(Berlin) – Tajik authorities should ensure an effective investigation into police use of force leading to civilian deaths and casualties during May 2022 protests in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should also immediately end abuses against protesters in the towns of Khorog and Rushan, whom central Tajik authorities have labeled “militants” and “members of terrorist groups.”
Tajik police detained at least 46 Gorno-Badakhshan locals in connection with protests on May 16-19 including an independent journalist and activist, Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, whom they accuse of publicly calling for violence to change the constitutional order. The police have categorized her case as “secret,” which makes monitoring the case impossible.
“Tajik citizens in the autonomous region were peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly to protest abuses against their community when the police engaged in excessive force,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Tajik authorities should immediately stop harassing protesters, investigate the abuses against them, and restore communications in the region to allow citizens access to information.”
Tajik authorities claim the May protests that erupted following months of persecution of local people after the November protests of 2021 were organized by criminal groups with connections to terrorist organizations. When protests peacefully resumed on May 14 and 16, media reports indicate that the police violently dispersed them using rubber bullets and teargas, with military support deployed from the capital, Dushanbe.
On May 18, the Tajik authorities announced a special “anti-terrorism operation” in the region after residents of Rushan village blocked the only road connecting Dushanbe with Khorog. The UN special rapporteur on minority issues said that as many as 40 people were allegedly killed in this operation, with 46 arrested as “militants.” The actual number of people arrested overall in connection to the May protests may be as high as 100.
As the central government dispersed the protests, it also cut internet and mobile connectivity in the autonomous region. Connectivity was previously cut in November and only partially restored in late March. This has denied thousands of residents in the region contact with their relatives and the rest of Tajikistan. Physical access in and out of Rushan village is also reportedly heavily restricted. Although Human Rights Watch has been able to contact people with knowledge of developments in the region, communication with the region is extremely difficult. Tajik authorities have also charged Mamadshoeva, under Article 307 of the Criminal Code of Tajikistan, with “publicly calling for violent change of the constitutional order with usage of the internet” but have not provided any evidence to substantiate the charges.
On May 24, the state TV channel broadcast a documentary in which Mamadshoeva and her former husband, Kholbash Kholbashov, a former officer in the Tajik border army, who is also in detention facing the same charges, appear to admit to organizing the protests in Khorog and Rushan, and apologize for causing distress to the residents. While their interviews were clearly recorded while they were in the hands of the authorities, the exact circumstances in which they were filmed is unclear.
The current unrest in the autonomous region is one of the worst since the end of the 1990-1997 civil war in Tajikistan, in which thousands of civilians were killed in what Human Rights Watch has previously described as “ethnic cleansing.” Residents of Gorno-Badakhshan identify themselves as “Pamiri” and are ethnically and culturally different from majority Tajiks.
The region, which already enjoyed autonomy in Soviet times, cemented a degree of formal local autonomy under a 1997 national peace agreement. However, tensions have frequently escalated over complaints of harassment and persecution of Pamiris by Tajik authorities, who accuse the region’s de facto leaders of criminal links.
UN Secretary General António Guterres expressed concern on May 20 over the escalating violence and casualties in the autonomous region, calling on all sides to exercise restraint. The delegation of the European Union to Tajikistan and the embassies of the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and Germany issued a joint statement on May 18 expressing concern over reported intimidation and prosecution of citizens and journalists, and urging the Tajik authorities to uphold respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in crisis situations. A Tajik human rights group in exile also called on Tajik civil society to demand justice for Mamadshoeva.
“Tajik authorities are responsible for the safety and security of all of its citizens without discrimination,” Sultanalieva said. “All allegations of excessive use of force and targeted harassment of residents should be investigated immediately, communications restored, and all arbitrary detentions and prosecutions halted.”