On 16 June 2014, security officials in Khorog, Tajikistan detained our colleague and friend Alexander Sodiqov. Alex was arrested, purportedly for treason, espionage, and spying, because he was working on a study of conflict resolution in the Gorno-Badakshan region, an area of the country that is particularly volatile given the aftermath of the 1992 – 1997 civil war. Alexander remains detained in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, and has not yet been charged under Tajik law. Alex was meeting with civil society leaders in Gorno-Badakshan, and after his detention he was taken in front of press conferences in which the Government of Tajikistan appeared to be making an example out of him for his “ties” to “unknown foreign governments.” His family’s house was searched shortly thereafter, and security officials confiscated his computer and other possessions. We do not believe that Alex has been given access to a lawyer, and we have not heard from him or about his case from any official channels for over a week.
Like so many of us, Alex researches political instability, and going into the field in order to understand volatile conflict is simply part of what we, as graduate students, often do. The thought that Alex has been missing for over a week and could be subjected to ongoing abuses, and perhaps even torture, is at the fore of our concerns. For all of us, our first thoughts are for Alex’s safety, and with his wife and baby daughter, his family, and close friends. For many, our second thought is: ‘this could have been any one of us.’
Graduate student life is, as a colleague once put it to me, “one of the last guilded professions.” I believe that what my colleague meant by this was twofold: first, we work for a common cause—in the study of political science, this means analyzing, shedding light on, and when and where possible, trying to contribute to a possible or eventual solution to the pressing political problems and injustices that we study for years, if not decades, before embarking upon and finally receiving our PhDs. And second, as graduate students, we are supervisees under the mentorship and expertise of our professors. While we are paid employees of the University, and sometimes we are able to work as research assistants, in rare and privileged cases, we are afforded the opportunity to pursue a project for an outside institution that both serves to supplement our humble earnings as teaching assistants on basic funding packages while also permitting us to travel to the field to conduct research that overlaps with and compliments our dissertations.
Unlike professional guilds, however, we are not afforded any particular social or economic status. If anything, Alex’s case has made glaringly clear the dangers of pursuing academic research as a graduate student. Unlike professional journalists or full-time NGO workers, we carry no formal I.D. cards, we wear no discerning uniforms, and especially when working on projects outside of the immediate scope of our dissertation, we are afforded little personal protection or training on how to cope with threatening situations (reflecting on how to better prepare for these incidents institutionally and individually will come once Alex returns safely to our department). This is, however, seldom considered a reason to turn down opportunities to better understand the politics that we study, to make a few extra dollars, and to engage directly in the research process and methods that are so coveted in our line of work. In Alex’s case, his dissertation topic brought him to his native home, in Tajikistan, where he has worked for years on Tajik politics of conflict resolution through the National Democratic Institute, among other organizations.
Alex’s supervisor, Ed Schatz, along with the Department of Political Science and the Graduate Association of Students of Political Science (GASPS) are working tirelessly to secure his release and return to safety. What complicates matters in this particular case is that despite his enrollment at the University of Toronto, Alex is a Tajik national who was under contract on this occasion with the University of Exeter. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development has remained distant, stating only that they are “aware of reports that a citizen from Tajikistan, studying in Canada has been arrested….” For its part, the University of Toronto has issued a statement indicating that it is “deeply concerned” about Alex’s health and safety, while calling upon the government of Tajikistan for treatment in line with international standards. The University has rightly identified that the “detention of an academic researcher cuts to the core of the mission of the university: to produce and disseminate scholarly knowledge in an atmosphere of open expression and intellectual freedom,” and that “[i]t is vital that scholars have the ability to conduct research on civil society in all areas of the world.” But it seems that there is little beyond issuing this reasoned statement that the University of Toronto can or will do.
Alex is a warm and gentle person, an analytical and inquisitive young scholar, and a caring and passionate educator. I have had the privilege of working with him as a TA for the first-year Global Politics course at the University of Toronto for the last two years. We are in the process of taking a certificate course together on university teaching in which we receive training on how to be more effective instructors in university settings. Alex is constantly trying to improve his pedagogy, and we speak frequently about the methods by which we improve our craft as teaching assistants. Alex and I also studied the politics of protest and activism together in a course entitled “Contentious Politics” that expounded upon social movement theory and provided much of the foundation for our understandings of how to conceptualize resistance and opposition to institutional injustices and repression—repression of which Alex is now a victim. Alex’s academic CV is quite impressive, as his commitment to bettering the education of Canadian undergraduate students, not to mention the politics of his native Tajikistan. I cringe, often, at the thought that he is in danger. A vivid picture of his face lighting up when giving us news about his newborn daughter last year comes readily to mind.
OSCE, Freedom House, and Amnesty have issued statements of concern. An open letter by international scholars of Central Asian politics, professors, students, and concerned citizens is in circulation, as is an Avaaz petition, to raise awareness and concern. But Alex is still in detention.
We ask that the students who frequent iAffairs take a few moments to read up on Alex’s situation, sign the open letter and petition, and share his case far and wide. The more media attention, the more contacts we can reach in government and NGO circles, the more discussion that we can generate, the better. Alex chose to study at the University of Toronto, and in Canada, in order to study the processes and prospects of conflict resolution in Tajikistan for decisive reasons. We enjoy the privilege of a free society from which international student seeking to better the situation for their communities may safely and soundly study about the politics of development, of war, of conflict, and of peace. It is incumbent upon us as students, educators, Torontonians, Ontarians, Canadians, and citizens of a free and democratic society to own up to and throw our full weight beyond Alex and his family.
For the very same reasons for which this young, promising scholar, father, husband, and son chose the University of Toronto of all places as his academic home for his doctoral research, we are obliged, if not legally, then certainly morally, to see to it that his unjust detainment and maltreatment does not, for even one more day, persist. Let us do all we can to bring Alex to safety.
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you believe that you or people you know could be of help.