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Tajik IS Widows Say They're Paying For Their Husbands' Actions, But Courts Aren't Convinced 


Women and children at the Al-Hawl refugee camp in November 2020. Of the some 400 Tajik women and children at the camp, only 260 people applied for repatriation.

The widow of an Islamic State fighter, Olima Kamolova had pleaded with the Tajik government for months to help get her out of Afghanistan, where she was imprisoned as the wife of a foreign militant.

Tajik authorities eventually repatriated Kamolova and her four children last summer, just before the Taliban took power in Kabul.

The 31-year-old housewife, who had left Tajikistan with her husband in 2015, is now serving a 12-year sentence for “fighting as a mercenary in a foreign military conflict.”

She has rejected the charges and told the court she had merely followed her husband.

But Khairullo Habibullozoda, the judge at the city court in Vahdat -- a small town outside of Dushanbe where Kamolova grew up -- said he wasn’t convinced by the defendant’s argument that she was an innocent bystander. Her relatives said Kamolova lost her final appeal at the Supreme Court on January 7.

Vahdat city court in Tajikistan.
Vahdat city court in Tajikistan.

Tajikistan has rarely arrested women repatriated from conflict zones like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, instead trying to reintegrate them into society. But in recent months, Tajik courts have sentenced at least five women -- the spouses of suspected IS fighters -- to between 12 and 14 years in prison on terrorism-related charges.

Authorities haven’t released any information about the defendants and their cases. But sources familiar with the matter told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service that all five defendants were repatriated from Afghanistan early last year. The circumstances of their repatriations are unknown.

Tajik diplomat Zubaidullo Zubaidzoda, tasked with organizing the repatriation of his country’s citizens from Syria and Iraq, says some women openly say they don’t trust the Tajik government and don’t want to return.

The news comes as 48 women from Tajikistan are being held in Iraqi prisons after being convicted of “belonging to IS.”

According to the Women and Family Affairs’ Committee, four of the women have been sentenced to death by Iraqi judges. Others were given prison terms ranging from 20 years to life in jail.

Hundreds of other Tajik widows of IS fighters and their children remain stranded in refugee camps in Syria, as Dushanbe’s repatriation efforts have been largely halted by the pandemic and other challenges, Tajik officials say.

'It's Easy To Blame'

Most of the Tajik women who ended up in foreign conflict zones blame their husbands for taking them abroad, often telling them they were going for work.

Kamolova and her defense lawyer claimed she “was lied to” by her husband, who allegedly said they were going to Iran for medical treatment for one of their children.

“As they arrived in Tehran, the husband said that they’ll go to Afghanistan for a religious pilgrimage,” defense lawyer Shabnam Iskandar said. “Kamolova was reluctant to go, but her husband threatened her with divorce. Kamolova then agreed to go to Afghanistan.”

It’s not possible to verify Kamolova’s account of her experience.

One woman in the northern province of Sughd whose close relatives -- a young family -- voluntarily returned from Syria several years ago says that in traditional Tajik families women largely obey their husbands.

“In hindsight, it’s easy to blame those women, but back then in 2015 people were not well-informed,” the woman said on condition of anonymity. “It’s possible that many of the militants’ wives just trusted their husbands when they said they were going for work or pilgrimage.”

Tajik women and children in an Iraqi court in 2019.
Tajik women and children in an Iraqi court in 2019.

The woman said her relatives have been pardoned by the government, resumed their normal lives, and “never looked back.”

Tajikistan has repeatedly said it was committed to repatriating women and children who remain in foreign conflict zones. But the officials acknowledge that not everyone is willing to return.

Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin told reporters last year that “many” of the Tajik women in Syrian camps “want to come back home, but there are also those who don’t want to return.”

It’s possible that many of the militants’ wives just trusted their husbands when they said they were going for work or pilgrimage.”
-- Woman from Sughd Province

Tajikistan estimates that some 575 women and children -- family members of Tajik militants -- currently reside in the Syrian Al-Hawl and Al-Roj refugee camps, which are controlled by Kurdish forces. In 2019, the government repatriated 84 Tajik children from Iraq.

Tajik diplomat Zubaidullo Zubaidzoda, who was tasked with organizing the repatriation of his country’s citizens from Syria and Iraq, said some of the women avoid meeting Tajik officials who visit the camps.

Zubaidzoda said some openly say that they don’t trust the Tajik government and don’t want to return to Tajikistan. Local media reported that out of some 400 Tajik women and children at Al-Hawl, only 260 have applied for repatriation.

Last year, a group of Tajik women in Al-Hawl sent a letter to the government urging Dushanbe to speed up the repatriation efforts.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Tajik woman at Al-Hawl told RFE/RL that her compatriots in the camp are divided into two groups: those who have realized their mistakes and want to go home, and those who have “extremist ideas” and are still loyal IS ideologues.

RFE/RL’s Tajik Service contributed to this report.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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