A riot at a high-security prison in northern Tajikistan has resulted in more than a dozen deaths, various reports claim. While local authorities confirmed that a riot had occurred late Wednesday night, few official details have been provided.
Reports vary as to the casualties. RIA-Novosti, a Russian news agency, reported that 13 inmates were killed while security forces suppressed a riot. RIA-Novosti cited an unnamed Sughd region security source. Asia-Plus, a Tajik news site, reported that an unnamed official source at the central Khujand hospital said six police officers were admitted with gunshot wounds and that the number of inmates killed could be as many as 20. AFP cited two security sources as saying 20 inmates and two guards were killed and Reuters reports three security sources claiming at least 25 inmates and two security officers were killed.
Reuters reported that the violence began late Wednesday at the prison when an inmate attacked a guard and seized his rifle. AFP cited another source that claimed the riot began when prisoners seized “cutting objects” from the prison’s workshop.
The prison reportedly houses people serving long sentences for serious crimes such as murder and extremism.
An interior ministry source has been cited by Reuters and AFP (with RIA-Novosti citing a generic security agency source) claiming that the inmate who kicked off the incident by attacking a guard was believed to be an Islamic State (ISIS) member. AFP quoted its source as saying the prisoners “planned to join the ranks of ISIS.”
The prison in Khujand has seen violence in the past. In June 2016, a guard and a prisoner were killed when three inmates staged a jailbreak. Articles at the time claimed that of the three escapees, only one managed to get out of the prison grounds. The inmates had stabbed the guard before making a run for it. One was killed and one injured when guards opened fire. The third was reportedly killed two days later in a nearby district.
An interior ministry spokesman in 2016 also told AFP, “The three militants had planned to join the ranks of ISIS.”
Beyond information provided by Tajik government sources — which have their own motivation for speaking to select media outlets — there is no information regarding the nature of the reported riot or the inmates involved. That said, the Islamic State connection is possible given the type of inmates supposedly housed at the Khujand prison and recent events.
While the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has seen its territory condensed considerably, the group’s online presence remains a threat and its propaganda and instructions as powerful as when first published. While exact numbers are hotly debated, Tajiks are believed to have formed a sizable portion of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State from Central Asia. Most prominently, the defection in 2015 of OMON commander Gulmurod Khalimov highlighted the group’s Tajik contingent. Many others were recruited in Russia, where they worked as migrant laborers.
On July 30, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a car attack that killed four foreign cyclists in Tajikistan’s Khatlon Province. The attack — a car-ramming and knife attack — fit into a pattern of Islamic State-inspired attacks in the West, stemming from the group’s propaganda promoting the tactic. The Tajik government, ignoring available evidence, pinned that attack on its political bete noire, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).