Death of the Tajik opposition in the street and in parliament

By bne IntelliNews March 11, 2015


For some, there’s no doubt who was to blame for the murder of the Tajik tycoon and opposition leader Umarali Quvvatov. A banner unfolded during Quvvatov’s funeral at Istanbul's Kilyos cemetery on March 9 read: "The killer of Tajik opposition leader, martyr Umarali Quvvatov, is dictator Emomali Rahmon”.

The timing of the businessman's murder, on an Istanbul street on the night of March 5, coincided with the parliamentary elections in Tajikistan on March 1, which were overwhelmingly won by Rahmon's ruling party but judged by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as failing to meet basic democratic standards. So it was no surprise that the political opposition has labelled the assassination as "political".

The country's main opposition party, Islamic Revival, drew parallels between Quvvatov's killing and the recent violent deaths of Russian and Kazakh politicians. "Like Quvvatov, opposition-minded Russian politician Boris Nemtsov and Kazakh [the president's former son-in-law and opposition leader] politician Rakhat Aliyev have lost their lives in the former post-Soviet space, and regardless on whose orders they were killed, these events blacken the political atmosphere in their countries," the leader of Islamic Revival, Muhiddin Kabiri, told the Asia-Plus news agency.

On March 6, Amnesty International said Quvvatov and his family had previously told the London-based human rights group that they had received threats and "there had been 'orders' to harm them, allegedly from the highest levels of the Tajik government. "Umarali Quvvatov’s killing sends a chilling and extreme message to Tajikistani political dissenters both at home and abroad. The Turkish authorities must lead an impartial, effective and prompt investigation into his unlawful killing, reveal the full truth, and bring the perpetrators to justice,” Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s deputy Europe and Central Asia programme director, said in a statement. "We have received reports of death threats and attempted assassinations of dissenters from Tajikistan in foreign countries in recent years, but this is the first actual killing of a Tajikistani political activist. It begs the immediate question: how many more are at risk?"

Quvvatov was killed by an identified man at 22:30 local time in Istanbul's Fatih district. According to RFE/RL, Turkish police have detained three Tajik men on suspicion of involvement in the murder.

Falling out

Quvvatov, a businessman and one-time associate of the president's son-in-law Shamsullo Sohibov, had been living abroad since 2012, when he left the country first for Russia and then for the United Arab Emirates. Tajikistan requested his extradition from the UAE in 2012 on suspicion of committing fraud, and he was detained in Dubai and spent 10 months in prison in 2013, but was not extradited to Tajikistan. UAE law does not allow extradition to a country where a defendant can be tortured or killed. After that Quvvatov moved to Turkey where he was jailed in December for violating visa rules. He was released on February 4 and killed a month later.

Together with Sohibov, Quvvatov had been involved in supplying fuel and lubricants to Nato forces in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2012, but a conflict with his partner forced him to leave the country.

In 2012 he set up the Group 24 opposition movement, which the Supreme Court of Tajikistan labelled as "extremist" and banned its activities in the country in October. The movement called for large-scale protests against the Tajik authorities on social media. Quvvatov was also accused of fraud, kidnapping and misappropriation of property.

On March 4 a court in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, sentenced a member of Group 24, Umedjon Salihov, to 17.5 years in prison on charges of extremism and insulting the president.

Election farce

Quvvatov was murdered four days after the elections in Tajikistan, in which Rahmon's ruling People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan won 51 out of the 63 seats in the lower chamber, the Majilisi Namoyandagon or Assembly of Representatives. The ruling party won 35 out of 41 single-seat constituencies and a further 16 mandates out of 22 available on party lists. It won 65.2% of the vote on a turnout of 87.7%. The pro-presidential Agrarian party received three seats (11.8% of the vote), the Economic Reform party two seats (7.6%) and the Socialist Party one (5.5%).

