Tajikistan seizes momentum to tar opposition as terrorists

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DUSHANBE (TCA) — Authorities in Tajikistan have accused the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan of being behind an attack that killed four foreign cyclists this week — a claim that sounds hardly credible and only shows Dushanbe’s resolve to hit another blow on its political opponent. We are republishing this article on the issue, originally published by Eurasianet:

A court in Tajikistan has sentenced 14 people that authorities say were members of a banned opposition party to lengthy prison terms on terrorism charges.

News of the convictions — which ranged from seven to 26 years in prison — were aired on a state television evening bulletin on July 31 on the heels of prior claims that the outlawed Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was behind the hit-and-run attack this week that left four foreign cyclists dead. That attack was, however, claimed by the Islamic State group.

A lengthy report on the state-run Tajikistan channel detailed how the purported IRPT members were detained in a special operation in February and that they had trained in insurgency techniques in Afghanistan. Their plan was to carry out a series of terrorist attacks in Dushanbe and against a Russian base near the city during the Nowruz festivities, state television claimed.

“They planned to blow up strategically important sites and foreign diplomatic missions in Dushanbe. Their group was created for that purpose,” the report stated.

The report claimed further that the ringleaders of the plot trained in Afghanistan with assistance from the Islamic State group.

The entire trial was held in great secrecy and it is impossible to verify the credibility of the state’s case against the defendants. It is not even clear when the trial took place. But the intent of this kind of messaging is more clear.

In its determination to paint the IRPT — the only opposition group of note that still operated in Tajikistan until it was hounded of the country in 2015 — in the worst possible light, the government has sought to push the notion that the party is in league with the world’s most notorious terrorist organization. Part of the agenda is evidently to persuade Western governments against giving exiled IRPT members asylum — an effort that has largely failed.

The idea of a IRPT-Islamic State tie-up is one that nobody else in the world appears prepared to acknowledge. The most that Dushanbe has achieved is to persuade the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to include the IRPT in its register of terrorist and extremist organizations.

Oddly perhaps, the Tajik government did not explicitly pursue the Islamic State angle with the cyclists attack. In a press release summing up its preliminary investigation, the Interior Ministry identified an individual by the name of Nosirkhuja Ubaidov (also known as Qori-Nosir) as being the mastermind behind the entire plot. Officials claimed that one of the suspected perpetrators, Husein Abdusamadov, met with Ubaidov in Qom and the province of Mazendaran in Iran on four occasions in 2014 and 2015.

Ubaibov is described as having been a member of the IRPT since 1992. For good measure, police alleged that Abdusamadov’s brother is serving a prison sentence on terrorism charges and was a member of the Islamic Movement of Turkestan going by the name Mullo Umar.

This account was apparently provided by Abdusamadov, who is shown in Interior Ministry handouts with deep-colored bruises all over his face.

The IRPT has repeatedly pushed back against such allegations. It said in a statement published on Facebook that it had no members called Nosirkhuja Ubaidov. Earlier, it deplored what it called the Tajik government’s attempts to exploit the killings outside Danghara.

“We consider it a shameless and illogical slander. Unfortunately, the Tajik authorities, as always, have tried to use this human and national tragedy for political purpose and against the peaceful opponents,” it said in an English-language statement on Facebook.

A self-filmed video by the quintet of suspected Danghara attack perpetrators shows them sitting in front of an Islamic State flag and vowing to “establish the Almighty’s rule on this land.” No reference is made in the video to the IRPT. The figures seen in the video appeared to be same as the suspects shown as having been killed by Tajik law enforcement officers in a special operation following the Danghara incident.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the broader scenario repeatedly put forward by Tajik authorities is that the IRPT is supposedly plotting unrest in cahoots with Iran. Indeed, in a bid to advance that case further, President Emomali Rahmon stated on May 12 that the IRPT had grown so close to Tehran that the party as whole had converted to Shia Islam.

There are surely few security analysts who would attempt to argue that Iran and the Islamic State group are allies or have shared goals.

This latter strand of allegations appears to be the result of concerted attempts by Saudi Arabia to draw Tajikistan into its sphere of influence. In an interview last month, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Abdulaziz ibn Muhammad al-Badi, boasted that his government had given Dushanbe more than $200 million in aid over the years. In the same exchange, al-Badi actively supported notions aired in Tajik state media that Iran is trying to lay the ground for an Islamic revolution in Tajikistan.

Until this week, while intensely muddled and illogical, these claims remained an ultimately internal Tajik matter. But the targeted killing of foreign civilians, and U.S. citizens at that, should now prompt more scrutiny from the international community — particularly from those countries collaborating most with Dushanbe in counteracting the threat of Islamist terror. For any Western governments to describe Tajikistan as a good faith partner in the struggle against international terrorism would be a gesture of utter contempt toward those whose lives were so cruelly cut short this week.