With U.S. and Russian Support, Tajikistan’s Iron-Fisted Dictator Crushes Religious Expression and Democratic Protest
Emomali Rahmon is known for this thick and bushy eyebrows. The sturdy former communist has ruled the Central Asian Republic of Tajikistan for 25 years, and is serving his fourth term in office. Last month, it became clear that there will be another term.
Since the end of the Tajik civil war in the 1990s, Rahmon has ruled his country with an iron fist. Although elections take place, Tajikistan has become a repressive dictatorship under his watch. Rahmon's government has become famous for hunting, imprisoning and killing everyone who dares to speak against it. Meanwhile, the dictator's clan enriches itself on the public’s dime.
Even with unlimited power and wealth, Rahmon seems unsatisfied. He has introduced a constitutional reform that includes 41 different amendments to guarantee him power for a lifetime. On May 22, a referendum was held and the Tajik people had to vote for or against Rahmon. The outcome was predictable. According to government sources, the voter turnout was 88 percent while 66 percent of the electorate voted for the referendum. But independent observers were hardly impressed, noting that free elections have yet to take place in Tajikistan.
The U.S. has mostly ignored the rising repression in Tajikistan. Rahmon's commitment to the West’s so-called war on terror has all but guaranteed Washington’s silence about his tyrannical practices. When the United States invaded Afghanistan, Rahmon opened his country's airspace to the U.S.-led coalition and provided it with logistic collaboration. In return, Washington secured Rahmon's power by making him stronger than ever before.
It is not just the United States that backs Rahmon. As a former Soviet republic, Tajikistan's ties with Russia are still close. One of the country's leading elite anti-terror units was trained by both the United States and Russia—a rare area of collaboration. The unit's leader, Gulmurod Khalimov, became one of Tajikistan's most famous dissidents by joining the so-called Islamic State last year.
In a propaganda video, Khalimov declared war on Rahmon's government, but also on Washington and Moscow and claimed that Rahmon's anti-Islamic policies were responsible for his radicalization. Tajik militants are currently fighting in the Afghan-Pakistani border region and have sworn allegiance to an array of military groups.
Back home, political repression is turning democratic activists into refugees.
“We need a revolution”
When Nuriddin Rizoyi talks about his home country, he quickly becomes emotional. The 29-year-old Tajik citizen has lived in Austria as a refugee for several months. He knows he can never return home until the circumstances there change.
Rizoyi is one of the many victims of Rahmon's tyranny. As a member of Group 24, a Tajik youth civil rights movement, he was forced to seek political asylum outside his country. "Because of my activism against the government, my whole family is danger. We need a revolution for us to return," says Rizoyi.
The Tajik government is known for collective punishment. Family members of critical journalists, opposition politicians or activists are forced to take the blame.
"The recent election was a big farce. Everyone knows that voting against Rahmon endangers you and your entire family," Rizoyi says. Like other exiled activists, he has organized demonstrations and events against the dictatorship in his country. He knows that most Westerners have little knowledge of the situation in Tajikistan even though many members of Rizoyi's Group 24 are languishing in prison and the movement's founder, Umarali Kuvatov, was shot in Istanbul in March 2015, with Rahmon's allies accused of the murder.
It is not just Group 24 that suffers from Rahmon's oppression. The country's most significant opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), was banned and branded as an "extremist terror group" by Rahmon's government in September 2015.
With the forthcoming constitutional reform, Rahmon wants to complete his steps against the IRPT by banning the foundation of religious or nationalist parties in the Muslim majority country by law.
"These steps are not just against our party, they are against the whole nation. Rahmon wants to hide his dictatorship in a democratic coat," says Jannatulloh Komil, a spokesman of the IRPT who sought asylum in Germany one year ago.
At the moment, leading figures of the IRPT are exiled or jailed. According to human rights organizations, torture has become a common practice in Tajik jails. In 2013, the Coalition against Torture, a group of Tajik NGOs, pointed out that reports of torture and witnesses to the practice have increased despite the promised reforms from Rahmon's government.
In February 2016, Human Rights Watch found that the Tajik government was “targeting perceived critics abroad, seeking their detention and extradition back to Tajikistan, and has forcibly disappeared critics abroad only to have them reappeear in Tajik custody."
"Tajikistan is in the midst of the worst political and religious crackdown since the end of the country's civil war, with hundreds of people landing behind the bars for no other reason than their peaceful political work," says Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"Tajikistan's human rights crisis is expanding by the day, but the response of Washington, Brussels and other international partners has fallen seriously short."
Banning everything Islamic
As Tajikistan’s economy plummets, Rahmon’s security services have targeted anything and everything considered Islamic, obsessing over women’s garb. Since 2005, female students have been forbidden from wearing headscarves in so-called "secular schools." Police have routinely raided bazaars, confiscating dark clothes for women, claiming they represent “foreign influence.” Thousands of mosques have been shut down, rebuilt for other purposes or destroyed by the government. And since 2011, at least 1500 mosques have been closed while minors are banned from participating in Friday prayers. Long beards have been prohibited while women are generally not allowed to enter mosques. The adhan, the Islamic prayer call through loudspeakers has also been outlawed.
“We do not forcibly shave beards or take off hijabs. But we do have information, and you’ve seen this on television yourselves, about how criminals wear hijabs and try to evade capture in this way,” declared Tajikistan’s Interior Minister, Ramazon Rahimzoda.
Rahmon’s culture war has not only driven the country’s religious Muslims into the shadows. For almost a decade, it has been illegal to be a Jehovah's Witness in Tajikistan. Once prosecuted for promoting religion during the days of the Soviet Union, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been put on trial for distributing “extremist literature” under Rahmon. As the U.S. looks on, the religion’s followers have been forced to go underground to practice their faith.