Ahead of a December 6 hearing by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations focused on transnational repression, the committee’s chair, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), sent a letter to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, laying out his concerns regarding the Tajik government’s “ongoing harsh treatment of political opponents, human rights and civil society actors.”
Cardin’s letter — dated November 27 and first reported on December 5 — addressed issues that Diplomat readers will be familiar with. Cardin cited “persistent reports of arbitrary arrest, denial of judicial due process, as well as acts of violence including torture, assault and even instances of murder of journalists, political dissidents, as well as community and religious leaders.” The letter also highlights particularly concerning repression of ethnic and religious minorities in the Gorno-Badakhshan region — a reference most certainly to the Pamiris.
While the hearing’s in-person testimonies largely focused on Russia, China, and Iran, Cardin’s letter to the Tajik president illustrated a detail also highlighted by Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz in his testimony — that among the top 10 countries responsible for incidents of “direct, physical transnational repression,” three of them are in Central Asia.
Freedom House has compiled a database of 854 recorded direct, physical incidents of transnational repression committed by 38 governments in 91 countries since 2014. Of those, just 10 countries are responsible for 80 percent of the recorded incidents. China represents 30 percent alone with 253 cases, followed by Turkey with 132 and Tajikistan with 64. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (36 cases each) are also among the top 10.
It’s illuminating to think of these figures in contrast to population size. Tajikistan’s population is around 9.75 million; China’s is 1.4 billion. Tajikistan’s population is less than 1 percent of the population of China, and yet Dushanbe is reportedly responsible for 64 cases of transnational repression, about a quarter of those attributed to China.
And this at a time when Central Asia’s geopolitical importance has dawned once again.
“As Tajikistan seeks to benefit from increased international engagement, foreign trade and investment, the government of Tajikistan must make progress towards fulfilling its commitments under the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights,” Cardin’s letter began. And he concluded it by noting increased U.S. engagement with Tajikistan.
“The United States wants to strengthen its growing partnership with Tajikistan. Bolstering human rights and the rule of law will reap long-lasting benefits for Tajikistan through increased influence, foreign investment, tourism, and trade.”
U.S. President Joe Biden met with the leaders of the five Central Asian states on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly this year, marking a significant evolution of the C5+1 format — taking it to the leadership level. Central Asia’s surging geopolitical relevance — whether because of Russia or China or both — only serves to highlight the difficulty of addressing this issue.
Unsaid, usually, is the fear that pushing too hard on human rights issues will simply shove a country like Tajikistan into the arms of Russia and China — which have no qualms with tactics like transnational repression and indeed, in the case of Russia, often assist in such efforts. Arguably, Tajikistan already sits in that circle of its own volition.
It’s not clear if Tajikistan has responded to Cardin’s letter.