Press Gangs in Tajikistan

 Young men grabbed off the streets and forced into the army.
By Tilav Rasulzoda - Central Asia
RCA Issue 620,
30 Jun 10

Army conscription officers in Tajikistan are plucking young men off the street and forcibly enlisting them in the military so as to meet recruitment targets, parents and lawyers say.

Under Tajik law, conscripts must be notified in advance and are then required to report to a commission which examines whether they are fit and eligible to join up.

Lawyers say conscription officers are riding roughshod over these procedures. As a result, even men who should be exempt on health grounds or because of other circumstances are being packed off to the army.

Conscription of 18-year-olds for national service takes place twice a year, in spring and autumn. After the spring round finished on May 30, the defence ministry issued a statement saying the process had been a success.

Amparo, an association of young lawyers in Tajikistan, says a third of the conscripts interviewed in a survey covering 2009 reported being rounded up and delivered to recruitment centres.

In a survey, Amparo spoke to 922 of the estimated 5,000 men conscripted last year, and found that 325 had been enlisted without the proper procedures.

The army seems to be resorting to press gangs because it cannot get enough conscripts any other way. Young men are reluctant to serve in the military because of its reputation for underfeeding, bullying and postings to remote locations. There is also a deficit of young men because so many are away in Russia or Kazakstan as labour migrants.

The Amparo association’s spokesperson Khursheda Rahimova said its advice services had handled more than 200 complaints during the 2010 recruitment drive. “The majority of complaints relate to illegal detention or rounding up,” she added.

Amparo, which believes the number of cases of illegal enlistment is rising, wrote to Tajikistan’s president, ombudsman, and army conscription commissions last month calling for an end to such practices.

On May 25, the day conscripts were officially enlisted and despatched for training, parents came to the military recruitment office for Soghd region in the northern town of Khujand to complain about forcible conscription.

Some of those interviewed told stories of forcible conscription.

Muhammadsharif Hamdamov, from the Matcha district of northern Tajikistan, said his nephew Mirzojon was picked up when an army recruitment squad raided the village of Buston, where he was working as a teacher.

Relatives tried in vain to persuade the military authorities to free Mirzojon, since he is simultaneously taking a university course and should not be called up before graduation.

Even the intervention of regional education officials, struggling to retain teaching staff in rural areas, failed to change things. “No one even listened to them,” said Hamdamov.

University student Rustam told how his friend Jurabek Hollov, studying journalism in Khujand, was picked up and spirited away in a manner reminiscent of abduction. Hollov was stopped by a recruitment squad while on the way to university for a routine identity check.

He was held incommunicado for five days until he was brought together with other conscripts on May 25 for dispersal to their units, and managed to call Rustam from a borrowed mobile phone.

Rustam rushed to the military office, but was prevented from seeing his friend.

“I was able to see him from a distance, and his hair had already been shaved off,” said Rustam. “I haven’t heard from him since.”

Rustam said Hollov’s parents, who live in a distant village, were probably unaware of what had happened to their son.

A university official said that Hollov had been excluded at one point for late payment of fees, and although he was later reinstated, this made it impossible to help him.

Some of the parents who came to see off their sons said they should never have been drafted.

Khujand resident Noriniso Mahmudova said her son had health problems serious enough to prevent him being called up, but had been drafted anyway.

“My son returned recently from Russia where he’d been a labour migrant. He fell seriously ill over there, so he came back and was admitted to the Khujand municipal hospital,” she said. “He was picked up while coming home to visit us. I’ve tried to prove that my son is gravely ill and incapable of serving, but no one wants to listen to what I have to say.”

Muhtaram Yadgarova, who lives in Bobojonghofur district not far from Khujand, said her second son Azamjon was picked up in the street and conscripted even though he should be exempt from service as he is currently the sole male breadwinner in the family.

Her elder son Azizjon has been in the army since 2009, and her husband is dead.

“I am bringing up the family on my own in these difficult times,” said Muhtaram, who believes the sons of people like her are targeted for conscription while those more rich and powerful are left alone.

Lawyer Nazarshekh Nazarov says the detentions carried out by conscription patrols break all the rules requiring prospective soldiers to be summoned before an examining body, which must consider all factors including the right to defer service or be exempted altogether.

Asked about the allegations of press-ganging, Colonel Nosit Toshmatov, deputy head of the Soghd regional military office, denied any wrongdoing and said the spring conscription drive was conducted according to the law.

“They were all conscripted voluntarily,” he added.

Defence ministry spokesman Faridun Mahmadaliev also denied there were any systematic abuses.

“We haven’t received any complaints,” he said. “If there were any irregularities in this process, they will be dealt with in due course, in other words after the conscription round has been evaluated.”

But legal experts say that when appeals have gone to court in the past, the conscript soldiers have already been despatched to their units and it becomes very difficult to get them recalled.

There are also allegations that the press gangs breed corruption – if a young man is rounded up, he can secure his release in exchange for a hefty bribe. In other cases, conscription officers and medics sell fake certificates showing that the holder has already completed his service, or that he is exempt on medical grounds.

A recruitment officer and a doctor in Soghd region were recently sentenced to eight and seven years, respectively, for forging papers and extorting bribes.

Tilav Rasulzoda is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan.

 This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.