Residents Of Restive Tajik Region Say Death Toll From Clashes Higher Than Reported

By RFE/RL's Tajik Service

DUSHANBE -- Residents of Tajikistan's restive region of Gorno-Badakhshan, where protesters have clashed with police in recent days, say the death toll from the violence is more than double the one given by officials.

Residents of the Rushon district told RFE/RL on May 19 that the bodies of 21 protesters killed during the clashes the day before had been turned over to their families for burial.

That figure contrasts with a May 18 statement from the Interior Ministry, which said that in all, nine people, including a police officer were killed and at least 25 were wounded during what it called an "counterterrorist operation" in the region.

More than 70 local residents have been detained, authorities said.

The protests were initially sparked several days ago by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by the regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16.

Earlier on May 19, the diplomatic missions of the European Union, the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement expressing 'deep concern about the unrest and calling on all parties to "de-escalate, exercise restraint, and refrain from excessive use of force and incitement to violence."

The Interior Ministry said on May 18 that the situation in the region was now "stable" and that public transportation and other social institutions had resumed operations. RFE/RL correspondents, however, reported from the region that schools and state entities in region remained closed.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has demanded the Tajik government "strictly observe its obligations to respect and protect people’s rights to life, and freedom of assembly and the media in any military or law enforcement operations in Tajikistan’s autonomous region."

"The authorities should provide a platform for constructive dialogue with protesters, refrain from excessive use of force, and ensure that any detainees are guaranteed full due process," HRW Central Asia researcher Syinat Sultanalieva said in a statement on May 18.

Tajikistan's leading independent media outlet, Asia Plus, announced on May 17 that it would no longer cover the events in Gorno-Badakhshan, apparently fearing possible repercussions.

The announcement came the same day that four RFE/RL journalists -- two from its Tajik language Service (known as Radio Ozodi) and two from Current Time -- were attacked by unknown assailants after they interviewed civil rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamatshoeva, who was accused by Tajik authorities of organizing the protests.

Mamatshoeva was arrested on May 18.

The situation in the restive region has been tense since November 2021, when security forces fatally wounded Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, a local man wanted on charges of kidnapping. Locals rallied at the time to demand a probe into Ziyobekov's death.

The protesters in Gorno-Badakhshan have insisted their actions are peaceful and that they have a right to peaceful demonstrations. Opposition groups based abroad have called on Tajik authorities to stop what they called the "persecution of peaceful demonstrators" in the region.

Protests are rare in the tightly controlled country of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.

Tensions between the government and residents of the restive region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Gorno-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, was home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict.

While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is a mere 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.