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Tajikistan: How to Prevent the Spread of Extremism in Prisons    

The authorities see a solution in isolating prisoners convicted of extremism and terrorism in separate facilities, but this option also is risky.

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Prison No. 3/2 in Vahdat. Photo: ozodi.org
Prison No. 3/2 in Vahdat. Photo: ozodi.org

The problem of spreading of extremist ideas in prisons is not new and concerns not only the Tajik authorities. This problem is discussed every time when a prison riot occurs in the republic.

The latest riot, resulting in a large number of victims, occurred on November 7, 2018 in prison No. 3/3 of Khujand. Then, according to official data, 25 people died, including two security guards. The second riot occurred in May 2019 in Vahdat prison; 32 people died then. The Islamic State terrorist organization banned by the Supreme Court of the Republic of Tajikistan and in other countries of the world has taken credit for organization of both cases. The Main Directorate for the Execution of Criminal Sentences of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Tajikistan reported this.

Authorities claim that most of the prisoners killed during the riots were involved in that organization; they were persons with “radical views” and “prone to escape”.

Abdurahim Sattor, the son of Mahsumi Sattor, one of the prisoners killed in a riot in Vahdat prison, in Radio Ozodi interview confirmed that during their last meeting, his father told him about disputes with one of the groups within the prison.

On April 10, 2019, Jaloliddin Makhmudov [Islamic Renaissance Party’s (IRPT, banned in Tajikistan) representative at the Central Commission for Elections of Tajikistan; sentenced in 2015 shortly before parliamentary elections to 5 years for weapons possession], in Radio Ozodi interview spoke about the conflicts in prison between prisoners convicted of extremism and terrorism and the rest of the prisoners serving sentences under other criminal articles (murder, theft, fraud, criminal damage, etc.).

Makhmudov told about the intra-group informal power structure established among the prisoners, which determines their behavior, relationships with each other and causes conflicts.

The division into groups in the prison facilities of Tajikistan, as well as in other post-Soviet countries, traces back to the totalitarian past, when a system of “prison castes” developed: different categories of prisoners are treated differently. This type of social relationships in the criminal environment still exists.

In recent years, another group appeared – so-called “hizbs”, which in criminal slang refers to the representatives of prison jamaats, prisoners sentenced under articles related to religious extremism and terrorism and followers of various radical movements.

The title of this group was formed in the Russian criminal environment at the beginning of the 2000s, when the extremist Hizb ut-Tahrir organization was banned in the Russian Federation and later in Central Asian countries, including Tajikistan and several other countries of the world. The ideology of prison jamaats opposes the criminal community and arises their hostility towards the “laymen” in this case. This term in the criminal slang during the Stalin’s regime referred to those who live in prison according to the laws of the criminal world.

Photo: News.tj
Photo: News.tj

Power Struggle in Prisons

According to a former inmate A.K., even the beds of the first group prisoners differ from the beds of the second group prisoners.

“There is tension between them, since none of them wants to obey the laws of the other, which causes misunderstandings. “Laymen” (prison slang – Tr.) want to apply the laws of “code-bound thieves”, which are unacceptable for “hizbs” (prison slang – Tr.),” said the former prisoner.

He believes that those who want to declare themselves “leaders”, most often start the conflicts. Each group wants to occupy “leadership” positions; no one wants to concede.

S.T., one of the former prisoners, said that both groups of inmates are kept together in Tajik prisons, and sometimes conflicts break out between them. According to him, there are smaller groups within two large groups, which unite prisoners sentenced under the same articles.

“The prison staff themselves divide prisoners into these categories. “Hizbs” (prison slang – Tr.) participate in trainings on countering radicalism every week. The prison guards control this group more tightly and, in general, treat them much worse. They are severely punished even for the slightest offenses. This inequality has often caused their discontent,” says the former prisoner.

A former prisoner J.S. says that only few of those sentenced of extremism behave like religious people or inappropriately.

He believes that one of the reasons for dividing the prisoners into two groups is dishonesty of those sentenced of domestic crimes, and their exploitation of other prisoners.

J.S. notes that the mullahs and imams, accused of theft and fraud, are not respected in the first group and do not pray with them. They read namaz in small groups of three or five people.

“Prison Conditions Help Promoting Extremist Ideas”       

Nevertheless, according to the former prisoner, the followers of radical groups such as Salafiya (banned in Tajikistan by the Supreme Court), Hizb ut-Tahrir (banned in Tajikistan by the Supreme Court) and others, use the prison as a place to promote their ideas freely and recruit weak people to their ranks.

“This is happening secretly, because the prison administration will punish prisoners if they are exposed. There were people who went to jail for theft or bribery and freed from there having extremist ideas. If 10 radical persons are serving sentences in Tajik prisons, they can recruit 100-150 other prisoners convicted of wrong “likes” in social networks,” said former prisoner Sh. D.

