Tajik Officials Use Family Members To Pressure Critics To Return
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Tajikistan's government has earned an unfavorable reputation in recent years as authorities have stepped up a campaign to eliminate any form of opposition.
And it seems anything goes any tactic can be employed to secure the regime of Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan's leader since 1992.
The recent case of 33yearold Humayra Bakhtiyar is a prime example.
Bakhtiyar is a citizen of Tajikistan currently living in Europe, where she works as an independent journalist, which she has been doing for about 12 years.
Bakhtiyar's crime in the eyes of Tajik officials is that she reported on rights violations and other abuses by government authorities when she lived in Tajikistan and after she fled the country three years ago.
In a June 21 message on Twitter, Bakhtiyar said Tajik authorities were pressuring her to return to Tajikistan saying that if she didn't her father would be arrested.
Qishloq Ovozi contacted Bakhtiyar to find out more.
She said police had recently called her 57yearold father, Bakhtiyar Muminov, to come for a talk on June 12 which was her birthday despite her dad having suffered a heart attack that required surgery in April.
Police told Muminov he had to convince his daughter to return to Tajikistan or he would lose his job as a schoolteacher. Police told her father he had no moral right to teach children if he was unable to raise his own daughter properly.
The police placed a call to Bakhtiyar and had her father repeat their questions into the phone.
According to Bakhtiyar, the threats continued. Police called Muminov several days later and told him if he could not convince his daughter to return he could be arrested and his sons could also face difficulties.
Life for opposition politicians, activists, and independent journalists in Tajikistan has become much worse since former Industry Minister Zayd Saidov announced in April 2013 that he planned to form the New Tajikistan (Tojikistoni Nau) political party.
By the end of 2013, Saidov had been convicted on charges that included polygamy, relations with a minor, and financial crimes. He was sentenced to 26 years in prison.
It was the opening salvo, and Bakhtiyar said it was also in 2013 when she was working for the independent newspaper Ozodagon that Tajik authorities tried to force her to stop working as a journalist.
Much more would follow and hundreds of people are estimated to have fled the country to avoid persecution and possible imprisonment.
Family members back home in Tajikistan have been targeted before.
When political activist Ilhomjon Yakubov spoke at the OSCE's annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw on September 21, 2016, a crowd gathered outside his family home in Tajikistan's northern city of Khujand the next day, calling Yakubov an enemy of the people, a terrorist, and a traitor.
The gang returned the next day, throwing stones and attempting to break into the house. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Yakubovs called the policebut no one came.
HRW reported on September 26 that security services officers went to Yakubov's mother's house and warned family members that unless Yakubov returns to Tajikistan to face 'justice' they would confiscate the family's property.
'Enemy Of The People'
Another activist, Shabnam Khudoydodova, also spoke at the conference in Warsaw the same day.
HRW reported that a day before Khudoydodova spoke, a crowd of students, teachers, [and] school directors from various schools, city officials, and members of the local TV station gathered in her 9yearold daughter's classroom. The crowd taunted her, calling her the daughter of a 'terrorist' and 'enemy of the people,' and followed her home, where she lives with her grandmother and other relatives.
The day Khudoydodova spoke in Warsaw, Demonstrators attacked Khudoydodova's 10yearold niece, hitting and kicking her, apparently mistaking her for Shabnam's daughter. Some of these demonstrators broke into the family home and beat three relatives who had tried to keep them out.
Khudoydodova's mother went to report the incidents to the police on September 23, but a police official reportedly said: How dare you attempt to complain about this?! Why are you not ashamed of your daughter?
The police official reportedly added: You should be happy [the demonstrators] did not pour gas on your home and burn it to the ground! Tell your daughter to shut up and not to write or say anything. We will soon catch her and hang her in front of your eyes!
Protesters then appeared outside the OSCE office in Dushanbe on September 22, throwing stones at the building.
Children As Hostages
All of these actions are impossible in Tajikistan without the approval of the authorities. Attempts at unsanctioned demonstrations have been quickly broken up in the past and those identified as ringleaders were taken into custody.
There are several other examples of using relatives in Tajikistan to pressure opposition figures outside the country.
In the summer of 2018, Ibrohim Hamza Tillozoda was a 4yearold with cancer that doctors in Tajikistan admitted they could not treat in the country's medical facilities.
Tillozoda is the grandson of Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the now banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, who is currently living in exile in Europe. Kabiri was convicted in absentia of undisclosed charges at a closedtrial in October and given a lengthy but unpublicized prison sentence.
Tajik authorities refused to allow Tillozoda to leave the country and receive medical treatment elsewhere. An intensive campaign by international rights organizations and on social media finally forced the authorities to relent and allow Tillozoda and his mother to leave Tajikistan.
Khudoydodova's daughter was also eventually able to leave after a similar campaign.
Humayra Bakhtiyar said police and the state security service started summoning her father to come for talks in 2018. She said her father once called her and asked her to return, saying officials had promised nothing would happen to her.
There have been instances when people the government considers opponents have been forcibly and extrajudicially returned to Tajikistan from countries such as Turkey and Russia. Once back in Tajikistan they have been hustled in front of state television cameras to publicly repent for alleged problems they have cause for the government.
Tajikistan's government has become infamous for abusing the Interpol system to harass opposition figures who have fled the country, as Exeter University's Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) project has documented.
Bakhtiyar has no intention of returning to Tajikistan. She said charges have already been filed against her that could see her serving anywhere from eight to 20 years in prison.
But as Tajik authorities are demonstrating yet again, even if they can't get someone to return to Tajikistan, they can still make their lives miserable by pressuring their kin at home.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.