political processes. The opposition coalition New Tajikistan, in which Ibrogimov holds an administrative position, is convinced that the kidnapping is a result of protest actions against Tajikistan’s government, which the coalition organized in several Russian cities.
Tajikistan’s government outlawed Youth for Revival of Tajikistan on October 7, 2014, soon after Group 24, also part of the New Tajikistan coalition, announced plans for an unsanctioned demonstration against President Emomali Rakhmon in Dushanbe on October 10, 2014. Although the demonstration never took place and Ibrogimov officially denounced any violence in his organization’s political activity, he still drew the attention of Tajik authorities.
On November 27, 2014 an unidentified person attacked Ibrogimov in Moscow. Ibrogimov was delivered to a hospital in a severe condition with multiple stab wounds. In an official statement, New Tajikistan directly accused Tajikistan’s secret services and Rakhmon of the assassination attempt. Meanwhile, Tajik law enforcement requested Ibrogimov’s extradition on charges of extremism. Ibrogimov spent two days in confinement in Moscow awaiting extradition to Tajikistan but was released as a holder of Russian citizenship. His kidnapping followed soon after. A similar assassination attempt on a Tajik journalist, Dodojon Atovuloev, took place in Moscow in January 2013. A profound critic of Rakhmon, Atovuloev was stabbed multiple times by an unidentified person but survived.
Tajikistan’s extradition request to Spain of another member of Group 24, Sharofiddin Gadoev, in July 2014, was declined by Spanish authorities. Ukraine also denied extradition to Tajikistan of a former presidential candidate and rival to Rakhmon, Abdumalik Abdulojonov, in April 2013 after holding him in detention for nearly two months. As seen in the cases of Atovuloev, Ibrogimov, and Kuvatov’s, Tajik opposition activists in exile have become targets of assassinations and kidnappings.
Tajik authorities have previously resorted to kidnapping members of Tajikistan’s political opposition. In April 2005, the ex-chairman of the opposition Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Makhmadruzi Iskandarov, was kidnapped in Moscow and secretly transported to Dushanbe. Iskandarov was sentenced to 23 years in prison in October 2005. Another Tajik citizen, Savriddin Juraev, was kidnapped in Moscow and reappeared in Dushanbe to stand trial on charges of extremism in November 2011. Juraev received 26 years in prison in spring 2012.
While investigations into previous assassination attempts on members of Tajikistan’s opposition have never proven any involvement of Tajik authorities, these events clearly intimidate those who confront the ruling elite at home and abroad. Unless the problem draws wider attention from human rights organizations, Tajikistan’s international partners, and proponents of civil society and democracy, these practices will likely continue.