Tajikistan is poised to criminalize criticism of the government’s twice-yearly exercise of rounding up young people, often through coercion, and press-ganging them into military service.
The mass recruitment drives take place in the spring and the fall – and the effort is typically widely documented by members of the public who film especially aggressive episodes on their phones and share them online.
The incidents that catch most attention tend to be when military recruiters bundle young men, who tend as a rule to be school-leavers and in their late teens, out of their family homes into waiting cars.
On July 12, the Khovar state news agency reported that legislation is now in the works to prosecute what its proponents term the dissemination of false information about the armed forces, conscription drives and the quality of living conditions for conscripts. Information deemed to tarnish the prestige of the armed forces would also be punishable with jail terms or fines under the proposal.
In Tajikistan’s courts, which are fully beholden to the authoritarian government, any such legislation would be likely be applied with little regard for due process.
The roundups are said to frequently take place in fragrant violation of exemptions. In one recent incident caught on camera, a bus used by recruiters can be seen pulling up in front of a medical college in which young people were sitting their state exams, presumably with the intent of whisking away groups of men. The efforts of the recruiters appear to have been thwarted in this case by female students who barred the way of the bus.
The Defense Ministry complains that the spread of what it dismisses as false information is contributing to reducing the public’s trust in the army and thereby undermining the country’s defensive capabilities.
The draft applies in Tajikistan to men aged between 17 and 27. Sons in single-child families and people deemed physically unfit are exempt. Around 16,000 young men are enlisted every year through conscription.
Such is the struggle that the government has in hitting those numbers that it is often compelled to resort to desperate measures.
Since early 2020, young people of military age have been prohibited from leaving the country unless they can prove they have enlisted. Under changes to the law regulating military service that came into force in early 2021, university graduates who were previously exempt from doing military service are now still required to do one year of service.
One certain way out is to pay. People seeking to duck conscription may stump up a fee of around 25,000 somoni ($2,200). Activists have described this as a form of legalized bribery. While paying kickbacks has always been commonplace, the money would usually be collected by recruiters. Now it is the state that gets it.