For two weeks, opposition activist Sharofiddin Gadoyev was held in captivity by the government of Tajikistan. But a swell of indignation from supporters, rights advocates and diplomats led to a rare climbdown by the authoritarian government in Dushanbe.
On March 2, Gadoyev was allowed to leave Tajikistan and return to the Netherlands, where he enjoys political asylum.
In an exclusive interview with Eurasianet on March 6, Gadoyev speaks in detail about the circumstances that led to his abduction in Moscow on February 14. He also made sensational allegations that – if borne out – indicate that Tajikistan is braced for an important and imminent period of transition.
Eurasianet: You decided to go to Russia. What prompted you to make that decision?
Gadoyev: We have 2 million [Tajik] migrants in Russia [editor: most estimates put the figure between 1 and 1.5 million]. Each one of them has the right to cast a vote. There are almost half a million people with dual citizenship. They also have every right to participate in elections. What this means is that 50 percent of the electorate lives outside Tajikistan.
So, first of all, I have to say that the Russians themselves invited me. I was certain that I could persuade the Kremlin to make it so that Tajikistan would hold transparent elections. To give Tajiks living in Russia the opportunity to participate in elections, offer an alternative, ensure that there were other candidates in elections. We wanted to mobilize Tajik people in Russia – this is very important for the opposition.
We also wanted to talk about forming a Tajik diaspora in Russia and consolidating migrants around this diaspora. But without approval from the senior leadership in Russia, the opposition would not able to do this.
The people of Tajikistan need to regain the right to choose, so that they might become the masters of their own future. Otherwise, the population of Tajikistan will, sooner or later, do something [for itself], but without Russia’s involvement. If Russia behaves this way with Tajiks, then of course the Tajiks will turn away from them.
E: As you know, Russia regularly extradites opposition-minded people to Tajikistan, even those with Russian citizenship. So why did that not make you more cautious?
G: I was invited by a person close to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. I will not name that person now, because this is the subject of an ongoing investigation.
When a person close to the president invites you, any misgivings you might have take a back seat. I could not have imagined that criminal personalities and bandits had gathered around Putin. Now I understand that in Russia, even at the highest levels, there is criminality.
E: Who assured you that you would be safe in Russia? And who did you manage to meet?
G: I was given assurances by that same person close to Putin. He personally invited me.
On two occasions, I obtained a Russian visa in The Hague. [NB: Tajik passport-holders may travel to Russia without visas, but Gadoyev has a different travel document in line with his asylum status]. There are two Interpol Red Notices in my name. Without their permission and guarantees, there is no way I could have got a visa.
E: What exactly happened on the day you were kidnapped?
G: On February 14, I was at the Crowne Plaza Moscow. I was meant to be meeting a high-ranking Russian official outside Moscow. So they sent a car to pick me up.
I was met by an assistant to this person – he was called Maxim. He was in charge of organizing the meeting.
They told me to be ready at 6 p.m. and that a car would come for me. Maxim arrived in a BMW with a driver. He immediately warned me that somewhere halfway to our destination, we would have to move to another car.
After 20 minutes, the car came to a halt. This was within the city limits, on a corner somewhere. There was a white minivan with tinted windows. Maxim got out of the car and spoke to people in the van. Then he told me that I would have to move to the van since another [government body] was to take charge of me at that point.
As soon as I got out of the BMW, I was surrounded by eight people all dressed the same, in black jackets and black headwear. They were all wearing earpieces. I assumed they were security and so I calmly got into the other vehicle.
But as I soon as I took my seat, the situation changed. When I got into the car, they told me that they were from the Russian Interior Ministry.
They slapped handcuffs on me and taped my mouth and head. Then they stuck a cellophane bag over my head and poked holes so I could breathe through my nose.
They went through my pockets and took everything out – my ID, my travel passport, my bank cards and money. We drove for about an hour. Then I was moved to yet another vehicle.
I could not see a thing. Nobody around me said a word. Everything I am saying here is based on my physical sensations [about my surroundings].
What I thought was that they were taking me somewhere to liquidate me without trace, or to interrogate me and then kill me. After half an hour, the car stopped again. I could hear the sound of planes and I immediately understood this meant they were sending me to Dushanbe.
At that moment, I pulled my head down and tore through the cellophane and tape with my fingers. I told them to tell the person who gave me his bone fides that I had foreseen this possible outcome and that I had taken precautions. I warned them that they risked causing an international scandal.
As soon as I said this, they beat me hard around the head. One of them left the room talking on the telephone. He then came back and began to frisk me, to see that I had no listening devices on me.
Also, when I managed to rip the bag, I recognized that they were officers with the FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service]. I worked out that I had first been taken by the Interior Ministry and then handed over to the FSB.
Then they again secured me with tape. It felt like I was entering the [departure terminal] through some rear entrance. There was no noise and no official registration. We did not go through any passport checks.
E: Describe how you got to Tajikistan.
G: On the plane, I heard people talking in Tajik. That meant I was definitely flying to Dushanbe.
I was in the business class section of the plane, far from the other passengers. But I was desperate for people to find out about me, that there should be witnesses who might be able to speak to the press and tell them that I had been kidnapped.
