Introduction by John Heathershaw
Limitations on academic freedom occur throughout Central Asia and across much of the world. However, in some parts of the region these pressures and constraints are worse than others and/or worsening. One such place is Tajikistan where there are an increasing number of cases of academics being arrested, detained and/or forced to flee the country. I am personally aware of six cases of academic asylum seekers from Tajikistan over the last three years. In this testimony, with names of persons and institutions anonymised, a Tajik scholar recounts the circumstances which led to her/his flight to claim refuge overseas.
The 2017 Report of the Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, reports that attacks on scholars, students and education institutions are rapidly increasing across regions around the globe. The consequences of such actions imply a shrinking of academic space and individual rights to freely think, exchange ideas and question. As this anonymous statement illustrates, increasingly academics and higher education community have been viewed as a serious threat to state’s authority or as a source of potential opposition. Further, the consequences of such state’s repressive targeting spans beyond academic community and affects individual are family members as a strategy to silence peaceful expression.
What is also evident is that this case led to forced flight due to attempts by the persecuted academic to protect the freedoms in which s/he had been socialised during PhD studies in Europe and to continue working with institutions in foreign partnership. This raises questions of the practical and ethical dilemmas of academic cooperation between universities in liberal democracies and those in Central Asian autocracies that seek to control and limit the work of the academy so that it furthers the narrowly-defined ‘national interest’. In publishing this testimony, we seek to bring those questions – widely discussed between academics – more into the public sphere. There are no easy answers to these questions as the value of cooperation will always run up against the risks it produces.
There will be further posts on this theme in 2018.
An Anonymous Academic from Tajikistan Statement concerning the circumstances which caused me to flee the country
My research is on the history, languages and cultures of Central Asian peoples populating the territories and adjacent areas of contemporary Tajikistan. I have a PhD from an internationally-recognised university in Europe. Following my graduation, I decided to return to Tajikistan in order to continue my academic work in my home country.
During the three and a half years in Tajikistan there was considerable pressure from the institutions where I worked. During my one year in a state institution I was invited three times to participate in international conferences and each time I had to go for an ‘interview’ with the security services’ (GKNB) overseer of the state institution. On one occasion when I was invited to come to France, I was warned that if I get invitation next time I must include someone else from the institution to come with me otherwise I would be banned to travel.
When working for another state institution I was often visited by the GKNB ‘supervisor’ as there were some foreign colleagues, including a PhD student whom I supervised. I was warned on several occasions not to express my views on (the lack of) quality control of research ethics and also a project given from the president’s office on revising and renaming the geographical names of the country. On this latter topic I spoke in an open meeting, stating that changing the Uzbek or Russian place names causes psychological harm and neglects the people’s memory and dignity as citizens. I was told that my speech was anti-constitutional act to object or criticize the leader of nation’s view.
Over the last year these pressures have built in to a campaign of threats, intimidation and detention.
For 9-10 months prior to my forced departure, I was under increasing pressure and threats from my country’s national security services including some very negative experiences. I was abducted once and detained for 4 to 6 hours of arrest and interrogation on four occasions. My office has also been raided in my absence.
There is no official charge or case opened against me but I have been continuously pressured and threatened to an extent that I had to get treatment for my mental health. I was specifically threatened to be jailed for treason for 17 to 23 years and that they would also harm my wife and children.
The treatment I faced also seems related to my religious identity as a Christian. My ordeal with the security services began when they raided our local church. This than led them to scrutinize my activities in academic sphere, including my work through a local cultural foundation working in the sphere of endangered language documentation etc.
In April , I was supposed to travel to UK to attend an academic symposium but was issued a ban on travel. I organized an academic round table on the occasion of international mother tongue day, where we invited members of press. Afterwards, I was again called on by the security services and they told me that such advocacy for minority languages and talking to the press about government not fulfilling its obligation is anti-constitutional and anti-state.
When they called me and held me for 6 hours in security services detention centre, I was advised to act passively without complaint or drawing attention to my situation. I followed this instruction and did my daily work despite the harassment of all sorts.
However, the treatment continued. The security services view me as a member of minority religious group which is routinely subject to discrimination. In particular, they ask why I work for state institution with such a low pay, stating that I must be a spy working undercover for the benefit of another country or a foreign organization.
Over this period of time, I and members of my family have also faced other experiences of state power and social pressure due to our identity as ethnic and religious minorities. My partner was detained at the border with Uzbekistan and held under house arrest for more than one month due to apparent problems with identity documents. Our three children have also been traumatised by these events and our whole family needs time to recover from the experiences we have faced.