To enter parliament, there is a 5% electoral threshold, so Islamic Revival failed to clear the hurdle as, according to the Central Commission for Elections and Referenda, it received only 87,112 votes, or 2.3% of the total. Another party critical of the government – the Social Democratic party – got 18,875 votes or 0.5%. The Communist Party and Democratic Party also failed to get into parliament on party lists with 2.3% and 1.7% of the vote respectively. In the outgoing parliament, which was elected in 2010, the Islamic Revival party had held two seats and the Communists had one seat – all won on party lists.

According to the election commission, the Agrarian Party won a further two seats in parliament in single-seat constituencies, as did the Communists; while the Economic Reform party won one constituency.

The election campaign was marred by numerous irregularities and there were concerns that the votes would be rigged on election day. Despite opposition participation in the election, it took place in a restricted political space and failed to provide a level playing field for candidates, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) Election Observer Mission said on March 2. "Engagement by various political forces in this campaign was, unfortunately, not enough to result in truly competitive elections. Uneven treatment by the authorities and remaining legal restrictions limited the space for debate on the real problems facing Tajikistan," said Marietta Tidei, special coordinator and leader of the OSCE observer mission. "The voters, many of whom I was pleased to speak with yesterday, deserve more genuine discussion about the future of their country."

"I was pleased to observe that the vote took place in a calm and peaceful manner, however significant shortcomings, including multiple voting and ballot box stuffing, and disregard of counting procedures meant that an honest count could not be guaranteed," said Norbert Neuser, head of the European Parliament delegation. "I encourage the authorities to introduce the changes necessary to make the voting procedure transparent and credible."

Indirectly pointing to the election being a foregone conclusion, the leader of the Communists, Shodi Shabdolov, said the elect commission had denied to him that his party would get only 3% of the vote. "[Commission chairman] Shermuhammad Shohiyon told us that this was just rumours and we would get our mandate in parliament. This way he simply forced us to keep meeting voters so they would go to the polls," Shabdolov said. "I don't know who advises the president, but it is a mistake and it will have a negative impact."

He said his party would not contest the results of the election because the law enforcement agencies and judiciary were dependent on the president. "We will not complain to anyone because all courts and prosecutors are subordinate to the head of the country, our President Emomali Rahmon, himself.”

Unlike his authoritarian peers in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Rahmon has allowed his political opponents to stand for parliament. But fearing that the opposition poses a real threat to the president's power, the authorities employ a wide range of tactics to undermine opposition parties and candidates. This time there were numerous restrictions placed on them and the government even called on mosques to promote the ruling party and discredit the main opposition force, which is, ironically, the Islamic Revival party.

RFE/RL said that it had obtained the text of a sermon penned by the Tajik Committee for Religious Affairs, a government body overseeing the religious sphere, which was designed to be used by imams of Tajik mosques during Friday prayers on February 27 – the last Friday before the election. It harshly criticised Islamic Revival and praised Rahmon's People's Democratic party. According to the country's constitution, religion is separated from the state.

The authorities also disqualified opposition candidates – more than half of the 160 candidates fielded by Islamic Revival were disqualified by the electoral authorities, according to AFP – and allegations of sexual misconduct against Islamist party candidates were circulated on social media and state television. At least two candidates from the Social Democrats were charged to prevent them from standing in the election, said. At the same time, the OSCE said in its interim report in February that Islamic Revival had lodged a complaint that the electoral authorities had registered at least two candidates – presumably from parties loyal to Rahmon – who had criminal records.

The 63 seats in the lower chamber were contested by 288 candidates, fielded by eight political parties registered in the country, including 103 candidates contesting 22 seats on party lists and 185 candidates contesting 41 seats in single-seat constituencies.

In the 2010 parliamentary election, Rahmon's People's Democratic Party won 70.6% of the vote (45 seats) and the Islamists 8.2% (two seats), with the Communist party, the Agrarian party and the Economic Reforms party winning two seats each. Three other parties – the Democratic Party, the Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Party were not represented in the previous parliament, according to the OSCE/ODIHR. Tajikistan, like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, has never held a parliamentary or presidential election considered by the OSCE as free and fair.

The electoral commission said more than 4.3mn Tajik citizens had registered to vote in nearly 3,200 polling stations. A further 35 polling stations were set up in 27 countries for Tajiks living abroad.

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