Turkey’s authoritarian turn deprives Tajiks of safe haven

Via EurAsiaNet – There was a time when Turkey felt like a safe haven for victims of political repression in Tajikistan. But the threat of attacks by groups like Islamic State and a state of emergency declared after a July 2016 coup attempt have changed all that.

As well as embarking on a wave of arrests that put almost 50,000 Turkish nationals behind bars, the government has diluted the protections once afforded to foreign dissidents. Moreover, informal connivance among governments has eased the process of casting out unwanted elements.

Over several days in early February, a group of officials with the Tajik consulate in Istanbul dropped by a teahouse to try and cajole the owner, 55-year-old Numonjon Sharipov, into returning to Tajikistan.

Sharipov had every reason to resist the overtures. He had fled to Turkey in 2015, following a crackdown on the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, IRPT, of which he was a prominent member. In August that year, the Tajik government banned the opposition party, which lost its only two seats in parliament in dirty elections a few months earlier. The bulk of the party leadership were then arrested and subsequently sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

And then on the evening of February 5, as Sharipov was strolling past his teahouse with two friends, he was stopped by police and asked for identification papers. After detecting a purported irregularity, police took Sharipov to a detention facility in Istanbul’s Kumkapi district. Sharipov’s friends quickly called a lawyer, Sinan Berge.

“All the police would say at first was that Sharipov was wanted by Tajikistan on terrorism charges,” Berge said.

After further quizzing, police finally admitted Sharipov had been assigned a special security designation, G-87. This label is usually reserved for individuals who pose an imminent security threat, like members of the Islamic State group, which has been blamed for killing hundreds of civilians in Turkey.

“Once they put that code on a person, police told me, we cannot do anything else. We cannot get more information on the reasons behind it and lawyers cannot file a case to stop the deportation,” Berge said.

In the week that followed, Berge pursued various legal ploys to halt the deportation. Authorities complicated his quest by moving Sharipov to another detention facility while holding his passport at yet another location, making it difficult for the lawyer even to register as counsel. This ruse is a common practice, says Berge, who was forced to rely on assurances from immigration officers.

“I told them not to send him to Tajikistan, because he is a political opponent and he will be in danger there,” he said.

A glimmer of hope appeared on February 16, when a senior immigration official told Berge that he could buy his client a flight to a third country – most likely Georgia or Iran – to avoid deportation to Tajikistan.

That turned out to be a lie. Even as the official and Berge were speaking on the phone, Sharipov had been whisked away by Tajik consular officials. Shortly after, it emerged Sharipov had been flown to Tajikistan. Some days later, he resurfaced to give a phone interview in which he stated he had returned of his own free will, but rights activists gave the claim little credence and said it had been made under duress.

“I don’t believe he was officially deported, but it looks like the Tajikistan officials forced him to leave Turkey without following proper procedures,” Berge said.

The case is far from unique. Ibrahim Ergin, a lawyer with the Refugee Rights Association, said a broad pattern is emerging in how Turkey returns dissidents to authoritarian nations – not just Tajikistan, but also other Central Asian countries, Russia and China.

“It’s the same thing we see that was done with these political opponents from Tajikistan, the same pattern. A country wants these men back, and Turkey wants good relations with that country, so they use these tactics to deport them,” Ergin said. “These people are clearly not terrorists, but their governments are uncomfortable with them and they want them in their custody.”

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