According to him, prison staff is trying to prevent the extremist ideas’ promotion. The administration of the facility did not allow the prisoners to stay in the prison mosque after reading namaz: “There even were cases when they forbade reading namaz in the cells, confiscated prayer rugs and allowed to pray only in the mosque. This restriction lasted two or three weeks, but after prisoners’ discontent, they allowed to read namaz in the cells again, because they had no other choice. Otherwise, it could cause a riot”.

The source also noted, “Forbidden ideas’ owners spread their beliefs in small groups, among one or two people inside the cells”. Several prisoners talked with him personally about Salafi ideology (banned in Tajikistan), but he did not accept it. Each group has its own leader, the members of the group always obey him, and he always has the final say in disputes.

Speaking about prisoners’ communication with the outside world, he noted that prisoners have all the conditions to stay in touch with the outside world; for this, it is necessary to bribe a certain prison staff.

Fahriddin Zubaidzoda, Deputy Head of the Main Directorate for the Execution of Criminal Sentences of the Ministry of Justice of Tajikistan, says that prison phones work via cards that have only four close relatives’ numbers and it is possible to dial only these numbers. Prisoners cannot dial other numbers.

“However, there are cases when prisoners want to secretly bring cellphones to the prison, which are prevented by the operational-investigative groups,” Zubaidzoda assured.

Extremist Cells in Prisons

J.S. mentioned “Jamoat Muvahiddinov”’s creation in the prison known as “Perviy Sovetsky” (“First Soviet” – Tr.), which consisted of at least 20 people aiming to spread extremist ideas. Later, the prison administration exposed and neutralized it, and the organizers were brought to responsibility.

The Deputy Head of the Main Directorate for the Execution of Criminal Sentences of the Ministry of Justice of Tajikistan Fahriddin Zubaidzoda confirmed the existence of such a community in Tajik prisons. He noted, “Considering the increase of the number of extremist and terrorist groups and the risk of the extremist and terrorist ideas’ spread, the situation in prison facilities was analyzed in order to prevent the dangerous incidents among the prisoners. After this analysis, the new group “Jamoat Muvahiddinov” was detected”.

According to the source, the group was created in the high-security prison facility “Perviy Sovetsky” 3/1 in Dushanbe with the aim of spreading extremist and terrorist ideas among prisoners and destabilizing the situation in prison. 33 prisoners from prison facility 3/1, 30 prisoners from the facility “Perviy Sovetsky” 3/4 and 3 prisoners from the facility in the Sughd region were identified as organizers and brought to responsibility. 66 people are sentenced; it is at the cassation stage currently.

Fahriddin Zubaidzoda noted that the analysis of the situation showed that “Jamoat Muvahiddinov” was an organization created on the basis of the Salafi movement (banned in Tajikistan by the Supreme Court), did not recognize other ideas and functioned in prisons only. Members of this organization claimed that Tajikistan was “kafirs’ state”, and government officials were “kafirs” (nonbelievers – Tr.).

The followers of this movement consider the ideology of other parties and movements “wrong” and oppose them with their own ideology. They consider even their parents and relatives who do not share their ideas, as well as other prisoners serving sentences with them as “kafirs” (Arabic term meaning “infidel”, a person who does not believe in Allah, a non-Muslim); they condemn for watching TV, smoking cigarettes and naswar.

Zubaidzoda notes that the members of “Jamoat Muvahiddinov” neither had a secondary, nor proper religious education. According to him, these persons became members of the “Jamoat Muvahiddinov” because of the lack of proper religious and secular knowledge. They assumed that Islam was violent jihad only.

“They believe that jihad is nonbelievers’ killing, and if they accomplish it themselves, they will become shahids (martyrs –Tr.),” he said.

Editorial Note: “Shahid (from the Arabic – “shahida” – “witness”. In Islam, the term applies both to a witness in court and to believers who have suffered martyrdom in the war against the enemies of Allah, protecting their homeland, family, etc. K. Malikov, Theoretical and Practical Framework for Interaction with the Muslim Community: A Brief Guide on Islam, List of Terms, p. 258, Bishkek, 2013

In order to educate this category of prisoners, there are secondary and vocational schools functioning in prison facilities. Currently, 123 inmates who have no secondary education are studying in these schools.

Fahriddin Zubaidzoda had personally checked the criminal case materials against the members of the mentioned community. He says that among them were not only prisoners serving sentences for committing crimes of a terrorist or extremist nature, but also those who were sentenced for committing less serious crimes, for example, drug use or theft.

