Whereabouts Unknown: Tajik Government Critics Face Pressure, Forced Disappearances In Russia

Relatives of Tajik blogger Ehson Odinaev haven’t heard from him since May 2015, when Odinaev left his apartment in St. Petersburg to buy medicine from a nearby pharmacy. He never returned home.

His family suspects Odinaev might have been detained by Russian police and sent back to Dushanbe at the request of the Tajik government, which targets its critics at home and abroad.

Odinaev was a supporter of Group 24, a political opposition movement that Tajikistan banned in 2014 and whose supporters it has relentlessly hunted ever since.

The blogger, who was 24 years old at the time of his disappearance, was critical of the Tajik government.

Odinaev had lived in Russia since 2007. But Russia hasn’t been a safe place for Tajik activists and opposition supporters, even after they have received Russian citizenship or legal residency.

At least 15 Tajik activists have disappeared in Russia since 2015, human rights activists say. Some of them have reappeared in Tajikistan -- often in jails, facing dubious charges ranging from fraud to extremism. The whereabouts of others, like Odinaev, remain unknown.

Prominent cases include the abduction of Group 24 activist Sharofiddin Gadoev, who disappeared in Moscow during a trip from the Netherlands in 2019. He later resurfaced in Tajikistan.

Gadoev’s case prompted an international outcry by leading rights groups. He was subsequently freed and allowed to return to the Netherlands.

They didn’t even present any documents. The following day, on March 25, they put me on a Dushanbe-bound plane.”
-- Tajik cleric Saidnuriddin Roziqov

Russia has also deported two outspoken leaders of Tajik migrant groups --
Karomat Sharifov and Izzat Amon -- in 2017 and 2021, respectively.

Both men, known for their criticism of Tajik authorities, were also stripped of their Russian citizenship on disputed charges of violating Russian immigration laws.

But there are many other less prominent cases involving Tajik government critics who have disappeared in Russia.

There are also allegations by Tajik activists in Russia who say their relatives in Tajikistan are being targeted by the government in an effort to silence and threaten its critics abroad.

Rahmatjon Muhammadjon, a member of Group 24, vanished in Moscow under unknown circumstances on May 18. The opposition group told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that Muhammadjon acquired Russian citizenship in 2018.

Another Group 24 member, Shobuddin Badalov, was abducted by unknown men in the Russian city of Nizhniy Novgorod in August before being forcibly sent to Dushanbe.

Russian police denied involvement. Tajik authorities said Badalov returned to Tajikistan of his own free will.

The fate of both men is unknown.

Saidnuriddin Roziqov, a Tajik cleric who lived in Russia for 23 years, says he was detained in the town of Rezh by unknown people on March 24.

“They didn’t even present any documents,” Roziqov said. “The following day, on March 25, they put me on a Dushanbe-bound plane.”

After his arrival in Dushanbe, the 60-year-old cleric was accused of having links to the banned Salafiya movement, his relatives said.

On April 3, Roziqov appeared in a video in which he said the state security committee “has probed” the allegation and “confirmed [his] innocence.”

Roziqov previously wore a bushy beard, which is informally banned in Tajikistan for men below the age of 40 as an outward sign of religious extremism. In the video, he sported a much shorter and trimmed beard.

In May, a court in the Russian province of Sverdlovsk reportedly overturned a 2018 ruling to strip Roziqov of his Russian citizenship. The opposition news website Payom reported that Roziqov was planning to return to Sverdlovsk to be reunited with his family.

Many others, however, have faced different outcomes.

Dual Tajik and Russian citizen Maqsud Ibrohimov, 44, disappeared in Moscow in 2015. Several weeks later, Ibrohimov’s relatives found out he was in a Dushanbe prison, accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

Prior to his disappearance, Ibrohimov had set up a political group, The Youth For Tajikistan’s Revival, which called for protests to demand President Emomali Rahmon’s resignation.

Ibrohimov has since been sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Relatives Under Pressure

After his forced return to Dushanbe from Moscow in March, Izzat Amon, the head of the Center for Tajiks in Moscow, was charged with fraud. Amon faces up to 12 years in prison if found guilty. His supporters dismiss the charges as politically motivated.

Amon’s nonprofit organization in Moscow has helped Tajik migrant workers find jobs, obtain work and residency permits, and get legal advice.

Tajiks in Russia “should focus on their own work or studies instead of sharing all kinds of statements on social media.”
-- Tajik Interior Ministry official

Several of Amon’s colleagues in Moscow complain that their relatives in Tajikistan have come under pressure from authorities since Amon was deported. They claim Tajik officials are using their family members to pass their messages to Amon’s associates and warn them that they must end their political activism.

Among them is Bakhtovar Jumaev, a Moscow-based Tajik lawyer who says his father and wife were summoned to the Tajik Interior Ministry’s Department of the Fight Against Organized Crime.

According to Jumaev, officials have told his family to demand that he return to Tajikistan.

Jumaev has since left Russia for a third country. Without disclosing details, Jumaev says he has received information that officials were planning to detain and deport him to Tajikistan by May 1.

Moscow-based Tajik student activist Suhrob Jahon claims Tajik authorities summoned his family members to discuss his activities in Russia. Jahon said they demanded he delete several photos from social media that depict him with Amon and a former member of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

One Tajik official at the Interior Ministry confirmed that family members had been summoned for talks, but he said the meetings weren’t related to Amon’s case.

The official stopped short of saying the government doesn’t want Tajik citizens in Russia to get involved in political activism. But he said Tajiks in Russia “should focus on their own work or studies instead of sharing all kinds of statements on social media.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

There are several hundred thousand Tajik migrant workers in Russia, along with thousands of Tajik students. An impoverished country of some 9.5 million, Tajikistan relies heavily on remittances from the workers.

Opposition parties such as the IRPT and Group 24 are thought to enjoy support among the migrants, who have greater access to social media and the Internet in Russia. Government critics say Dushanbe is wary of its political opponents’ influence on its citizens in Russia.

Farhod Odinaev, a European-based Tajik opposition politician, says the disappearances of Tajik activists in Russia are all masterminded by the government in Dushanbe.

“Tajikistan doesn’t want people like Maqsud Ibrohimov to call for protests against the government,” Odinaev said. “The government wants to silence its critics in Russia and elsewhere. Since it’s impossible to do so lawfully, authorities turn to criminal methods, such as abducting people.”