(New York) – Tajik authorities should respect human rights during a security operation in Gorno Badakhshan, a semi-autonomous region of eastern Tajikistan, Human Rights Watch said today.
Dozens of deaths and numerous injuries have been reported in the provincial capital, Khorog, after the Tajik government sent troops to the region to arrest those responsible for the fatal stabbing of the local state security chief on July 21, 2012.
“The situation in Gorno Badakhshan raises grave concerns,”said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, “Both sides need to take measures to prevent further harm to the general population.”
On July 24, it was widely reported that Tajik authorities dispatched hundreds of troops, along with helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, to Khorog to apprehend Tolib Ayombekov, a deputy commander of a Tajik-Afghan border unit and an opposition leader during the 1992-1997 Tajikistan civil war, and several of his associates. They were suspected of killing Maj. Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, local head of the State Committee for National Security. The agency had long accused Ayombekov’s associates of smuggling drugs, tobacco, and precious stones.
Ayombekov denies involvement in Nazarov’s death. Armed groups associated with Ayombekov engaged in violent clashes with government forces and demanded that they withdraw from the region.
Tajik officials declared a unilateral ceasefire and amnesty for certain fighters on July 25, but violence resumed within a day after Ayombekov refused to surrender to government troops. Various witness accounts reported gunfights across various parts of Khorog last week.
While Ayombekov’s whereabouts are unknown, officials say gunmen associated with Ayombekov have started handing over their weapons as part of the amnesty deal offered by the government. The Internal Affairs Ministry reported on July 30 that more than 60 weapons had been surrendered. In exchange, the government has promised that they will not face charges in connection with the recent fighting.
As of July 28, official sources reported that the violence had killed 17 government soldiers, 30 gunmen, and 20 civilians. Independent sources reported greater numbers of casualties among the general population. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the casualty reports. Officials also reported that 40 gunmen had been detained, including eight nationals from Afghanistan, which shares a border with the region.
In conducting arrests and other policing operations, government authorities, including soldiers, should abide by international legal standards on the use of force, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, to apply non-violent means as far as possible before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is necessary, law enforcement officials are required to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The UN principles allow lethal force only when it is “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
“Whatever serious crimes were committed in Gorno Badakhshan, the government needs to respond in accordance with international law,” Swerdlow said. “That means respecting the basic rights of those accused, as well as of the people in Khorog.
Tajik authorities have periodically blocked Internet, mobile, and landline connections to Gorno Badakhshan province since July 24, although communications were re-established on July 29. Asia Plus, the most widely read independent news source in the country, was blocked for several days. YouTube has been blocked in Tajikistan since July 26, after videos surfaced of small demonstrations in Khorog. There are reports that other Internet news sites remain blocked as well.
The head of the state communications service, Beg Zukhurov, claimed that a stray bullet had severed telephone, mobile, and Internet connections to the region.
Blocking communications to the region isolates families who may already be at great risk and prevents their relatives from obtaining information about their whereabouts and safety, Human Rights Watch said.
There were also reports that the authorities had blocked roads leading in and out of Khorog, in addition to closing the border with Afghanistan, although as of July 30 the roads were again open. Khorog residents with intermittent contacts with the capital, Dushanbe, said that blocking roads made it difficult for residents trying to flee the violence to leave the area. All sides should allow safe passage to those wishing to evacuate the region.
The Tajik government should also ease access to the region for Tajik civil society groups, the media, and international nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said.
The government may reasonably restrict the movements of certain people or groups in conducting its operations in Gorno Badakhshan, Human Rights Watch said. But these restrictions should be proportionate and should not result in a total closure that puts people at greater risk.