Alexander Sodiqov, my PhD student in comparative politics at the University of Toronto, was detained by the security services in Tajikistan on June 16, 2014. While no formal charges have been filed to date, the government-sponsored press appears to be preparing the ground for an eventual charge of “treason” or “espionage” against him. In actual fact, Alexander was conducting legitimate research about the relationship between civil society actors and conflict prevention. He was doing so by using ordinary social science approaches based on face-to-face interviews with key actors. He was doing so under a temporary research contract with the University of Exeter (UK).
Since being detained, Alexander has been moved to the KGB headquarters in Dushanbe, the capital city. For 10 days, he was held entirely incommunicado, before his wife was allowed a one-hour visit. The family has been trying to get a lawyer, but in the atmosphere of intimidation that prevails generally in Tajikistan, this has proved difficult.
Human rights groups, scholars’ associations, grass-roots petitioners, students, and governments alike have taken up the charge for Alexander’s fair treatment and release.
Only the KGB knows for sure why they arrested him, but four complementary factors seem at play. First, Russia’s resurgence in its sphere of influence means that security services in Tajikistan may be taking their signals from their Russian counterparts. As Russia propagates a narrative of a Western “plot” to destabilize the region, those with training in Western universities automatically come under suspicion.
Second, the government of Tajikistan has for the past few years tried to rein in regions that have been de facto autonomous since the end of a brutal civil war in 1997. While it has been successful in some areas, it has not in the Badakhshan region, where Alexander was to conduct his research interviews. Moreover, Alexander—as a part of this Exeter project—was studying the causes of conflict, which has become a somewhat touchy subject, given violence in 2012 and 2014 in Badakhshan. Thus, he was doing legitimate research on a legitimate research topic, but this was misinterpreted by local KGB officials as tantamount to being interested in causing conflict. Naturally, nothing could be further from the truth, but once the KGB staked its reputation on this particular interpretation of events, it became difficult to “walk back” while saving face.
Third, and more generally, we have seen in post-Soviet space—and indeed globally—a deeply worrying trend. Access to information has become politicized, and the proliferation of information sources has paradoxically led to the devaluation of evidence and therefore of knowledge. The reality is that a narrative of Alexander Sodiqov as a “spy” could not stand up to the slightest scrutiny, but those intent on finding him guilty are uninterested in evidence.
Finally, the regime of Emomali Rakhmon has routinely used a meme of “outside threats” to justify its rule and shore up its power. Indeed, the violence in Badakhshan was pinned initially on European Union observers who, because they had visited the region before violence broke out, were blamed for somehow “causing” the violence. The fact that Alexander was a part of a British academic project already branded him as suspect, and when he attended a dinner at the British Embassy in Dushanbe, this was treated as “evidence” of his ill intent. To the extent that the regime blames outsiders such as Alexander, it seeks to protect its own reputation and legitimacy domestically.
Like the Al Jazeera journalists recently jailed in Egypt, Alexander was a professional doing his job. He was using internationally recognized approaches, had completed internationally normal ethics review processes, and was using internationally recognized social-science methodologies. His purpose was and remains scholarship.
Alexander is the victim of a troubling trend in which access to knowledge and freedom of information are in peril. We need strong action to free Alexander Sodiqov, but we also need robust measures to ensure that the quality of our scholarship, and the quality of our freedom, does not diminish.
Scholars at Risk issued a call for letters, emails and faxes on behalf of Alexander Sodiqov, available here.