Tajikistan admits to prison massacre

The foreign minister says 21 inmates were killed, less than what is reported by independent media.

Nov 23, 2018

The government of Tajikistan has after weeks of silence finally admitted that a deadly prison riot took place in the northern city of Khujand earlier this month.

Speaking in Brussels on November 22, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirodjidin Muhriddin said that 21 prisoners had been killed during efforts to quell the unrest on November 8. That figure is considerably lower than the 50 or so fatalities that have been reported by independent media.

In spite of this gesture toward transparency, there is absolutely no indication the authorities intend to permit an impartial investigation into how so many people were killed.

Reprising a line that has already been filtered to the public through unnamed sources, Muhriddin said the trouble was provoked by a group of people allegedly belonging to extremist organizations. Twelve of those killed were members of the Islamic State group and another three belonged to other banned militant organizations, he said. The last six were serving prison sentences on charges of murder and drug-smuggling, Muhriddin said.

Muhriddin said two guards were also killed in the clashes.

“The guards and prison employees urged the rioters to enter into dialogue. But the prisoners kept up their resistance and some of them attempted to escape,” said Muhriddin, who formerly went by the surname Aslov.

In an apparent attempt to display the government’s accountability, President Emomali Rahmon on November 23 fired the head of the penitentiary system, Izzatullo Sharifzoda, who had been at his post for 10 years. The outgoing deputy chief of the State Committee for National Security, Mansur Umarov, was appointed to replace him.

According to at least one media account, from Prague-based Akhbor, the initial unrest was provoked by mistreatment of inmates. According to this account, the director of the prison, Faizullo Safarzoda, declined to raise the alarm immediately as he feared punishment for his inability to maintain calm.

On November 16, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported that Safarzod had been arrested on charges of negligence.

The Tajik government would likely have preferred to draw a veil of secrecy over the entire affair but for calls from some foreign missions in Dushanbe to divulge what precisely occurred at the prison. On November 19, the British Embassy invited members of a nongovernmental anti-torture coalition for a roundtable to discuss what was known about the events.

Commenting on those discussions, the chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy, Kevin Covert, noted that it was “important for the government to conduct a thorough investigation, follow the rule of law, and protect the human rights of prisoners and their families.”

Tajikistan might have a stronger case to make in rejecting foreign intrusion into its internal affairs were it not for the fact that it seeks to project itself as a reliable partner in combating terrorism. By implicitly casting events at the Khujand prison as a provocation by Islamist radicals, the government cannot reasonably expect partners like the United States, which has provided financial and material support for antiterrorism initiatives, not to take a keen interest in the potential security implications.

Being reasonable, or even logical, is not the strong suit of Tajikistan’s government, however.