Exceptional Measures: Internet Blockade in Tajikistan and Group 24

Cover Photo:Group 24 leader  Umarali Quvvatov    Credit: Rutube.ru

These are purportedly exceptional times in Tajikistan. Dushanbe remains in the grip of paranoia and insecurity. Meanwhile the Tajik people cannot access dozens of websites. These measures- according to the government- are for their own safety and security of the public. For German political thinker Carl Schmitt “the sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”  According to the Schmittian view of politics, wielding power constitutes identifying friends and enemies. Famous for criticising liberalism and defending national socialism, Schmitt argued that dictators could take exceptional measures and suspend freedoms in order to secure their power. Whilst it is unlikely that many officials have read Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, they are displaying many of the characteristics of Schmittian political strategy.

In recent years Dushanbe has identified a growing number of “extremist” enemies. One of the latest groups to join this list is the diaspora-based, opposition coalition Group 24. Everyone in Tajikistan is feeling the effects of this latest security move.

In recent days, residents of Tajikistan have been without access to dozens of websites including YouTube, VKontakti, Facebook and CA-News. Governmental blockages of websites are nothing new in Tajikistan. Maintaining a monopoly on the production of Truth remains integral to Rahmon’s stranglehold on power. When challenged, the government has reacted aggressively by blocking access to dissident narratives. In recent years, for example, the government has stifled opposing representations of political violence in the Rasht Valley (2010) and Khorog (2012).

Formed by twenty four exiled dissidents in 2012, Group 24 has criticised the rampant corruption seen in Tajikistan and called for the replacement of the Rahmon regime.  The group’s leader, Quvvatov, was born in 1968 in Dushanbe. A factory and construction worker during the Soviet Union, after independence he opened a series of businesses in Tajikistan. After his business was taken over by the regime in 2012, he fled to Russia. Later that year he was detained in the United Arab Emirates based on an Interpol warrant. Like fellow opposition leader Zaid Saidov, he is accused of carrying out fraud worth $1.2 million. Released in September 2013, he remains in exile.

This latest assault on the opposition comes after a series of deeply critical articles published on the official Group 24 website. In the articles, Group 24 “leader” Quvvatov called Rahmon a “parasite” and called for “regime change.” Specifically, he called for a protest on 10 October. For the government, he took this a step to far on 4 October, when he called for mass protests in Dushanbe. That evening the police shut off the central square in Dushanbe and held an anti-riot drill. Video footage taken on a mobile phone showed riot police beating their shields and using a water canon to disperse the protestors.

Memories of the violence of civil war persist. Spontaneous outbursts of mass violence in Tajikistan remain rare. But they do exist. In 2006, after the government decided to cancel a concert by popular Iranian singer Arash at the last minute, young Tajiks marched through the centre of Dushanbe vandalising property and fighting with police. Five years later, a series of fights broke out at football matches involving the team owned by the Rahmon’s unpopular son Rustam Emomali. In 2012, a fire damaged much of the Karvon market in Dushanbe. Angered that the government had not prevented the spread of the blaze, the uninsured traders marched on the centre of the city. Riots were only averted when the mayor addressed them and promised compensation. Although not overtly politicised, these disturbances reflect the disillusionment felt by many Tajiks.

The government of Tajikistan has not only tried to cut Tajiks off from the Group of 24, now it is trying to ban it outright. On 7 October, the Prosecutor General called for the Group 24 to be classified as an illegal “extremist” group. This would place it alongside terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Such a move is made possible by the amorphous definition of extremism offered by Tajik law. According to the ‘Law on Combating Terrorism’ (1999), extremism is any ‘socially dangerous act” (Rus.: obshechstvenno-opasnikh posledstvii). In using this definition, the government of Tajikistan has brought acts such as violent protest, assassination, insurgency and attacks on foreign nationals within its definition of terrorism and extremism.   By labelling opposition groups as “terrorists” and “extremists,” the government legitimises exceptional measures against them.

The government-led effort to discredit Quvvatov himself has accompanied this legal manoeuvre. On the same day as the calls to criminalise the group, a video appeared on YouTube entitled “Umarali Quvvatov: How he was treated by the Taliban.” The video, presumably taken in Afghanistan in the 1990s, shows the Tajik dissident participating in a Sufi ceremony. Sufism- although traditionally practiced in the region- now signifies an abnormal, non-traditional form of religious expression for the government. This is not the first time the government has sought to question Quvvatov’s character. In 2013 a psychiatrist at the Ministry of Health alleged that he had been treated for schizophrenia for ten years.

 

But does Quvvatov constitute a viable threat to the Rahmon regime? Speaking to Avesta.tj, Tajik political scientist Parviz Mullojanov expressed his doubts. According to Mullojanov, Quvvatov is a minor opposition figure. Few Tajiks support the Group 24 movement. As such, the government’s knee-jerk reaction to a potential opposition force appears extreme at best. By blocking access to popular social networking sites and offering no explanation to the public, the government will only create greater disillusionment amongst Tajik young people. In seeking to secure the regime, Dushanbe’s authoritarian policy has created the opposite effect: the regime has been rendered less

 

 

 

 

 

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