Internet grinds to near-halt in Tajikistan

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DUSHANBE (TCA) — It has become a routine practice for Tajikistan authorities to block internet services in efforts to prevent any opposition-minded online activity in the country. We are republishing this article on the issue, originally published by Eurasianet:

Whole swathes of the internet have been blocked in Tajikistan following the recent killing of four tourists, allegedly at the hands of a group of young men that claimed loyalty to the Islamic State.

Numerous websites, including news resources like Asia-Plus and RFE/RL’s Tajik service and social media sites Facebook and Twitter, were inaccessible over the weekend.
As of lunchtime August 6, some sites were sporadically available, depending on the provider. In some instances, internet users have reported trouble getting online at all. Mobile phone companies have circulated notes to their clients saying that the sudden slowdown in internet provision is related to unspecified technical issues.

Communications officials have made no public statements to confirm or deny that they are behind the problem, although the practice of blocking websites after outbreaks of unrest fits a long-standing pattern that has been in place since around 2012. In what appears to be a break from custom, however, the blockages have this time around been implemented directly by the state telecommunications service and not through a written or verbal order to providers.

Starting this year, authorities deprived local fixed-lined and mobile service providers of the right to buy data traffic from neighboring countries. It cited security as grounds for the prohibition. ISPs must now buy data from a structure called the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, or EKTs in its Russian-language acronym.

This system is said by officials to funnel all telecommunications-based exchanges — be it by phone or internet — through a powerful computer as a security measure.
More importantly, EKTs is owned by state-run Tojiktelekom, which in turn is run by the telecommunications service. This has in effect transformed the entire sector into a lucrative monopoly run by the head of the communications service, Beg Sabur (né Beg Zukhurov), the father of one of President Emomali Rahmon’s sons-in-law.

Although the reasons behind the latest block of internet sites have not been stated, the prevailing consensus is that it is the result of the murder of four cyclists near the town of Danghara late last month. The government initially attempted to pin the killings on the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, but it then changed its story once a video surfaced online of the suspected attackers swearing fealty to the Islamic State. The official narrative now is that the IRPT was working in league with the Islamic State.

There are possible alternative (or additional) explanations though. There has been a surge of online activity critical of the government in recent weeks in connection with a series of perceived grievous human rights violations.

One case involved the severely ill four-year-old grandson of IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri being denied permission to leave the country for urgent treatment. The travel restriction appeared to be a government reprisal against Kabiri. Online petitions had circulated widely before Hamza Tillozoda was granted a passport and allowed to fly out of Dushanbe.

Another online campaign is also now underway to protest the 12-year jail sentence handed down last month to journalist and comedian Khairullo Mirsaidov. Critics of the sentence have said Mirsaidov’s trial was bogus and based on trumped-up evidence.

And then on August 4, Tajik border guards reportedly removed the 10-year-old daughter of self-exiled political activist Shabnam Khudoydodova from a flight to Istanbul. A hashtag dissemination campaign titled #FreeFotima, named for the little girl, duly began in the wake of this travel prohibition.