A Westcountry academic was forced to flee Tajikistan after his research assistant was arrested and paraded on state television amid claims of spying.
John Heathershaw, a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter, has called on the authorities in the former Soviet state to release Alexander Sodiqov, who was detained last Monday.
Mr Sodiqov, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, disappeared in the regional capital, Khorog, while doing academic fieldwork for the university on civil society and conflict resolution in central Asia.
Friends and colleagues are concerned that the 31-year-old Tajik national, who lives in Canada but was employed by Exeter, could be undergoing torture at the detention centre at which he is being held ‘incommunicado’, in the capital, Dushanbe.
His wife, who travelled with him along with their two-year-old daughter, is desperately trying to secure his release but lawyers are said to be too scared to take on the case.
Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw has called on Foreign Secretary William Hague to raise the issue with the Tajik ambassador during a state visit to London next week.
Dr Heathershaw, who was in the country at the time of the arrest, spent the night at the British ambassador's residence after fears for his safety before being personally escorted to the airport where he boarded a return flight to the UK.
He said it was reported on state news agency Khovar the day after the arrest that Sodiqov was under investigation for “espionage”.
“It is shocking, unprecedented and really worrying - things spiralled out of control really quickly,” Dr Heathershaw told the Western Morning News.
“It is kind of implied that I was running some kind of spy ring – they could have arrested me so I was advised by the embassy to leave.
“The ambassador escorted me to the airport – I am fairly sure I am persona non grata there now, after working for 12 years there, but I am not really interested in going back if this is how they treat researchers.”
There are concerns that Mr Sodiqov is being used to discredit Alim Sherzamonov, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party in the eastern province of Badakhshan, whom he had interviewed as part of the research.
Dr Heathershaw, said it was reported on state news agency Khovar the day after his arrest that Sodiqov was under investigation for “espionage”.
A subsequent assurance from a presidential advisor failed that he would be released was followed by the TV footage.
“I remain saddened and shocked by his detention and worried about his condition,” Dr Heathershaw added.
“He is not a threat to anyone but just a researcher but for some reason they have decided to target him to get someone else so they may manufacture evidence and extract a confession.
“I call on the Government of Tajikistan to release information about his arrest.”
The two men were conducting doing academic fieldwork on the research project “Rising Powers and
Conflict Management in Central Asia”, funded by the UK academic organization, the Economic and Social Research Council.
Friends and colleagues are increasingly concerned that the country may be trying to make an example out of Sodiqov to discourage others from researching tensions between Tajikistan’s authoritarian government and minorities in the restive eastern province of Badakhshan.
Tajikistan’s American-backed secret police service, the GKNB, initially confirmed it had detained Sodiqov and accused him of carrying out “subversion and espionage”. The service has since refused to discuss his whereabouts.
Tajikistan’s independent Asia-Plus news agency reported on Wednesday last week that Sodiqov had appeared on local state television twice since his arrest, looking confused.
The resident, who was not named, said Sodiqov’s speech appeared to have been edited to discredit the opposition and a religious leader.
“He was pale; confused; and probably they forced him to say something. He spoke in Russian,” the source said.
Tajik authorities are said to be sensitive about anyone prying into their fraught relations with ethnic minorities in Badakhshan, which sits on the drug trafficking route between Afghanistan and Russia.
Drugs have been implicated in past outbreaks of violence between authorities and locals, including during several shootouts last month.
Sherzamonov, with whom Sodiqov was allegedly speaking on the topic of community conflict at the time of his arrest, has admitted to participating in mass protests in Khorog in May.
He claimed police wanted to arrest him at the same time they held Sodiqov, but were unable to because his supporters intervened.
Tajik authorities have yet to confirm the charges against Sodiqov or provide any update on his situation.
Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the Tajik authorities have broken international law.
Labour MP and former Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw said: “I am extremely concerned about what has happened to Alexander.
“Following a request from Exeter University I have contacted William Hague’s office seeking an assurance that full consular and other support be given to Alex and his wife.
“I’ve also asked the UK Government to press the Tajik authorities to treat Alexander fairly, make clear what charges he faces and why and ensure his wife is able to get access to him.”
Friends and colleagues have organised at least two petitions demanding Sodiqov’s release.
One, posted on Avaaz.org, was organised by Sodiqov’s close family and friends while the other, Scholars for Sodiqov, was organised by Edward Schatz, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, where Sodiqov is working on his doctorate.
Dr Heathershaw said this was the first time they had faced any problems on the project, which began last year.
“We knew that there had been political problems in Khorog but our research was of a scientific kind so we decided it would be safe for Alexander to begin research there,” he added.
“There have been allegations in the Tajik media that Alexander had met with diplomats, was involved in ‘espionage’ and was paid by government.
“It is true that Alexander had previously worked for international organizations and was known by the UK Ambassador. He took part in an informal reception at the UK Ambassador’s residence on 11 June. However, he was not paid by or working for the British government.”