He notes that extremist ideas are promoted in the prison via various channels. For example, members of the “Jamoat Muvahiddinov” use the Qurans available in prison mosques and libraries to write their ideas, most often with a pencil, in Cyrillic between the lines of the verses. Then they invite their followers to read a particular page of the book. The prisoner reads their extremist texts on the indicated page. In this situation, even the prison staff, who do not necessarily have a religious education, do not suspect that the prisoner is reading extremist ideas instead of the original Qurans text. This makes it difficult to search for and find such persons, because Quran reading is not prohibited in prisons.

Countermeasures Are Conversations and Lectures

Afshin Mukim. Photo from personal Facebook page
Afshin Mukim. Photo from personal Facebook page

Afshin Mukim, press secretary of the Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations and Ceremonies under the Government of the Republic of Tajikistan, confirms that the Committee representatives are conducting discussions and meetings in Tajik prisons. He noted that they are held as part of a joint action plan with the Ministry of Justice. The main subject of the meetings is related to the extremism and terrorism issues; the Committee representatives explain these issues from religious point of view.

The purpose of such meetings is to prevent the re-radicalization of prisoners the after the end of their prison term. The dates of the meetings are planned and determined by the Ministry of Justice. During two months of 2020, they have already held several meetings with prisoners.

Fahriddin Zubaidzoda confirmed the fact of conducting meetings and conversations with prisoners together with the Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations and Ceremonies, the Center for Islamic Studies, the Academy of Sciences, and the Islamic Institute of Tajikistan in order to prevent the terrorist and extremist ideas’ spread. He added that they discuss the dangers and corrupt targets of terrorists using the hadiths and Quran verses.

Zubaidzoda considers the “Jamoat Muvahiddinov” identification and prohibition of their activities as one of the achievements in preventing the terrorist and extremist ideas’ spread.

“The members of this group do not read namaz with everyone, and the way they read it also differs from namaz of the Hanafi madhhab’s followers. They also do not pray with imam of the prison mosque. They were promoting their radical views during their separate namaz readings,” says Zubaidzoda.

According to him, other groups’ members, such as “Group 24”, “Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan”, “Khoji Halim”, “Muslim Brotherhood” (all banned in Tajikistan by the Supreme Court) and others, read namaz together. However, followers of Salafiya (banned in Tajikistan by the Supreme Court), one of the branches of which is “Jamoat Muvahiddinov” (banned in Tajikistan by the Supreme Court), performed namaz and other religious practices separately from the others.

Khusniddin Nidoev. Photo: CABAR.asia
Khusniddin Nidoev. Photo: CABAR.asia

Khusniddin Nidoev, representative of the Monitoring Group under the Ombudsman Office in Tajikistan, told CABAR.asia that during the meetings with prisoners, they do not divide them into groups and the main criteria is that they all are human.

The source also noted that promotion of extremist ideas in prisons is possible, since different people are kept there together. As an example, he mentioned two major riots in the prisons of Khujand and Vahdat, one of the causes of which possibly could be the violent extremism promotion among the prisoners.

He notes that, according to prison officials, cases of extremist ideas promotion in prison facilities have already been identified; there are persons who are convinced and firm in their radical beliefs. However, he noted that he had not heard anything about extremism promotion from the prisoners.

Would a Separate Facility Help to Prevent the Radical Views’ Promotion?

Experts offer various methods of minimizing the risks of the radical views’ promotion in prisons facilities.

Khusniddin Nidoev suggests changing the “camp” type of prison facilities to a “cell” type, since hundreds of people are held in one place in the camps, and there are risks that one person may spread his extremist views among the rest. In case when prisoners stay in separate cells, they are divided into categories and, thus, the risk is reduced. This measure may also contribute to the prisons’ security. According to him, this can prevent the spread of extremism in prisons to some extent.

Nidoev recalled the case of an appeal from the citizen whose son was convicted of fraud, but additionally sentenced for extremism in the prison. “I appealed to authorities and they replied that my son united people and spread his extremist ideas among them, for which he was funded from the outside.”

The Tajik authorities announced their intention to keep prisoners sentenced for terrorism and extremism in the separate facilities. The news came on November 20, 2019, during the regional forum “Development of the Prison System in Tajikistan,” organized by the Ministry of Justice and the Penal Reform International (PRI) in Dushanbe. They also reported the separate building construction for such prisoners.

Mansurjon Umarov. Photo: ozodi.org
Mansurjon Umarov. Photo: ozodi.org

Mansurjon Umarov, Duputy Minister of Justice and Head of the Main Directorate for the Execution of Criminal Sentences of the Ministry of Justice of Tajikistan, stated during the forum, “The commissioning of such facilities will improve the supervision over this group of prisoners, prevent riots, murders, and, most importantly, the radical views’ spread and the recruitment of other prisoners. Educating these prisoners separately is much easier”.

