Tajikistan, August 2023 – “My name is Jumaboy, I am 28 and I made mistakes in the past. Unmarried and unemployed, I fell into a life of crime, which led me to serve time in jail. After my release, I found myself succumbing to my fears and fleeing to Afghanistan, where I became involved with the Taliban and engaged in terrorist activities.
“Upon my return, I was arrested and sentenced to serve over 18 years in prison under Article 401. I have been in prison for the past three years."
Jumaboy is one of over 2,000 prisoners convicted of violent extremist offences in Tajikistan, including around 280 returning foreign terrorist fighters (RFTFs). The country has the largest number of prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism-related crimes in Central Asia. The presence of this disproportionate number of terrorist and RFTF prisoners poses a major challenge in the effective management of prisons, leading to safety and security risks and a very high degree of risk of radicalization towards violence in prisons.
To address this, from 2019-2023 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has delivered the Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters Detention Programme in Tajikistan, generously funded by the US Department of State Bureau of Counterterrorism. This global programme was also delivered in Iraq, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
“During my time here, I have discovered a new purpose. Learning how to read has been a turning point for me, as it has opened up new possibilities. I have been given the opportunity to educate myself and read literature, something I never before had the chance to do.
“Lecturers from the religious committee guide us in matters of faith, while the prison officers support in daily life. The prison administration assists in arranging family visits. They understand the importance of maintaining connections with loved ones.”
Jumaboy has benefitted from Tajikistan’s developing approach to prison management, which focuses on rehabilitation and safety over punishment. This approach is better for people on both sides of the prison walls, reducing the risk of radicalization to violence spreading within prisons and of ex-prisoners reoffending on release.
The change is not only focused on providing opportunities for disengagement and education , but about improving security and safety in prisons; undertaking assessments of each prisoner’s risks and needs to allow the development of individualized sentence plans; and more broadly building the capacity of prison staff to manage high-risk prisoners effectively.
The RFTF programme in Tajikistan has produced positive outcomes. On 25 August, the Programme Steering Committee (PSC) came together in Dushanbe to discuss this impact, and next steps in Tajikistan. Attended by representatives of the Bureau of Counterterrorism of the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, the prison service of Tajikistan, other government agencies, civil society organizations and international partners, the meeting offered the opportunity to learn from both successes and challenges.
Mr. Mansur Umarov, Chief of the Prison Service of Tajikistan, emphasized how the programme has helped the prison service to respond to Tajikistan’s particular context: “Tajikistan faces a unique challenge due to the significant number of prisoners charged with terrorism and violent extremism-related offences. Prison administrations have made notable progress in identifying individuals who pose a high level of threat using a new risk and needs assessment tool, currently being piloted across the country. This has paved the way for the development of personalized disengagement programs, effectively reducing the risk of radicalization to violence and terrorist recruitment within prison walls”.
“Tajikistan is taking proactive steps towards fostering a safer and more rehabilitative prison environment to reduce reoffending rates after release.”
UNODC will continue to work with key partners in Tajikistan and beyond, including with the programme’s donor. Mr. John Herbst, Eurasia Team Lead of the Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, described the first phase of the programme as an “unmitigated success”, and underlined the need to continue to build on the programme’s results. In particular, he recommended a renewed focus on developing the capacity of Tajikistan’s prison service to effectively manage the threats of radicalization and terrorism emerging from prisons, and the continued introduction of tailored interventions for RFTF and terrorist prisoners using the tools developed as part of the programme.
“Prisons play a crucial role in preventing the spread of radicalization to violence,” said Ms. Ashita Mittal, UNODC Regional Representative for Central Asia. “By addressing potential vulnerabilities within prisons, we can collectively work towards safeguarding society from the threat of violent extremism and promoting safer communities.”
Just as the participants of the recent PSC meeting are optimistic about the progress made by the Prison Service of Tajikistan in mitigating existing terrorist threats within prison walls, Jumaboy is hopeful for his own future. “My dream is to become a farmer and have a piece of land where I can rebuild my life. With no one left but my mother, who requires my care, this opportunity would not only offer me a second chance in life but help to support her.
“I firmly believe that once I am released, I will be able to create a better life for myself.”
With huge thanks to our donor, the Bureau of Counterterrorism of the U.S. Department of State.
Based on the achieved results, the Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State has supported the implementation of Phase 2 of this programme. It will focus on strengthening the capacity of Central Asia countries to mitigate terrorist threats within their prison systems, while also ensuring the effective management of violent extremist and terrorist prisoners before and after their release. By forging strong partnerships and sharing expertise, this joint effort aims to enhance regional security and strengthen the resilience of societies against violent extremism.