RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Author)
VAHDAT, Tajikistan -- Authorities in Tajikistan say three prison guards and 29 inmates, including several opposition members, have been killed in a riot that broke out in a maximum-security prison, the second deadly prison clash to hit the country in the last six months.
The Interior Ministry on May 20 released a list of the 29 inmates it said were killed in the riot the previous night at a prison in the Vahdat district, some 15 kilometers east of the capital, Dushanbe.
According to the list, 17 of the slain inmates were members of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, a claim that cannot be independently verified.
The list said three of the slain inmates were from the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), a major opposition group that authorities outlawed in 2015 in a move widely criticized as unjustified and politically motivated.
Earlier, the Justice Ministry said five of the inmates were killed by fellow prisoners in the unrest while 24 others were "liquidated" during the authorities' "measures to quell" the riot late on May 19 at the prison locally known as Kirpichniy, Russian for "brick."
In a statement, the ministry said that the clashes started when some 30 inmates convicted of membership in various militant groups killed three prison guards.
The ministry said the inmates were armed with knives and other sharp objects.
In the tightly controlled country, it is impossible to independently verify the authorities’ claims.
Rights groups say President Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled Tajikistan since 1992, has used the security forces and other levers of power to sideline opponents and suppress dissent.
The statement said that one of the leaders of the rioters was Behruz Gulmurod, the eldest son of Gulmurod Halimov, a former commander of the Tajik Interior Ministry's special forces who joined IS group in 2015.
In 2016, the U.S. State Department named Gulmurod Halimov as a key member of IS and offered a $3 million reward for information on his whereabouts.
Behruz Gulmurod, 20, was arrested in Tajikistan in 2017 and sentenced to 10 years in prison after being found guilty of attempting to join a foreign militant group.
The statement said the rioters set the prison's medical unit on fire, took several inmates hostage, and attacked guards, while trying to escape.
The ministry statement said that during efforts to "quell the riot...35 inmates were captured and the hostages released," but didn’t provide any details.
The statement added that the situation was now under control and that an investigation had been launched into the riot.
Officials said that prominent IRPT members Saeed Qiyomiddin Ghozi and Sattor Karimov were among those killed by the rioters. Both were serving lengthy prison sentences on charges that the opposition said were politically motivated.
A founding member of the IRPT, Ghozi, 67, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2018 on charges that included treason.
Karimov, 60, was sentenced to 28 years in prison in 2016 on terrorism-related charges.
The IRPT, long an influential party with representatives in the government and parliament, was labeled a terrorist group and banned in 2015, a move strongly condemned by international rights groups.
Dozens of IRPT officials and supporters have been prosecuted and many of them imprisoned, drawing further criticism of Rahmon's government from rights groups.
IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri has been living in self-imposed exile since 2015.
The prison in Vahdat holds some 1,500 inmates, including several members of the IRPT and other opposition groups.
The websites of the Tajik opposition abroad reported that Zaid Saidov -- a businessman and leader of the unregistered opposition New Tajikistan party, who is serving a 26-year prison sentence in the prison in Vahdat -- was not harmed during the riots.
Saidov was convicted in December 2013 of financial fraud, polygamy, and sexual relations with a minor.
Many relatives of inmates gathered near the Vahdat prison facility on the morning of May 20 and were eagerly waiting information, RFE/RL correspondents at the scene reported.
Some of them received the bodies of their slain relatives for burial, the reporters said.
The wives of several prisoners who were in a separate block of the facility for conjugal visits said they heard gunshots around 9 p.m. local time. They said gunfire lasted for around 30 minutes.
Vahdat residents said they witnessed several ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks driving toward the prison.
In November 2018, a riot broke out in a maximum-security prison in the northern city of Khujand. Officials said 21 prisoners and two prison guards were killed in that incident.
The latest disturbances in Vahdat come as some 30 inmates from the Khujand prison were on trial behind closed doors for alleged participation in the November riot. Prosecutors have asked for prison sentences of 10 to 20 years for the suspects.
Government sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL at the time that suspected IS supporters convicted of religious extremism and terrorism were behind the unrest.
A website linked to the IS group said at the time that one of its "fighters" was responsible for starting the riot in the Khujand prison.
According to the government in Dushanbe, more than 1,000 Tajik citizens joined IS militants in Iraq and Syria.
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