Yusufjon Yusufzoda, the head of the department of the Security Council of Tajikistan, who also spoke at the forum, underlined the importance of the creation of specialized facilities for prisoners sentenced for terrorism and extremism.

He said, “Prisoners convicted under such articles should not be detained in the common facilities, but in the specialized ones”.

Yusufzoda added that Tajikistan’s experience demonstrated that riots in prisons were organized by the prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism.

“The riot in the Khujand prison was organized by the prisoners sentenced for the participation in terrorist and extremist groups; the riot in the Vahdat prison was organized by such prisoners as well. Therefore, considering the current situation, proper measures should be taken,” added Yusufzoda.

The discussion of the construction of separate buildings for prisoners accused of terrorism and extremism divided the expert community in two. Some considered this a good measure, but another part of experts opposed such practice.

Nuralisho Nazarov. Photo: ozodi.org
Nuralisho Nazarov. Photo: ozodi.org

Security expert and retired General Nuralisho Nazarov spoke positively about plans to construct such facilities. In his opinion, this initiative can prevent or reduce the number of riots, escapes and the radical views’ promotion.

However, a well-known Tajik human rights activist and head of “Perspectiva+” public organization Oynihol Bobonazarova, who frequently visits prisons, opposes this initiative and argues that the detention of such people together, on the contrary, will increase the number of riots, escapes and extremism propaganda, since they will feel free to act in such an environment.

In her opinion, after a few years, these people will be free and the supervision over them will be difficult to implement. Then, there will be no guarantees that they are not using the experience gained in prison in society.

Oynihol Bobonazarova. Photo from personal Facebook page
Oynihol Bobonazarova. Photo from personal Facebook page

Human rights activists constantly turn to the situation in prisons, including tortures, poor conditions of detention and closeness of such institutions to public. However, authorities deny torture in prisons.

Some experts support the separation of persons sentenced for terrorism and extremism from others, but on the condition that these facilities do not become closed and inaccessible places for tortures.

Other countries’ experience shows that the separate detention of such prisoners is not efficient. In August 2019, the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev closed the well-known high-security Jaslyk Prison, where the majority of prisoners were persons convicted of terrorism and extremism. The inmates of this prison were transported to other prisons.

The international community approved the closure of Jaslyk Prison in Uzbekistan because it was infamous, and human rights defenders constantly alerted about the tortures of prisoners there.

Oynihol Bobonazarova noted that before the decision to close this prison, the relevant authorities of Uzbekistan studied the experience of many countries, and eventually concluded that this decision should be made.

“Almost no country has such prisons and facilities. At least, the experience of neighboring countries should be studied, why they decided not to implement such practice,” says Bobonazarova.

Shukhrat Kudratov. Photo from personal Facebook page
Shukhrat Kudratov. Photo from personal Facebook page

Lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov, who was imprisoned for several years himself, notes that the separate detention of prisoners sentenced under the “extremism” and “terrorism” articles, only increases the possibility of new riots, as they are firm in their beliefs.

“If they are separated from the rest, special unwritten laws will appear, and no one will be aware of their future actions. However, if they are kept together with others, there will be at least one person who reports on their plans to the administration. In this situation, they will not disregard anything that the prison staff does,” he believes.

In addition, he questions the fairness of the court verdicts. In his opinion, the majority of people convicted on charges of extremism are actually innocent, and if they are separated from other prisoners, truly radical prisoners will influence them. Recruiters will use different ways, such as financial and moral assistance, to recruit them into their ranks and instill their radical beliefs in them.

Saidjafar Usmonzoda. Photo from personal Facebook page
Saidjafar Usmonzoda. Photo from personal Facebook page

Saidjafar Usmonzoda, the Head of Democratic Party of Tajikistan and deputy of the Tajik parliament, believes that persons, who committed criminal damage or another crime through negligence, should not be kept together with terrorists and extremists whose mentality has already changed.

“Prisoners who are divided inside the prison by crime types they have committed must also be kept separately in the same groups. That is, there must be a separate prison for each crime,” says Usmonzoda.

An analysis of the most experts’ opinions shows that the debate around the detention of persons convicted of terrorism or extremism is very heated. Some experts argue in support of the detention of prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism together with other groups. At the same time, another group of experts opposes this point of view and supports the idea of separate detention of prisoners sentenced for terrorism and extremism from other prisoners. This expert group also provides persuasive arguments.

In order to prevent the spread of terrorist and extremist ideas, the Tajik authorities should study the opinions of all national experts and the experience of foreign countries and make a precise decision that will benefit the state and society.

This journalistic investigation was conducted under IWPR project “Stability in Central Asia via Open Dialogue”.

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