(Berlin) – Tajik authorities should immediately release or credibly charge a blogger and academic researcher detained on June 16 in southeastern Tajikistan, Human Rights Watch said today. Two persons identifying themselves as officers with Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security detained Alexander Sodiqov in Khorog, capital of the autonomous republic of Gorno-Badakhshan, on suspicion of spying for an unnamed country after he met with civil society activist Alim Sherzamonov. Government officials refuse to confirm he is in custody and have not disclosed his whereabouts.
“An academic researcher has apparently been ‘disappeared’ in Tajikistan, where authorities have failed to account for his whereabouts or well-being for three days,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Tajik government should immediately release or credibly charge Alexander Sodiqov, provide him access to a lawyer and his family, and stop this agonizing ordeal.”
At the time of his detention, Sodiqov, a Tajik citizen, Ph.D student at the University of Toronto, and a well-known blogger for Global Voices, was visiting the autonomous republic of Gorno-Badakhshan to conduct academic research on conflict resolution under the auspices of the University of Exeter in the UK. Gorno-Badakhshan experienced clashes between central government forces and an armed group in July 2012 and more recent protests in May 2014.
On June 16, State Committee for National Security officers arrested Sodiqov during an interview he was conducting with Sherzamonov, a leader of the May anti-government protests in Khorog and the deputy head of the opposition Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan in the region. Sherzamonov told reporters that at noon two persons in plain clothes identifying themselves as security services officers approached the two and attempted to arrest both without explanation. Following Sherzamonov’s protests, the two officers took Sodiqov away alone. Sherzamonov did not see in what direction they took him. The State Committee for National Security later made a statement confirming the arrest that suggested Sodiqov had been involved in espionage on behalf of an unidentified foreign government but officials have since refused to confirm he is in their custody.
Sodiqov has not been heard from since 9:30 p.m. local time on June 16, when he called his wife. At the time, Sodiqov was unable to say where he was being held or by whom. Various government ministries, including the State Committee for National Security, have since refused to confirm Sodiqov’s whereabouts or that he is in custody.
Under international law, authorities commit an enforced disappearance when, following a person’s arrest by state agents, they refuse to acknowledge they are holding someone in detention or conceal the person’s fate or whereabouts, thereby placing them outside the protection of the law. “Disappearances” increase the likelihood of torture or other ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Tajik government appears to be taking a ‘detain first, ask questions later’ approach,” Williamson said. “This is a violation of Tajikistan’s obligations under international law.”
On June 17, sources close to the Sodiqov family told Human Rights Watch that police searched Sodiqov’s mother’s house in Dushanbe and confiscated flash drives and computers. Later, on June 18, state television in Khorog showed scenes of Sodiqov speaking about the Gorno-Badakhshan region which appeared to show him in the custody of local law enforcement officials, but it was not announced during the program where or by whom he was held.
Since Sodiqov’s detention and disappearance, the University of Exeter has confirmed that his trip to Gorno-Badakhshan was part of a university study. Scholars working on Central Asia have expressed concern for Sodiqov’s safety, and alarm that his arrest appears to be retaliation for his peaceful academic research. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, also called on Tajik authorities to immediately disclose his whereabouts and provide information on his disappearance.
“Enforced disappearances are a serious crime and have no place in a country that aspires to respect the rule of law,” said Williamson.