Crossroads Asia

Tajikistan’s Prison Riot: More Than Meets the Eye

The details remain fuzzy, but the conclusion is clear: Something is very wrong.

Catherine Putz
Tajikistan’s Prison Riot: More Than Meets the Eye
Credit: Facebook

For the second time in six months, violence broke out at a prison in Tajikistan.

Watching the story from abroad, it was another rare case of Tajik news breaking into international media: The New York Times and The Guardian ran a Reuters story, the AFP produced a piece, and Al Jazeera covered the issue, too. For many media outlets, the hook was the Islamic State thread allegedly running through the incident. According to the Tajik government, the riot at the Kirpichniy prison in Vahdat district ultimately resulted in the deaths of 29 prisoners and three guards. In the government’s telling, it was a flash of violence orchestrated by Islamic State members.

But local dynamics are critical to understanding the incident.

“I guess it is simpler for readers just to be presented with a story that ISIS conducted another attack, rather than confronting the possibility that the state itself was responsible for the violence in an effort to purge political enemies,” Dr. Edward Lemon, the DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School in Washington, D.C. and an expert on Tajikistan told The Diplomat.

Regionally focused media, like RFE/RL and Eurasianet, covered the story with more detail but similar caveats: Verification is next to impossible and an independent investigation extremely unlikely.

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“Ultimately, as in the previous prison riot in November, the lack of transparency from the government makes it very difficult to tell precisely what happened,” Lemon said.

Roughly two versions of what happened at the prison, located about six miles east of Dushanbe, have emerged. The first version, inspiring much of the wire reports in tow, is based on official accounts provided primarily through the Tajik Ministry of Justice.

While the details have shifted some, it goes something like this: Islamic State militants — with the son of Gulmurod Khalimov, Bekhruz Gulmurod, as an instigator — killed three guards and five other prisoners with knives. In a statement cited by Eurasianet, a fight has broken out between the Islamic State members and members of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT). The militants then set the prison’s hospital on fire, took several other prisoners hostage and tried to escape. Tajik security forces then killed 24 prisoners while restoring order to the prison, which houses approximately 1,500 inmates. In the final official count, three guards, 17 Islamic State members and 12 other prisoners were killed. Among the other prisoners killed were high-profile members of IRPT, a banned opposition party now operating in exile. Variations on the government’s story suggest it was an escape attempt, a fight between ISIS sympathizers and IRPT members, an attack on guards, or a mixture thereof.

“The government story that blames Khalimov’s son Bekhruz, arrested for links to ISIS, for starting the riot in an attempt to escape and in the process ended up killing IRPT members and other prisoners, is plausible. But I think a number of pertinent questions remain,” Lemon said.

Like the November incident, despite the fact that just a few prisoners reportedly started the violence, Lemon asks, “why were so many ‘neutralized or perished’ especially if they were unarmed? The use of force by the government seems indiscriminate and disproportionate.”

The second version (covered in English in more detail here by Eurasianet) comes from the IRPT and is less an alternate telling, per se, than an accusation of a possible cover up. The IRPT alleges that the death total is higher than the official count, pointing to rushed burials as suspicious and apparent discrepancies between the state’s version and the injuries sustained by the IRPT members who were killed.

“Back in the Soviet Union, the authorities had a tendency to use prisoners to eliminate political opponents. Given that the targets seem to have been former industry minister Saidov and IRPT members, it could be that the state organized, or at least allowed the riot to happen, as a means of eliminating the government’s opponents,” Lemon suggested. “This seems plausible. But we do not know for sure.”

The personalities and organizations cited as involved — the IRPT, the Islamic State, Khalimov — are among the most sensitive subjects for the Tajik government.

“Everything to do with Khalimov is just so charged. The same goes for the the IRPT,” Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Diplomat.

Dushanbe has tied itself in knots over the past four years to portray the IRPT as nothing less than a terrorist organization. The party was outlawed by the end of 2015, after losing its two seats in the Tajik legislature earlier in the year. Shortly thereafter, the party’s leaders were charged with various crimes, including terrorism and extremism, and handed long sentences; the lawyers representing them were also jailed on charges human rights advocates say are clearly politically motivated.

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The Islamic State, too, is a sensitive subject for the Tajik authorities. Former special police commander Gulmurod Khalimov defected to join the Islamic State in 2015. Khalimov has been rumored multiple times to be dead (and most likely is, though who really knows?). Meanwhile, the Islamic State has lost its territory in the Middle East. If Khalimov is deceased, his ghost certainly haunts the Tajik government. In April 2018, Khalimov’s son, Bekhruz, was arrested and in July of that year, two of his brothers and two nephews were killed by Tajik security forces raiding the house they were in. The Tajik government alleged the group was planning to cross into Afghanistan.

For the Tajik government, the IRPT and the Islamic State are part and parcel of the same thing — a conclusion regional analysts eye with deep skepticism. As Artemy M. Kalinovsky, an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam noted in an article last year, “Even in exile [the IRPT] has continued to call for opposition to the regime using democratic means; it has not expressed any interest in fomenting an armed uprising within Tajikistan.” When the Islamic State claimed an attack that killed four foreign cyclists last July in Tajikistan and produced a video of the attackers pledging allegiance to the black flag, Dushanbe doubled down on its narrative that the IRPT had arranged the attack.

Coming back to the recent prison violence, although clarity on the details is lacking, both Lemon and Swerdlow suggested in their comments to The Diplomat that one thing is absolutely clear: Jailed IRPT and opposition activists are at imminent risk in Tajikistan’s prisons.

“If opposition activists are being targeted within prisons, it is imperative that the government move them to a safer location, ideally setting them free or placing them under house arrest,” Lemon said.

Regardless of the details of the most recent prison riot, Swerdlow told The Diplomat, “the main new aspect is that there are now pragmatic reasons for the international community to act and press for the release, or at least for the movement to house arrest, of political prisoners” who may be targeted.