Tajik Police Appear To Keep Lid On Reporting About Suspects In Deadly Attack On Cyclists

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Days after a deadly attack on a group of foreign cyclists in a remote region of Tajikistan, information remains scarce on the possible road to radicalization of the suspects -- at least some of whom were said to have died in a shootout with security police and subsequently turned up in a video pledging loyalty to the militant group Islamic State (IS).

And Tajik authorities, who have publicly blamed not IS but a banned Islamic political party, appear eager to keep it that way.

An RFE/RL correspondent was detained by security forces on August 1 during a reporting trip to the southern town of Norak, the hometown of two of the suspects, and interrogated before having his electronic materials deleted and being forcibly taken to the capital, Dushanbe.

No legal grounds were given for the erasing of the materials, which included audio recordings of relatives and a former teacher of the suspects.

In the brutal July 29 attack on the foreigners, a car rammed into the group of cyclists before multiple attackers emerged from the vehicle and stabbed survivors, killing two Americans, a Swiss, and a Dutch national. Three other foreigners were injured in the attack before the assailants sped off.

IS claimed responsibility for the deadly incident and released a video showing five men -- at least some of whom appeared to resemble four men identified by Tajik officials as suspects killed in a confrontation with security forces -- pledging allegiance to IS's leader.

But the government has clung to its assertion that the ringleader was an "active member" of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which was Central Asia's only registered Islamic political party until the Tajik government banned it in 2015. It had tens of thousands of members when it was outlawed, and has since been labeled a "terrorist" organization by Dushanbe.

The RFE/RL correspondent, Orzu Karim, had conducted interviews with relatives of two of the government suspects and a former teacher in Norak before being stopped by security officials on August 1.

Karim identified himself as a reporter before the nearly two-hour police questioning.

After his video camera and audio recorder were confiscated, police erased Karim's interviews and drove him the 90 or so minutes to Dushanbe without letting him gather up his belongings at a nearby hotel. Neither would they allow Karim to be taken to his hometown, which lies the opposite direction from Norak.

Karim reported seeing one foreign journalist and two Tajik reporters being similarly questioned at the police station, although he was initially unable to contact them to hear their accounts of being in custody.

Authorities there have waged numerous campaigns to discourage young people from turning to radicalism, particularly in the face of figures suggesting that hundreds of young Tajiks were joining IS to help wage war in Syria and Iraq.

But the attack this week on the cyclists on a road near the Pamir Highway was the first of its kind on foreigners in Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, China, and fellow post-Soviet republics Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Post-Soviet Central Asia's poorest country, Tajikistan's politics have been dominated since 1992 by President Emomali Rahmon.

Rahmon's administration on August 1 announced the creation of a "tourist police" corps to ensure "public order and the security accompaniment of tourists" as well as to "prevent crime" generally.

Official Tajik statements have all but ignored any IS component in the attack in favor of initial suggestions that members of the technically defunct IRPT were involved.

Some IRPT leaders have been jailed on charges that rights groups have publicly questioned, while others have fled to exile and continue to urge international support for removal of Tajikistan's ban on the party's activities.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.