A Scholar, not a Spy: The Detainment of Alexander Sodiqov

Khorog is a remote and mountainous Tajik town. It’s situated in the country’s volatile Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO), geographical and political worlds away from Dushanbe, the country’s capital and political epicenter. Khorog has, in recent years, been regarded as as a hotspot for the festering of anti-Dushanbe sentiment. Since July 2012, it has been a site of deadly clashes between the government and opposition forces. Alexander Sodiqov, a Tajik-born PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Toronto, traveled to Khorog to conduct fieldwork for a project on the role of international actors, states, and civil society in Central Asian conflict management. While there, he met with Alim Sherzamonov, an opposition leader based in GBAO, for the purposes of this research. His research would meet an abrupt end on June 16, when Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB) detained Sodiqov, who is also the former Central Asia Editor for Global Voices.

Sodiqov and his family, via Global Voices Advocacy.

Though the reasons for his detainment were initially vague, the GKNB soon claimed that Sodiqov was acting on “subversion and espionage.” Sodiqov’s arrest comes amid claims by GKNB officials that foreign spies are enacting “a big geopolitical-ideological game” to destablize the country. Two days after his detainment, Sodiqov appeared on Khorog local state television reading a forced statement subtly disparaging Sherzamanov. Viewers described him as pale and confused-looking in the video. Sodiqov’s arrest coincides with the partial blockage of both YouTube and Twitter in Tajikistan since June 12, a move many activists fear is a reaction to public discourse that is critical of President Emomalii Rahmon. The past few years have seen blockages of this nature in spades, from such widely-used social networks as YouTube, Twitter, and VKontakte to independent news agencies and websites. Months ago, in the run-up to the presidential elections, YouTube was blocked after a video of Rakhmon drunkenly dancing at his son’s wedding surfaced online.

Many activist organizations have mobilized to advocate for Alex’s release. Some media freedom advocates have launched the #FreeAlexSodiqov Twitter campaign to raise awareness of his arrest, while such organizations as Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and Avaaz have begun petitions and released official statements condemning the detainment. Fellow academics have banded together to form Scholars for Sodiqov, insisting that his academic work was anything but politically-motivated espionage. A website has also been launched to advocate for his release.

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About Mayukh Sen

Mayukh Sen is a summer 2014 intern with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society's Freedom of Expression team. He just graduated from Stanford University with degrees in History and Communication. This fall, he will begin pursuing a Cinema Studies graduate degree at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.