Only by basing their protest activities abroad can opponents of Tajikistan’s government hope to steer clear of reprisals.
Things are not so easy for their relatives back home, however.
And even the most ardent supporters of the authorities freely admit that the security services resort to arbitrarily punishing people inside Tajikistan for the actions of their relatives overseas.
When President Emomali Rahmon visited Germany at the end of last month to attend a summit of Central Asian leaders, he was given a hostile reception by Europe-based Tajik political activists. Throughout Rahmon’s visit, he was trailed by demonstrators holding up placards bearing pictures of political prisoners and calling him a dictator.
When Rahmon headed to the Bundestag on September 29, protestors reportedly pelted his convoy with eggs. One reportedly struck the president’s window, although this has not been independently confirmed.
While Tajik authorities were at a loss to do anything in Europe, they were able to turn the screws on relatives of opposition activists.
Ubaidullo Saidi, a participant in the protests, wrote in a Facebook post that security services officers had detained his father in the Rasht district. Saidi said agents called him and offered to release his father on condition that he return to Tajikistan.
“The person who was sitting next to my father said that if you are a Muslim and if you care about your father, then you should come back so that we can release him. Otherwise, we will initiate a criminal case against him,” Saidi wrote.
Azda.tv, an exiled opposition-run website, has compiled numerous accounts of opposition members detailing the detention of family members. In some families, as many as five to six individuals are at times detained. Family members are often questioned about why their sons are participating in protests in Europe and why they are involved in politics at all.
In a video that has surfaced on Facebook, the mother an opposition activist can be heard speaking with her son over the phone, accusing him of causing problems for the family through his campaigning.
“Why have you started speaking out again? Everything had calmed down, and they had stopped bothering us, and we were finally able to sleep peacefully. What do your protests achieve, apart from causing us problems?” the woman says.
Officials and their proxies usually deny using family members as pawns to pressure the opposition. This is changing, though.
On social media, social media so-called troll farms believed to have ties to the security services openly make the case for or justify the harassment of relatives of opposition activists.
One pro-government journalist, Jahongirshokh Rustamshokh, has written: “Traitors, you are unworthy of such a mother. I feel sorry for her.”
Ismoil Zarifi, a poet, penned verses reading: “You cursed individual, you don’t even have a shred of compassion for your own mother.”