Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon recently was in New York to speak with the UN Secretary General and King of the Netherlands. Whilst the Tajik opposition members violently opposed and urged Western politicians not to meet with the autocrat who holds hundreds of political prisoners in the country, shoots peaceful demonstrators, and robs citizens.
After visiting New York, the President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon, where he co-chaired the UN Water Conference from March 21st-24th, went to London to participate in an economic forum where representatives of the Tajik government were to encourage British entrepreneurs to invest in them in the country.
This led to Asliddn Szerzamonow to set up a protest at the British embassy. Asliddin brought a poster to the embassy saying that Rahmon is a dictator and a letter, penned by several opposition activists, addressed to British representatives. He started with a bang, reminding addressees of the crimes that President Rahmon has and continues to commit in the Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO) region. He reminded the addressees that quite recently, the inhabitants of this formally autonomous region of Tajikistan were slaughtered by Tajik security forces for their beliefs. “These honest and sincere heroes were killed or tortured in prison because they fought for their human and civil rights, freedom, and the values that European societies recognize as their foundation.”
Opposition of the Tajikistan regime urged Western politicians not to meet with the autocrat President Emomali Rahmon who “holds hundreds of political prisoners in the country, shoots peaceful demonstrators, and robs citizens.”
Scores of Tajik Pamiris were killed in the GBAO region, mainly between November 2021 and the summer of 2022, including several leaders of the local community, while many others were arrested. Some were convicted in absentia, like Asliddin’s father, Ali Szerzamonov, who was accused of organizing riots last May.
Tajikistan army was sent to Pamiri GBAO to harass citizens and cut off their telephone and internet communications. Mass arrests were combined with unpleasant searches in homes, where the destruction of RTVs and household appliances are common. Private schools and other educational institutions are having their licenses revoked, while the government is also calling for hearings of local religious leaders. In June last year, soldiers destroyed the coat of arms situated on the slope above the capital of the region, Chorog, fashioned out of carefully placed colored stones – a symbol of the Ishmaelites, followers of the Shia and liberal subsect of Islam. President Rahmon’s government wants to force GBAO to submit and imprisons, executes, or forcibly exiles those who acted and voiced their disapproval. Pamiri activists estimate that up to 20% of the GBAO’s population of only 250,000 has fled abroad.
The Pamiri profession of Ismailism, their own languages, customs, and pride are incompatible with the “Rejuvenation of the Tajik Nation” embarked upon by Emomali Rahmon since taking and consolidating power. Labeled as an exemplary form of nation-building by some anthropologists, they fail to mention the violent repression of Pamiri identity.
Its drivers may originate from the deadly Tajik civil war from 1992-1997, in which the Pamiri, making full use of the mountainous and physically distant region they inhabited, formed a considerable part of the opposition to Rahmon’s government. Elected as speaker of the House of Representatives in 1992, Rahmon’s ethnicity and origins from the Southern Kulab region proved problematic for the Northerners. Having agreed to increase democratic representation, in addition to a host of other promises he later ignored as he consolidated power, the Pamiri would essentially revolt.
They left positions in state administration bodies and began to organize the life of the region in their own way, based on local leaders, many of whom were either former field commanders from the civil war or charismatic spiritual leaders. They were supported by the spiritual leader of all Ismailites living in the West, Aga Chan IV.
Asliddin is a citizen of Tajikistan of Pamiri ethnicity. Asliddin was born in 1992, the year the civil war began. He spent the first decade of his young life outside Tajikistan. He studied at the American University of Bishkek, the capital of neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Then he decided to stay in this country, where life was much freer than in his homeland. It was in Bishkek that he lived his whole adult life; he has friends and dog there, with all whom Asliddin hopes to meet again someday. When his parents settled in Poland and his father, who had long been involved in political activism, began to participate in the exiled opposition organization National Alliance of Tajikistan, it was known that for Aslididin, any trip to Tajikistan might end in arrest. He stopped traveling to Tajikistan a few years ago.
However, when the Tajik authorities not only began to pacify the Pamiri of GBAO but also began hunting for oppositionist Pamiris living outside the republic, Asliddin had to flee. Having fled to Georgia, where he was able to get a Polish humanitarian visa and soon joined his parents in Warsaw. Since then, he has been trying to help refugees from his region who were less fortunate than he, and to publicize the Pamiri case in the world.
