Edward Schatz is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and the supervisor of Alexander Sodiqov’s doctoral work.
In an age of proliferating sources of information, the unlawful detention in Tajikistan of Alexander Sodiqov – a University of Toronto PhD student who was under contract to conduct research with the University of Exeter – is a part of a deeply worrying trend.
Like the Al Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt, Alexander was a professional doing his job according to widely accepted international standards when he was caught up in domestic politics. Detained by the KGB on June 16 in the midst of conducting a research interview in Khorog, Tajikistan, he could face charges of “espionage” or “treason” under Tajik law. The judicial system in Tajikistan is rife with problems. He was held incommunicado until his wife was able to spend a brief hour with him on June 26, and he has been held without charges much longer than the 72 hours permissible under Tajik law. Deeply concerned about these and other aspects of his case, human-rights groups, scholarly associations, student networks and individuals in government have taken to his defence with great alacrity, expertise, finesse, and passion.
Alexander’s fate matters to Canadian interests and Canadian values. Canada has a deep interest in ensuring that Russia’s influence in former Soviet states is kept in check. As NATO forces leave Central Asia, Canada and the West should not leave Tajikistan to Russian influence, if that influence means authoritarian abuses of power and deepening kleptocracy. We need to partner with those who seek to minimize abuses and who hold states like Tajikistan to their obligations under international law. Unless and until Russia becomes that kind of partner, we need to be wary about its influence.
Indeed, Tajikistan relies deeply on its relations with global partners. Enormously aid-dependent, its education and health sectors would crumble without foreign help. Its security services and border patrols have been trained by the United States. Without financing, political support, and technical assistance from its partners, its major public works projects, such as the Rogun dam and the CASA-1000 electricity network, would simply fail. In the meantime, Tajikistan’s elite is globally connected, sending its children to study abroad, parking its monies in offshore banks, and hiring PR firms to advocate its interests.
Canadian values are at stake. Canada has long been a place where education, knowledge, and learning are prized. Yet, in this global information environment in which truthful information is powerful, some countries have come to accept Alexander Pope’s 1709 claim that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” When access to information is politicized and considered a privilege rather than a right, when active efforts to propagate disinformation go unchecked as we have seen in the crisis in Ukraine, when cyber-warfare becomes increasingly sophisticated and aggressive, and when professional research scholars such as Alexander Sodiqov and professional journalists such as those held in Egypt are assumed to have committed criminal acts simply because they sought the truth, Canada’s core values are at stake.
Alexander is not just, as Amnesty International puts it, a “prisoner of conscience.” He is also the victim in a troubling trend globally in which access to knowledge and freedom of information are at risk. We need strong action to free Alexander Sodiqov, but we also need robust mechanisms to ensure that the quality of our information, and the quality of our freedom, does not diminish.
We can hold the Tajikistan government to account by pressing our partners globally to link future aid to respect for human rights in general and academic freedom in particular. A small, poor and aid-dependent country, Tajikistan cares very much about its global reputation and cannot afford to thumb its nose at international obligations. True, this is a country that is very far away, but this is an issue that is extremely close to home.