How Alexander Sodiqov was freed following espionage charges

Alexander Sodiqov's ordeal in Tajikistan is over and he has returned to Canada. The student is free, thanks to efforts of fellow academics.

New chill for scholars in post-Soviet sphere hits University of Toronto student

Edward Schatz, left, helped his doctoral student, Alex Sodiqov, right, get released by authorities in Tajikstan, where the University of Toronto student had gone to do academic research. (Evan Matsui/CBC)

Many graduate students will tell you your relationship with your PhD supervisor can make or break your career. In Alexander Sodiqov's case, his supervisor may have saved him from years in prison.

Edward Schatz, a professor in political science at the University of Toronto, led the global campaign to free Sodiqov, his doctoral student.

Sodiqov's case made headlines after he was arrested in June in his native Tajikistan and accused of espionage and treason.

"Ed was amazing. He coordinated the whole campaign in Canada to help me," Sodiqov said, He returned to Toronto this month, after almost three months under investigation in Tajikistan.

Back in June, Sodiqov had been one day into a summer job interviewing Tajik civil society leaders for a British academic, when secret police swooped in and locked him up, accusing him of espionage.

Sodiqov said,"They told me I was charged under article 305 of Tajikistan's criminal code [for treason and espionage] which carries a sentence of between twelve to twenty years. I felt, oh my God, I am going to spend my life in jail."

Why Sodiqov was charged remains murky

Why Sodiqov was charged with espionage remains murky and may never be explained. (Nozim Kalandarov/Reuters)

The exact rationale for this charge remains murky, and may never be explained. But the wider context is anti–Western feeling and the fact that Tajikistan's security services are cracking down on domestic non-governmental organizations, emulating Putin's Russia,  Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in an interview from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

At the time of his arrest, Sodiqov was interviewing Alim Sherzamonov, a politician and activist in Badakhshan, a remote, semi-autonomous region bordering Afghanistan, which had seen intermittent violence in recent years involving federal authorities.

Sodiqov was born in 1983 in the former Soviet Tajikistan, studied first at Leeds University in the U.K and then was accepted in 2011 into the University of Toronto's doctoral program.

His fate galvanized scholars around the world because they felt it signals a chill for scholarly research in the former Soviet sphere. They set up a global petition, signed by thousands, to lobby the Tajik government.

"In the past you'd get a message that you're in dangerous territory. Now there's no warning that it's going to come," Sodiqov told CBC News."They are blaming foreign governments for things they can't control."

A 'Free Alex Sodiqov' campaign

At the University of Toronto, Schatz and other graduate students set up a website, produced a video, gave interviews to the media, and used social media to post updates on Sodiqov's case."Their hashtag, #freealexsodiqov, kind of went viral," said Swerdlow, in an interview from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

"Schatz was strategic," says Tracy MacDonald, a professor of Russian history at McMaster University. "He never let it go. He kept the campaign public. It would have been embarrassing for the Tajik government had anything happened to Alex while in custody."

Sodiqov, his wife, Musharraf, and their daughter, Erica returned to Toronto in September. (

Maybe because of this pressure, Tajik authorities let Sodiqov out of jail in July. But he was not allowed to leave the country and return to Canada with his wife, Musharraf, and their two-year old daughter, who is a Canadian citizen. Tajik authorities said they still wanted to investigate Sodiqov.

But the dogged lobbying by Schatz, John Heathershaw, the British academic at the University of Exeter, for whom Sodiqov was working at the time of his arrest, groups like Human Rights Watch, and politicians in the United Kingdom — working behind the scenes — ultimately produced an effect.

Two weeks ago, the Tajik secret police in Dushanbe called up Sodiqov and said he was now free to return to Canada. "I was shocked," he said.

The news came on the eve of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit on September 12, a high profile event in the region, which gathers leaders from the Central Asian countries, Russia and China.

Sodiqov returns to Canada

Schatz, who had been in constant touch with Sodiqov via email, learned that "they told him, go quietly, go quickly" said .

Schatz says he then thought, "Fantastic, now what's the next step to get him back to Canada?"

"I couldn't quite trust Alex was safe until he boarded his plane to Toronto."

"It was like a moon landing, with so many people involved in his campaign monitoring his progress each step," said Schatz.

Sodiqov remains under investigation in Tajikistan and the charges have not been dropped.

Steve Swerdlow, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, says the campaign to free Sodiqov is a great example of how pressure works. (Human Rights Watch)

Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch says this case is a great example of how pressure works. "Sodiqov benefitted from a wide array of actors pressing for his release."

"This is how it works: try to raise the temperature so governments get a sense that this is not going away."

"But there are so many people in Tajikistan's prisons who haven't benefited from other people's pressure. The Alex Sodiqov case is one of those rare bright spots from a region that sees arrests and imprisonments on flimsy pretexts," Swerdlow said.

According to Swerdlow, among the "stans," Tajikistan had in the past been more open than Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, which have the most repressive records in the region. This may be changing, Swerdlow explained.

Increasing repression in Tajikistan

Tajikistan's President Emomalii Rahmon waves from an open-top car during a parade following his inauguration in Dushanbe November 16, 2013. The authoritarian ruler has been in office since 1994. (Press service of presidential administration of Tajikistan/Reuters)

There has been increasing repression in Tajikistan, associated with last year's presidential elections and the authoritarian rule of President Emomalii Rahmon.

"There's anti-West propaganda in [Tajik] state media and accusations that unspecified 'external forces' are attempting to destabilize the country," Swerdlow says. 

"Whether these fears are due to Dushanbe's worries about its inability to resolve simmering discontent among the population of the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region — where Sodiqov was first detained — or whether this is more of an absorption of Kremlin propaganda, it's a dangerous tendency taking Tajikistan down the wrong path," he said.

"While an international campaign was able to achieve Alex Sodiqov's freedom, the larger human rights picture in Tajikistan has markedly deteriorated," Swerdlow added.

'New threats to the academy'

Ed Schatz says he's happy he will no longer have to haunt his computer at 4:00 a.m, hoping for news from Sodiqov many time zones away in Dushanbe. "It's someone's fate, it's a big responsibility," he said.

Human Rights Watch says the human rights situation in Tajikistan has markedly detoriorated. Women sell curdled milk at a street market in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Nov. 1, 2013. (Nozim Kalandarov/Reuters)

Alexander Sodiqov is back to being a regular PhD student again. He's no longer sure, though, what he'll research when it comes to writing his dissertation on Tajikistan.

Schatz says "we're in a new period, and it's not just in authoritarian contexts. There's pressure on civil society even in countries like Hungary.

"There are new threats to the academy. Knowledge [is seen] as a dangerous thing."

"All of my other PhD students are going to have to be conscious. We'll have to sit down and assess the risks."


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