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University of Toronto researcher still detained in Tajikistan

Bishkek (AKIpress) - Just over a month ago, Alexander Sodiqov, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto, set out to do field research in his native Tajikistan. Within days of his arrival, secret police swooped in and locked him up in detention, where he remains today, CBC's Jennifer Clibbon said.

At first, Tajik media reported that Sodiqov had been formally charged with espionage and treason. But now, it’s become more ambiguous, says Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, who is based in Bishkek, in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

“It could reflect that Tajik authorities, in the face of a large international outcry, are still considering their options,” said Swerdlow.

The fate of the 31-year-old Sodiqov – who, by all accounts, is a likeable and hard-working student with a bright future ahead of him – has galvanized fellow scholars around the world.

Thousands have signed petitions demanding his immediate release, and they are debating whether his arrest means other academic researchers could become targets in Central Asia, a region that was once part of the Soviet empire.

“Alexander Sodiqov had the misfortune of being a scholar interested in conflict and conflict prevention in Badakhshan [province] at a time when security services were particularly sensitive about their inability to establish any kind of authority [there],” said Edward Schatz, Sodiqov’s PhD supervisor at the University of Toronto, during a public forum on June 27 to raise awareness about his case.

Sodiqov, who is not a Canadian citizen, traveled to Tajikistan in June to visit his extended family and earn money doing summer research for John Heathershaw, a British academic at the University of Exeter whom he had known for a decade.

The two planned to interview Tajiks exploring “the causes of conflict and conflict management,” according to Heathershaw. One interview was to be with Alim Sherzamonov, a politician and activist in Badakhshan, a remote, semi-autonomous region bordering Afghanistan, which had seen intermittent violence in recent years with federal authorities.

But in June, the British Embassy issued a travel advisory “against non-essential travel by British nationals,” said Heathershaw in an email interview.

That’s because the U.K. Ambassador himself had received a security warning when he visited the region.

“My research permission from my university requires that I do not conduct research in regions where the U.K. government advises against non-essential travel,” said Heathershaw. “Therefore Alex and I decided that he would go ahead and I would travel later, for a short visit, if the U.K. changed its travel advice.”

Neither felt there was much risk. “There were neither legal barriers nor government statements advising researchers not to work in the region,” Heathershaw said.

State security officials arrested Sodiqov while he was interviewing Sherzamonov in Khorog, the capital of Badakhshan. They debriefed Sodiqov in Russian on video, and that video somehow found its way onto national television, said Sodiqov’s wife, Musharraf Sodiqova.

“We knew the situation in Khorog, however we never expected anything like this to happen,” Sodiqova said in an email interview.

Meanwhile, Heathershaw flew out of Tajikistan back to the U.K., on the advice of the British Embassy, and immediately started organizing a public campaign to get his associate released.

In early July, the Tajik foreign minister visited London and senior U.K. officials raised the case.

Since then, “there appears to be some reticence in Dushanbe over whether or not to formally charge him,” said Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch.

Heathershaw concurred. “Our understanding at the University of Exeter is that the investigation is ongoing and Alexander has not been charged with any offense.”

Those who know Sodiqov agree it's a cruel situation. Heathershaw called him “one of the brightest minds in political science in Tajikistan.”

Sodiqov now has two lawyers and they have told the family that he has not been mistreated, according to his wife.

According to Swerdlow, Tajikistan has generally been more open than Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, which have the most repressive records in the region.

“Tajikistan had not been known for holding political prisoners prior to last year,” he said.

Swerdlow called Sodiqov’s arrest “an ominous step” for Tajikistan. He says there has been increasing repression in the country associated with the lead-up to last year’s presidential elections and the rule of authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon.

But until now, the security services have not arrested an academic researcher, Swerdlow said.

“He’s being held by security services, which have taken a hardline approach, claiming that foreign powers are stirring up unrest in the country,” he said.

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