Asliddin has several questions that the Tajik media were forbidden from asking. For instance, why in November 2021 the police killed the young Pamiri leader Gulbiddin Zijobekov. That is why in May, they brutally suppressed the protest of peaceful demonstrators of Wamaru, a county in GBAO. And why the well-known Pamiri athlete Chorshanbe Chorshanbiyev was deported from Russia and then sentenced to many years in prison for only publicly speaking about himself as Pamiri, and not Tajik.
And then, there is the issue of clean water which has always been in Rahmon’s secondary concern. Recurring border skirmishes with neighboring Kyrgyzstan are often caused due to disputes over scarce water and pasture access and thus tend to occur during a specific part of the year. In fact, water is one of the few riches that Tajikistan can boast of. Moreover, most of it is in the GBAO region. Most of the GBAO is mountainous, holding some of the largest glaciers in the world, most notably a 16-kilometer-long glacier. At the UN, Rahmon and the Dutch King spoke of how water gives life, but not about Tajik soldiers and policemen who, at his command, have recently taken the lives of at least several dozen Pamiri citizens of Tajikistan. The authors of the letter did not make public their names for fear of persecution by the regime, which has been executed outside the republic via extrajudicial renditions or outright assassinations of Tajik citizens.
In March 2015, in Istanbul, Umarali Kuvatov, one of the leaders of the opposition movement Group 24, was assassinated, shot in the head in front of his family. In 2021, Izzat Amon went missing. A well-known figure, previously residing in Moscow, he was helping Tajik migrants while criticizing the Tajik authorities and regime. Two days after his disappearance, he found himself in a Tajik prison in what is suspected to be another case of an extrajudicial and illegal Tajik rendition. Accused of fraud, he was sentenced to 9 years in prison.
The Tajik authorities are not at all tolerating the activities of their critics abroad. In 2015, they dissolved the Islamic Party of the Rebirth of Tajikistan, the largest opposition group, accusing it of terrorism and attempts to destabilize the state. The group was the only one who had been able to stay in parliament since the 1990s, despite widespread electoral fraud committed by authorities and eternal harassment by members of the Tajik security forces. Finally, in the Autumn of 2021, Dushanbe started to pacify the eternally defiant and formally autonomous GBAO region.
A turning tide?
Exiled Tajik opposition members also protested in Germany. A total of several hundred people gathered in front of the Tajik embassy, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Bundestag. As emphasized by Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan, among the demonstrators were people from every region of the country, from GBAO to Sogd in the North.
Kabiri mentioned that the West has already learned that dictators such as Putin or Lukashenko should not be hosted. The citizens of Tajikistan must convince Western societies and their leaders that the same odium should fall on Rahmon.
Protesters received reassurances from the German authorities that he would not be an official guest in any of the European countries that Rahmon was supposed to visit. It seems that the dictator’s visits to London and Belina have been canceled after all. The Tajik independent news portal Asia Plus announced on March 25th that from New York, the President of Tajikistan flew directly to Dushanbe. This week, he is to take part in the celebration of the Persian holiday of the new year, Nou Ruz, in the north of the country.
However, the real victory of protesters can only be said when democratic European countries begin to treat political refugees from Tajikistan as they treat Belarusians fleeing the dictatorship. Currently, they are most often denied international protection. This was the fate of several Pamiris who have recently applied for refugee status in Poland. They were also refused asylum in Austria and other European countries. Some have already been sent back to their country of origin, despite the grave and present danger faced by vocal opposition members who return or even those who continue their efforts abroad.
In January, Germany deported Abdulohi Shamsiddin to Tajikistan. Even though they knew that Shamsiddin was the son of a well-known Tajik oppositionist, a member of the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan, they deported him anyway. For some time, no news about Shamsiddin’s whereabouts would surface. At the beginning of March, independent media reported that he was being held by the Tajik KGB. He was arrested as he disembarked at Dushanbe International Airport.
Many Tajik citizens may still face an unfortunate similar fate if the authorities of European and western countries do not start believing that Rahmon is the same calibre dictator as Lukashenko and Putin.