Oct 30

Tajikistan’s transnational repressions in the age of global authoritarianism: Findings from the Central Asia Political Exile Database (CAPE) project


Apparently distant and closed authoritarian regimes are increasingly enmeshed and integrated in the processes of globalisation. It is widely assumed that such globalisation undermines authoritarian rule. The advancement in communication technologies, information and international financial transaction facilitated the rise and empowerment of diaspora capable of instigating social change in the home country. It further enables them to bypass and build up leverage against authoritarian politics of control and repression. As the social mobilisation protests in the ‘Arab Spring’ events demonstrate, emigration has the capacity to challenge governance at home. In such a context, authoritarian states see diaspora communities as a potential threat to their regime in power.

It should therefore be unsurprising that authoritarian regimes have sought to extend their repressive measures to the transnational processes and extra-territorial spaces of their exiles.  There is an asymmetrical struggle that increasingly shapes the political conduct of autocratic incumbent in power. In their new book Dictators without Borders, Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw argue ‘domestic politics’ in Central Asia takes place as much outside as inside the borders of autocratic regimes. Examples abound. Most recently, in September 2017, at the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) opposition politicians overseas remain vulnerable. For example, members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and other activists who appeared on panels in Warsaw, found that their relatives back home were arrested and detained.

The Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) database at the department of Politics, University of Exeter, studies the extra-territorial security measures deployed by the five Central Asian states  and the human rights threats abuses and concerns faced by individuals in exile and opposition movements abroad. The dataset offers a unique analytical tool to study the dynamics of extraterritorial security measures in countries of Central Asia to target dissidents abroad, from the period of 1990 to present times. The database identifies four categories of political exile which are observable in a Central Asian context. These are: 1) former regime insiders and family members; 2) members of opposition political parties and movements; 3) banned clerics and alleged religious extremists which represent organisations banned by the home government; 4) independent journalists, academics and civil society activists.

The CAPE database further reveals the extra-territorial security processes by which the governments of Central Asia target these exiles. In exploring these patters the database offers important insights into to the relationship between authoritarian nation-states and their dissidents living abroad. We illustrate our observations through the case of Tajikistan. Although many countries of Central Asia are using extraterritorial security practices to track politically exiled activists, Tajikistan in particularly pursued an especially aggressive campaign to silence opposition abroad. This relentless campaign against the opposition culminated in 2015 with the banning of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the country’s most potent opposition force and the death of his leader Umarali Quvvatov. As part of the Central Asian Political Exiles database project, we have documented 47 cases of citizens from Tajikistan being targeted abroad and have conducted semi-structured interviews with Tajik exiled activists living in Europe. The analysis provides us with rich insights about extraterritorial security practices used by the government of Tajikistan.

Tajikistan’s political human rights context

Since being placed in power by a coalition of warlords at the height of the country’s civil war in November 1992, President Emomali Rahmon has gradually outmanoeuvred his rivals, slowly consolidating his position as a despotic leader. The Tajik state has suppressed all forms of opposition who dared to challenge the authority of the government. In the past three years, the human rights situation in the country has rapidly deteriorated. Following defeat in a rigged election in March 2015, the country’s leading opposition party the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) was blamed for plotting a ‘coup’ in September 2015 and declared a terrorist group. Websites have been blocked by the government and journalists forced to self-censor. A number of human rights lawyers defending political prisoners have been jailed on falsified fraud charges.

Fearing their safety, many former regime insiders, journalists, pious Muslims, members of the political opposition and those accused of ‘terrorism’ have fled the country. Although many of those fleeing the country travel directly to Russia and Turkey, where there are direct flights and visa-free entry, these countries are no longer considered safe for political refugees from Central Asia. As a result, many have sought asylum in the European Union. In 2016, for example, 830 Tajik citizens applied for asylum in Poland, up from 105 in 2014, the second largest group of applicants in the country. Since Tajiks can travel to Belarus and Russia without a visa, Poland is the closest European Union’s member state for those seeking to find protection under international refugee law and the right to asylum. Most chose to cross borders at Terespol, (a Polish town bordering with Belarus) as it is easily accessed by train from Moscow or Minsk.

Other communities of exiles have emerged in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. But the government has continued to target these individuals even after they have left the country.

Extra-territorial security measures

Up until the beginning of 2016, we documented 47 cases of citizens from Tajikistan being targeted abroad; this number has vastly increased.

The process by which the government targets these exiles usually proceeds in three stages. First they are placed ‘on notice,’ subjected to informal measures such as intimidation and threats, and placed on international wanted lists through Interpol and regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Second, exiles are arrested or detained by law enforcement outside of Tajikistan. Lastly, they are forcibly transferred, or rendered, back to their home country, or in some cases attacked and assassinated as the prominent case of the opposition leader of the Group 24, Umarali Quvatov, who was shot dead in Istanbul in 2015.

These ‘stage 3’ cases obviously gain the most publicity with 14 incidents recorded in the 2016 edition of the database – 12 in Russia, and two in Turkey. Within the territory of the European Union, stage two and stage three measures are far less likely to be successful. At least two political opponents have been temporarily detained based on arrest warrants issued by the government of Tajikistan through Interpol within the EU. But both were subsequently released based on concern that their refoulement to Tajikistan would result in mistreatment.

