Tajik Authorities Detain Three in Restive Gorno-Badakhshan Region

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Tajik authorities said three influential figures in the troubled Gorno-Badakhshan region have been detained, accused of murder and drugs- and weapons-smuggling charges among other series crimes.

“As a result of a special operation, the leaders of organized criminal groups of the city of Khorugh -- Talib Ayombekov, Niyozsho Gulobov, and Munavvar Shanbiev -- were detained," local police authorities said in a statement on June 11.

The statement said that all three were "involved in the commission of a number of serious and especially serious crimes such as murder, hooliganism, robbery, smuggling, and illegal trafficking in narcotic drugs, weapons, ammunition and precious stones, the creation of a criminal community, banditry, mass riots, and the incitement of parochial discord."

The authorities in Tajikistan have made a series of arrests and allegations following violent anti-government protests in mid-May.

It is not clear if the three detained on June 11 participated in the protests, but they are among about a dozen so-called "informal leaders" or influential figures in the Central Asian republic.

Ayombekov is a longtime opponent of the authoritarian regime in Tajikistan.

The AFP news agency reported that he fought against Tajik forces in a bloody civil war during the 1990s but that he was integrated into the government along with other so-called "warlords" as part of a Moscow-brokered peace deal.

It is also unclear as to whether the men have been formally charged. Families of those accused could not be reached for comment because Internet service was down in the region.

On May 22, one of the informal leaders was killed 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 Gorno-Badakhshan left as many as 21 dead, including one police officer.

In an official statement, the regional branch of the 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 Interior Ministry said 19 residents of the 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.

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

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

The current protests were initially sparked 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, a 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 the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

Gorno-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.

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