Disappearances raise fears over Turkey and Central Asia regimes stepping up collaboration in transnational repression

Disappearances raise fears over Turkey and Central Asia regimes stepping up collaboration in transnational repression
Graphic by Freedom House linking countries by cases of transnational repression. / freedomhouse.org/report/transnational-repression
By bne IntelliNews March 14, 2024

The disappearances of two Istanbul-based Tajik dissident activists in the past month have come as little surprise to human rights defenders focused on transnational repression.

As things stand, there is no word on the fate of Nasimjon Sharifov and Suhrob Zafar, both members of the Group 24 Tajik opposition group. The possibility remains, of course, that neither the Turkish state nor the Tajik state are involved—but at the same time the fact that activists have vanished without a trace has drawn attention to how Turkey and Tajikistan are categorised by rights watchdog Freedom House as among the top five most prolific perpetrators of transnational repression, based on data from the last decade.

“Transnational repression” can be described as a government operating in foreign jurisdictions to intimidate, extradite, and sometimes even kill, perceived activist enemies. Freedom House’s latest figures, covering 2022, showed Turkey abducted more people via renditions than any other state in its database, while Tajikistan accounts for around a third of transnational repression incidents, recorded globally.

The dangers posed to individuals forced to return to a Central Asian regime were tragically demonstrated last October when 30-year-old stand-up comic Muhammed Mammedov was beaten to death in Turkmenistan’s capital Ashgabat after returning home from a long stay in Turkey.

Prior to the foiled 2016 coup against the Erdogan administration, Turkey still had the reputation as one of the safer places for Central Asian activists to seek refuge. It boasted a lack of travel restrictions for regional citizens and a relatively low extradition threat.

However, as part of its sweeping crackdown on “Gulenist network” enemies that Ankara claims orchestrated the attempted putsch, Turkey appears to have made deals with Central Asian dictatorships to the effect of, you help us pursue our foes on your territory and we will assist you in your efforts against “wanted list” individuals on our territory.

The disappearance of the two Tajik activists without trace has raised fears that such a deal may have been struck and activated.

According to posts on platform X by Central Asian rights expert Steve Swerdlow, Suhrob Zafar, who is the leader of the Turkey-based Group 24 Tajik opposition group, spent two weeks trying to trace fellow activist and Istanbul-based exile Nasimjon Sharifov, who vanished on February 23. Then, on March 11, Zafar himself suddenly disappeared.    

In Tajikistan nowadays there is no tolerance for even limited opposition to the Rahmon regime. Group 24 has been designated an “extremist organisation”.

In 2015, Group 24’s founder, businessman Umarali Kuvvatov, was shot dead in Istanbul. The assassins were able to skip the country before they could face justice.

In June 2021, noted RFE/RL, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov did not condemn Ankara when Orhan Inandi, the Turkish-born founder of the Gulen-inspired Sapat schools in Kyrgyzstan, was abducted by Turkish agents in Bishkek. Inandi, a Kyrgyz passport holder, was sentenced last year by a court in Ankara to 21 years in prison for "establishing an armed terrorist group."

Another concern for human rights and freedom-of-expression defenders is that, until 2022, Turkey was one of few nations where citizens of Turkmenistan could travel visa-free. The visa waivers were withdrawn at Turkmenistan’s insistence.

Sources of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service have observed deportations of Turkmen citizens by Turkey in their thousands since Ankara reimposed visa restrictions, but the secretive nature of Turkmenistan, Central Asia’s most authoritarian state, makes it difficult to separate politically active migrants from the regular kind. However, at least six Turkmen political activists have been deported to Ashgabat: Farhat Meimankuliev, Rovshen Klychev, Umit Kuzybaev, Dovran Imamov, Maksat Baimuradov, and Serdar Durduliev, according to the media outlet.

In a brief submitted for Turkmenistan’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council by the University of Southern California Human Rights Advocacy Group and the Vienna-based advocacy group Freedom for Eurasia, Turkey was described as “an increasingly unsafe environment” for Turkmen political activists and rights defenders.

The brief added that in Turkey Turkmen as a whole face “surveillance, travel restrictions, discrimination, and other abuses that Ashgabat and Ankara have increasingly used to control and monitor” both them and their relatives back home, RFE/RL also reported.