Sep 19

A conversation with Khayrullo Mirsaidov: on becoming a political exile

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Last year the story of Khayrullo Mirsaidov broke the Central Asian online news media. The social media campaign #FreeKhayrullo, initiated by his former colleague and friend Michael Andersen and amplified by human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch brought his story at the front pages of media outlets covering Central Asia.

Khayrullo Mirsaidov is an independent and well-known Tajik journalist and political analyst reporting on critical issues linked to human rights and domestic politics of Tajikistan. He has reported for Deutsche Welle, Asia-Plus, and the Fergana media outlets and worked for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Department for International Development (DFID) among others.

On July 1 2018, a court in Khujand sentenced Mirsaidov to 12 years in prison after he accused the regional official of Sughd region of corruption. In an interview with Asia-Plus, Mirsaidov alleged that the head of the region’s youth and sports affairs department, Olim Zohidzoda, demanded a $1,000 bribe and asked him to misuse public funds allocated for the Khujand-based competitive comedy troupe KVN led by Mirsaidov. Mirsaidov was arrested on 5th December 2017 and charged with multiple offenses which included embezzlement, forging documents, providing false testimony

On 22 August 2018, however, the Sughd Regional Court changed the sentence and approved his release after nine months in detention. Nevertheless, the Court found him guilty of embezzlement, forgery and providing false testimony. Additionally the Court ordered him to pay an 80,000 somoni ($8,500) fine[1], do community service, and pay one-fifth of his salary over the next two years to the government.

Mirsaidov’s ‘freedom’ was partial and short-lived. On 11 January 2019, Khujand City Court sentenced Khayrullo Mirsaidov to eight months in prison for his unauthorised departure from Tajikistan to Georgia in October 2018.  The Tajik authorities further issued an international arrest warrant against him. As he explained during our interview, he went to Georgia in mid-October 2018 for medical reasons after having been detained for nine months in Khujand prison. While being in Georgia his family at home were subject to intimidation from the Tajik authorities, who asked his family members of his whereabouts. After having been informed about his arrest warrant, he was forced to leave Georgia to another European country as staying in Georgia became unsafe for him, since Georgia and Tajikistan have an international memorandum of understanding which allows the countries to seek extradition.

Reflecting on his life abroad, Mirsaidov told me that in the past, due to the nature of his work as a journalist, he was forced to live far away from his family. The difficulty for him today is to visit his hometown and family whenever he wants:

“If previously I was able to visit my family once or twice per month, today this is not possible. Now I maintain contact with my family back home via WhatsApp and Internet”

But even the Internet is not a reliable source of communication, as the government frequently disturbs the online networks. As Mirsaidov explains:

“The authorities in Tajikistan realised that Internet can be an important tool for the opposition and social mobilisation. They are scared that the population may become more informed and educated about politics. Shutting down the Internet can help the government to block revolutionary ideologies and movements. During the election protests in Kazakhstan and in Russia (against the detention of the investigative journalist Ivan Golunov), Tajik state authorities severely restricted access to Internet for the population”.

Authorities in Tajikistan routinely disrupt online access and reduce Internet bandwidth, particularly in the instances of unrest. This new strategy is used to prevent the spread of events and news domestically. For instance, following the bloodshed in Kirpichniy prison (around 15 kilometres outside the capital, Dushanbe), officials temporarily blocked social media apps and Google accounts, claiming that the measures were necessary to halt the flow of disinformation and incitement to violence. Shutdowns are becoming increasingly normalised in Tajikistan as a tool to stop the dissemination of information deemed politically sensitive and dangerous for the regime.

Considering the deteriorating human rights record in Tajikistan, I asked Khayrullo about the role of the opposition. Is there actually any hope for Tajikistan for improving human rights or is this already too late?

Critically reflecting on the role of IRPT and Group 24, Mirsaidov explained that while the claims of the opposition groups from Tajikistan can be loudly heard from Europe, the effect in Tajikistan of organised and united political party opposition from abroad is weak. Many of the opposition critics are former insiders who fell out with the Rahmon’s regime and have been forced to flee the country and live in exile. With critics split among ideological lines and individual interests, there is no meaningful movement to oppose the country’s authoritarian rule. According to Mirsaidov, the most significant form of opposition would come from inside the country, once the population is ready to demand political changes. It would certainly be driven by the younger generation with more critical political orientations and values. Until then, her arues, repressive policies in Tajikistan would persist, particularly if these once are left uncontested by our Western leaders.

[1] which has since been paid in full