Influential Gorno-Badakhshan Figure Killed In Tajikistan's Restive Region

One of the informal leaders of Tajikistan's restive Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) was killed on May 22 in Khorugh, the region's administrative capital, police said, adding that the death was the result of "internal clashes between criminal groups."

The death of Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov was reported after clashes between protesters and police in recent days in the GBAO left as many as 21 dead, including one police officer.

In an official statement, the GBAO branch of Tajikistan's Interior Ministry described Mahmadboqirov as "the leader of an organized criminal group," saying that his death was "the result of internal clashes between criminal groups.”

The statement said the regional prosecutor's office has launched a preliminary investigation into the incident.

The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said 19 residents of GBAO's Rushon district, whom it called "members of organized criminal and terrorist organizations," had "surrendered" to police after taking part in anti-government protests on May 15-18.

The list of those detained includes Amirbek Qayobekov and Nuriddin Saidov -- the former leaders of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan in Rushon -- as well as 15 members of a group led by Kholbash Kholbashov.

Authorities have accused Kholbashov, his former wife, well-known civil rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, former opposition field commander Yadgor Ghulomhaidarov, and exiled opposition politician Alim Sherzamonov of organizing the unsanctioned anti-government rallies. Mahmadboqirov was also accused of organizing the demonstrations.

The whereabouts of Kholbashov and Ghulomhaidarov are unknown. Mamadshoeva was arrested last week. Before her arrest, she told RFE/RL that all accusations against her were baseless and that she has had nothing to do with the protests.

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

Mahmadboqirov and other influential leaders in the region fought against the government during that conflict but were integrated into the state structures as part of the peace deal that Russia helped broker.

The current 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 regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of Khorugh.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting authorities to launch what they called an "anti-terrorist operation."

The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

"The United Nations will monitor the situation closely," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told journalists late on May 19, adding that Guterres was calling on all sides to exercise restraint and make every effort to resolve the current situation peacefully.

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."

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

Gordo-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.

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.

With reporting by AFP