Just over a month ago, Alexander Sodiqov, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto, set out to do field research in his native Tajikistan.

Within days of his arrival, secret police swooped in and locked him up in detention, where he remains today.

At first, Tajik media reported that Sodiqov had been formally charged with espionage and treason. But now, it’s become more ambiguous, says Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, who is based in Bishkek, in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

'We knew the situation in Khorog [Tajikistan], however we never expected anything like this to happen.'- Alexander Sodiqov's wife, Musharraf

“It could reflect that Tajik authorities, in the face of a large international outcry, are still considering their options,” said Swerdlow.

The fate of the 31-year-old Sodiqov – who, by all accounts, is a likeable and hard-working student with a bright future ahead of him – has galvanized fellow scholars around the world.

Thousands have signed petitions demanding his immediate release, and they are debating whether his arrest means other academic researchers could become targets in Central Asia, a region that was once part of the Soviet empire.

“Alexander Sodiqov had the misfortune of being a scholar interested in conflict and conflict prevention in Badakhshan [province] at a time when security services were particularly sensitive about their inability to establish any kind of authority [there]," said Edward Schatz, Sodiqov’s PhD supervisor at the University of Toronto, during a public forum on June 27 to raise awareness about his case.

Researching 'conflict management' in Tajikistan

Sodiqov, who is not a Canadian citizen, travelled to Tajikistan in June to visit his extended family and earn money doing summer research for John Heathershaw, a British academic at the University of Exeter whom he had known for a decade.

The two planned to interview Tajiks exploring “the causes of conflict and conflict management," according to Heathershaw. One interview was to be with Alim Sherzamonov, a politician and activist in Badakhshan, a remote, semi-autonomous region bordering Afghanistan, which had seen intermittent violence in recent years with federal authorities.

But in June, the British embassy issued a travel advisory “against non-essential travel by British nationals," said Heathershaw in an email interview.

University of Exeter faculty

Members of the University of Exeter's politics department show their solidarity with Alexander Sodiqov. (FreeAlexSodiqov.org)

That’s because the U.K. ambassador himself had received a security warning when he visited the region.

“My research permission from my university requires that I do not conduct research in regions where the U.K. government advises against non-essential travel," said Heathershaw. “Therefore Alex and I decided that he would go ahead and I would travel later, for a short visit, if the U.K. changed its travel advice."

Neither felt there was much risk. “There were neither legal barriers nor government statements advising researchers not to work in the region," Heathershaw said.

State security officials arrested Sodiqov while he was interviewing Sherzamonov in Khorugh, the capital of Badakhshan. They debriefed Sodiqov in Russian on video, and that video somehow found its way onto national television, said Sodiqov’s wife, Musharraf Sodiqova.

“We knew the situation in Khorog [sic], however we never expected anything like this to happen," Sodiqova said in an email interview.

Public campaign for his release

In the video, Sodiqov appears remarkably composed as he recounts his biography and the day’s events.

Meanwhile, Heathershaw flew out of Tajikistan back to the U.K., on the advice of the British embassy, and immediately started organizing a public campaign to get his associate released.

In early July, the Tajik foreign minister visited London and senior U.K. officials raised the case.

Since then, “there appears to be some reticence in Dushanbe over whether or not to formally charge him,” said Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch.

Heathershaw concurred. “Our understanding at the University of Exeter is that the investigation is ongoing and Alexander has not been charged with any offence."

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has said little on the case. “We are aware of reports that a citizen from Tajikistan, studying in Canada has been arrested in Khorugh, Tajikistan, ” a spokesperson said in response to a query from CBC News.

But Schatz, Sodiqov’s PhD supervisor, said, “My understanding is that the Canadian government has been working with its American and European counterparts on the ground in Tajikistan to communicate its concern about Sodiqov. What this work looks like in any specific sense I simply do not know.”

Those who know Sodiqov agree it's a cruel situation. Heathershaw called him “one of the brightest minds in political science in Tajikistan."

'One of the brightest minds' on Tajikistan

Born in 1983, during the waning days of the Soviet empire, Sodiqov came of age after Tajik independence and during the bloody civil war of the 1990s.

He graduated from one of his country’s most prestigious universities – the Tajik-Russian Slavonic University – and then taught there. He went on to study at the University of Leeds (U.K.) and then was accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Toronto in 2011.

Steve Swerdlow

Steve Swerdlow, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, says authorities may have seen Sodiqov's research through a 'paranoid lens.' (Human Rights Watch)

His wife — who, like Sodiqov, once worked for UNICEF in Tajikistan — says he is the pride of his parents. She and their two-year-old daughter travelled with him to Tajikistan, and are now staying in Dushanbe, hoping for his imminent release.

“We pray and hope every single moment. Three times a week we prepare food for Alex and take it to the detention place. I actively follow the news, regularly speak to lawyers trying to find the best way to get my family reunited,” she said.

Sodiqov now has two lawyers and they have told the family that he has not been mistreated, according to his wife.

According to Swerdlow, among the “-stans,” Tajikistan has generally been more open than Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, which have the most repressive records in the region.

“Tajikistan had not been known for holding political prisoners prior to last year," he said.

Kazakhstan’s human-rights situation has also deteriorated, with Kyrgyzstan back-sliding on rights, too, he said.

Swerdlow called Sodiqov’s arrest “an ominous step” for Tajikistan. He says there has been increasing repression in the country associated with the lead-up to last year’s presidential elections and the rule of authoritarian President Emomalii Rahmon.

But until now, the security services have not arrested an academic researcher, Swerdlow said.

“He’s being held by security services, which have taken a hardline approach, claiming that foreign powers are stirring up unrest in the country,” he said.

'Young researchers face serious risks'

Igor Shoikhedbrod, a fellow PhD student, is among the 20 or so graduate students at the University of Toronto who have contributed to a website with updates about Sodiqov. Also born in Soviet-era Tajikistan, Igor knows Sodiqov’s fate could just as easily have befallen him.

"Alex's arrest in Tajikistan has taught me that young researchers face serious risks if they decide to conduct field research there," said Shoikhedbrod in an email.

"His situation highlights the need to have a serious conversation about what roles and responsibilities are assumed by research institutions when student researchers find themselves in Alex's situation anywhere in the world," he said.  

"As doctoral students we are expected to pose difficult questions and to carry out relevant research, which is what makes Alex's arrest all the more troubling and disconcerting for me."

Sodiqov may have been vulnerable because he was a Tajik passport holder and not a scholar with a European or North American passport, said Swerdlow.

“Tajik authorities appear to have made a cynical calculation that when push comes to shove, Dushanbe’s international partners won’t be willing to exact a price for the arbitrary detention on spurious charges of a local," he said.

That’s why the international community has to prove that calculation wrong, Swerdlow said.

Sodiqov’s association with a British citizen and the timing of his visit to Badakhshan may have also have been factors. Through a “paranoid lens,” this may not have looked good, said Swerdlow.

"The British Embassy has been fairly outspoken in addressing the authoritarian abuses of the Rahmon regime," said Schatz.

"The Rahmon regime has been using a meme of 'outside threats' and 'outside causes' any time there's been violence… the British were the most vocal and visible and therefore the most obvious scapegoat," Schatz said.

Because the word “treason” was floated, diplomats behind the scenes may be trying to diffuse the situation, Swerdlow said.

“Diplomats are asking, 'How can the security services be given a face-saving way to walk this back?'"

Postscript: CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon has a PhD in Soviet history from the University of Toronto. In 1986, Soviet authorities detained her as she travelled across the Soviet-Hungarian border. She was released after just one day.