Once again, I tore through the tape and began shouting: “I am Sharofiddin Gadoyev, I have been kidnapped.” I said this several times and tried to make my way into the main part of the plane, so that as many people as possible would know what was going on.
When that happened, two policemen with the Tajik Interior Ministry began to strike me on my arms and legs, on my back and head. They hit me in the face and I started to bleed from my mouth.
At a certain point … a member of the crew pushed my head to the ground while another taped my mouth shut. Then they tied my hands and legs with tape. I flew to Dushanbe for four hours with my head pushed down to my legs.
E: And what happened once you were in Dushanbe?
G: In Dushanbe, they immediately threw me into a basement and offered me three options: they would either kill me and nobody would know that I had been taken to Tajikistan; they would put me in prison from 25 years to life; or else I could cooperate with the authorities and place the blame for everything on Muhiddin Kabiri [the exiled leader of a banned opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT].
They wanted me to stand in front of a camera and say that Kabiri gets money from Iran, from human rights groups, from [George] Soros, that he wants to destabilize Tajikistan. And to say that the IRPT is a terrorist organization.
On the first day, I met with [deputy Interior Minister] General Abdurahmon Alamshozoda, Amirbek Beknazarov [head of the anti-terrorism section of the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB] and Ahtamhon Pirov [a high-ranking Tajik representative at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization]. They told me it was absolutely imperative that I should go in front of a camera, so that the peshvo[Tajik for leader, a reference to President Emomali Rahmon] might amnesty me.
They told me to say that Kabiri had converted to Shiism, that he has a turbahprayer stone and that he always prays with this stone. I was also meant to claim that the IRPT has a militant training camp in the Iranian city of Mazandaran. I tried to explain to them that I never once heard Kabiri talking about killing anybody or revenge.
I spent three days in Varzob [outside Dushanbe], and then two days at my family home in Farkhor [in the south of the country]. The rest of the time, I was placed in a rented one-room apartment at 11 Kurbonov Street in Dushanbe with three GKNB officers. Officers with the Alfa special security forces were on guard in the street.
E: Did you meet any high-ranking officials? Some people have claimed you met with Rustam Emomali [son of President Rahmon and mayor of Dushanbe] and with GKNB chief Saymumin Yatimov?
G: They offered for me to meet with Rustam, but it never happened. I was also supposed to meet with the Interior Minister, Ramazon Rahimzoda, but that too never happened
But I met with Yatimov several times.
E: What did you talk about with Yatimov?
G: My abduction was handled by the Interior Ministry. But on February 16, the president decided for my case to be handed over to the GKNB.
My first encounter with Yatimov was on February 16, at a dacha in Varzob belonging to law enforcement bodies. I was told that we should reinstitute Group 24 inside Tajikistan [NB: Group 24 is a foreign-based opposition group founded by Umarali Quvvatov, who was murdered in Istanbul in March 2015].
I was to become the leader of this group and to create the illusion of an opposition inside the country. We were to be under the direct control of the authorities and we were not to criticize the president or his family. It was also decided that I should liquidate the Reform and Development of Tajikistan movement, which is registered in the Netherlands.
Another task for me was to support Rustam Emomali in the elections in 2020.
I was supposed to pursue a campaign to persuade others to return from Europe to Tajikistan.
E: Before going to Russia, you pre-recorded a video message to warn that there was a chance you might be abducted or murdered. What was the reaction when that message was uploaded to the internet by your associates?
G: On February 21, after the video surfaced, Yatimov came to speak to me on two occasions. He asked me why I had not told him about the existence of the footage. I said that I had told other people about it, but that they did not listen to me.
E: As you explained, after your arrival in Dushanbe, you made statements to camera condemning your opposition allies. How were you persuaded to make these recordings?
G: I was physically abused in Moscow, on the plane and immediately upon arrival. They beat me on the arms, on my legs, on my face. As soon as I agreed to go on camera, they stopped mistreating me. I was also repeatedly pressured through threats and manipulation. So I agreed to play along.
You will have noticed that there were many jumps in the first video and that it was heavily edited. Because [my interrogators] were telling me exactly what to say, and I repeated after them like a parrot. And I had to break off repeatedly so that I could tell them what was on my mind.
E: So how did you manage to negotiate your departure from Tajikistan?
G: There was a lot of international pressure on Tajikistan. The German Embassy in Dushanbe in particular contributed to this. They said that Sharofiddin had been kidnapped and that he should go free. The European Union and the United States also did their bit. The Netherlands was not passive either.
It was a huge campaign and so the authorities decided they wanted to get rid of me.
Already on February 28, General Beknazarov told me that I would be allowed to go to Amsterdam. Rahmon gave the go-ahead – it turned out he was personally handling the case.
They released a video of me sitting on the plane. They brought my parents so that they could bid farewell to me. They even gave me $1,500 to pay for my expenses.
E: What do you intend to do next?
G: Prosecutors in the Netherlands have initiated an inquiry into my abduction. I will make efforts to ensure they get strong evidence. I also intend to take my case to the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations.
What I want is a just society where everybody is equal before the law, where there are fair elections and where people can have a decent life.
Correction: Gadoyev said he had met Yatimov on the 15th. He later remembered it was the 16th. The text has been corrected.