Tajik Authorities Seize Academic, Call Research "Spying"

Alexander Sodiqov held incommunicado while conducting field research.

Accusations of espionage made against an academic detained while doing field research in southeastern Tajikistan have baffled colleagues and local analysts.

Alexander Sodiqov, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, was detained on June 16 in Khorog, the main regional town of Badakhshan, while meeting Alim Sherzamonov, the regional head of the opposition Social Democratic Party, as part of research he was doing for Britain’s University of Exeter.

Sherzamonov told IWPR that he agreed to meet Sodiqov in Khorog’s central park as the latter was staying in a nearby hotel. Then the deputy head of the regional interior ministry department, Bandali Bandaliev, appeared and said his officers wanted to talk to Sodiqov. Two plain-clothes officers then took the academic away.

Sherzamonov and colleagues managed to contact a presidential aide, Sherali Khairullaev, who was in Badakhshan at the time. They learned that security officers questioned Sodiqov and freed him, but when they went to his hotel, he was not there.

The next day, four local activists, all members of a joint commission investigating last month’s violence, were called in by Khairullaev and shown a video of Sodiqov being questioned.

They were told he had been taken to the Tajik capital Dushanbe. “But this information later turned out to be untrue, and we still don’t know his precise whereabouts,” Sherzamonov said.

Tajikistan’s intelligence agency, the State Committee for National Security, issued a statement on June 17 to the effect that Sodiqov was detained while engaged in espionage on behalf of “the security service of a foreign country”. It said he met Sherzamanov in order to gather “intelligence information” in exchange for financial remuneration.

Sherzamonov said that before police turned up, the researcher said he was interested in the role that civil society groups played in conflict resolution.

The University of Exeter issued a statement saying that Sodiqov was in Badakhshan solely to pursue academic work as part of a project called “Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia”. Clashes that took place in Khorog two years ago were one of three case studies the project is looking at.

Sodiqov, a native of Tajikistan, writes extensively on Central Asian politics for respected publications like Global Voices, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst, and Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Sodiqov’s project supervisor, John Heathershaw, was in Dushanbe when his colleague was seized in Khorog. In a statement, he said, “I am sad that this
action has been taken and call upon the government to release Alexander Sodiqov on the basis of the evidence that he is an academic researcher.” He told Eurasia Net that the apartment of Sodiqov’s mother in Dushanbe was ransacked in a police search in which computers and USB drives were taken away.

Local analysts say the case shows how sensitive Badakhshan is for the Tajik authorities. This remote and sparsely-populated region has seen unrest in 2012 and again in May 2014 (See Unrest Subsides in Southeast Tajikistan http://iwpr.net/report-news/unrest-subsides-southeast-tajikistan.) Khorog is still recovering from the recent bout unrest, in which four people died. The 2012 violence was on a larger scale and left about 50 people dead.

Some commentators see the Sodiqov case as an attempt to blame outside forces for trouble in Badakhshan.

“The researcher’s detention demonstrates that those in the highest echelons of power want to show the public that it was foreign countries that were behind the unrest… rather than the numerous social problems that persist,” Ravshan Abdullaev, Tajikistan director of the Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia, told IWPR.

Abdullaev recalled that when Khairullaev was dispatched to Badakhshan when violence broke out there in May, he too claimed that it was organised by outside forces.

“There’s no logic to these accusations and they are naive, at the very least,” Abdullaev said.

Journalist Galim Faskhutdinov drew a distinction between this case and the spy scandals that erupted periodically with Uzbekistan, a large and sometimes difficult neighbour.

“This isn’t spy mania like with Uzbekistan, where both sides periodically arrest each other’s citizens, often without cause, and accuse them of espionage,” he said. “Here the authorities are so much on their guard [in dealing with Badakhshan] that they see any attempt by Westerners to intervene and talk to activists as a threat.”

Sherzamonov said that he got the impression both from his own contacts with officials as well as what the activists who met Khairullaev told him, that the authorities were really after him.

“I was the principal target. They dont want our version of [events in] the recent violence to be made public,” Sherzamonov said. “I think they will try hard to discredit me in the eyes of the public.”

Political analyst Parviz Mullojanov agrees that Sherzamonov was probably the main target in what he calls an “absurd” development.

Mullojanov argues that the security services have shown themselves up – after all, they could just have done a Google search on Sodiqov and Heathershaw if they wanted to find out who they were. He doubts the public will swallow the allegation that a British academic institution is out to sow instability in Tajikistan.

“Now it’s too late,” he said. “We’ve got a new scandal that will have a negative impact on Tajik government’s image.”

Mullojanov cited an incident a few days beforehand, in which Britain’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Robin Ord-Smith, was unable to meet community leaders in Khorog when a meeting scheduled for June 10 was cancelled.

While the ambassador was in Badakhshan , a small demonstration took place outside the British embassy in Dushanbe, and police detained about a dozen people for throwing stones at the building.

“The British ambassador is effectively thrown out while visiting the region, the embassy building is attacked, and then a respected English university… is accused of espionage,” Mullojanov said. “From the outside, it looks like a series of carefully planned anti-British actions.”

Lola Olimova is IWPR Tajikistan editor. Nilufar Karimova is an IWPR contributor.