Faced with these restrictions, the security services have resorted to using stage one measures, routinely harassing and intimidating exiles and their families. Our ongoing research suggests that one of the main reasons why harassment and intimidation succeeds against many exiles is the credible threats made against their loved ones at home. While we have at least 50 publicly documented cases of citizens of Tajikistan being targeted by the government beyond the country’s territorial borders, this appears to be the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of their family members have suffered reprisals as a result of their political activities. These activities are aimed at forcing the exiles to return home and face trial, or coercing them into stopping their political activities. This kind of activity by Central Asian security services has long been common practice. But pressure appears to have intensified in recent years in Tajikistan as highlighted by a number of Human Rights Watch reports.

Most of those whose family have been targeted by the government in recent years are guilty of the second ‘crime’: opposition to the regime. In trying to place pressure on the relatives of political exiles, the government has resorted to a number of tactics, including arbitrary detention, threats, humiliation and confiscation of passports and property. Moreover, humiliation plays a central role in the psychological pressure exerted on family members. The authorities frequently remind local residents about the ‘shame’ that the exiles have brought on their family members. Ahead of the conference in Dortmund marking 20 years of the end of the civil war conflict, the security services coerced the parents of Gulbarg Saifova, a relative of party leader Muhiddin Kabiri, to appear on camera condemning their daughter and Kabiri.

What is the effectiveness of state repression?

 State repression involves the use of credible threats and intimidation with a view to imposing a cost on the target in order to deter specific activities and/or beliefs perceived to be challenging to state power. In other words, repression is effective if it is successful in deterring undesired behaviour. Emerging evidence from the Tajik cases does not provide a firm conclusion regarding the effectiveness of repression. In at least two cases, citizens have returned home after their families were threatened. Suspected Group 24 activists Umedjon Solihov and Sherzod Komilov returned to Tajikistan in early 2015 to be sentenced to 17.5 years in jail. Farrukh, a businessman and IRPT activist based in Moscow, also quit the party in mid-2015, a few months before the Supreme Court labelled it a ‘terrorist’ organization. He cited pressure on his family still residing in Tajikistan as the major reason he decided to step away from politics. As he recounts:

“My brother, who still lives in Tajikistan, called me. He said that the security services had visited him and said “your brother is a terrorist.” He implored me to stop, saying I was being selfish and that “we are paying for your activities.” My mother is sick and the stress is making her worse. I decided at that point to withdraw my support for the party.”

Clearly personal ties with their home country hamper the autonomy and freedoms of the individuals living in exile. But while a few exiles have been intimidated into retreating from politics, the majority of the 28 we have collectively interviewed remain defiant in the face of government pressure on their families. In spite of the government targeting their relatives after the opposition in exile organized protests and meetings in Warsaw in September 2016, Prague in December 2016 and Dortmund in July 2017, the opposition remains undeterred. One member of the IRPT now based in Poland summarises a commonly held feeling among those in exile:

“They have humiliated my family in public, detained my brother, sisters and parents. But if I stop, then the government wins. The world needs people who stand up for what is right.”

This statement demonstrates the complex dilemma that activists abroad face. Those willing to express their views against their home government might have all the rights to do so in in their host country in the EU.  However, they must weigh the consequences of their political acts, as these have the potential to threaten their families still living in their home state who are punished by virtue of their connection to the activist. Despite facing this pressure, evidence from our ongoing study indicates more often than not that proxy repression is not an effective tool in deterring dissent. The best option for exiles is to help their family members join them in the European Union. Although some family members have managed to leave Tajikistan and join their exiled relatives abroad, the government has responded to this by confiscating the passports of those who have remained. At present, most relatives are trapped in Tajikistan.


The extraterritorial security measures used by Tajikistan demonstrate the transboundary nature of authoritarian regime repression and its attempt to supress dissent and social movement mobilization abroad. Increasingly, the state is repressing exiles by threatening relatives as means of deterrence and punishment. The uses of such repressive practices produce patterns of state control that span beyond the state’s traditional territorial boundaries. By using transnational repression tactics, the authoritarian state of Tajikistan signal to individuals in exile, that there is no safe harbour abroad. Increasingly, the state is able to penetrate democratic liberal spaces and reproduce domestic security mechanisms and state coercive power. What emerges from the study of Tajikistan is that political authority of the state is increasingly embedded within global networks and spaces that enable the regime to exercise its power beyond its territorial geographical context. Such patterns are however not unique to Tajikistan.

The Central Asia Political Exile database demonstrates that other states in Central Asia are becoming accustomed to use such extraterritorial security practices to target dissidents abroad; there is also ample evidence from other regions, particularly the Middle East. Research on repression is mainly concerned on with why, when and how political authorities use coercive power domestically against challengers of the state. The potential reach of repression beyond the borders of the nation state, however, is rarely considered. Yet as the CAPE database illustrates, there is a need to address forms of transnational repression exercised by the authoritarian state in the age of globalisation and ensure that international criminal justice and counter-terrorism cooperation is not abused and safe havens continue to be found for exiles who have fled repression in Central Asia.

Earlier versions of this article were published in: