Tajik Rights Defender ‘Confesses’ On State TV To Organizing Deadly Riots Despite Earlier Denial

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DUSHANBE -- Tajik journalist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva and her husband, Kholbash Kholbashov, have been shown on state-run television "confessing" to organizing deadly unrests in the Gorno-Badakhshan region, despite saying days earlier that she had nothing to do with the protests.

Late on May 24, Mamadshoeva and Kholbashov were shown on the Tojikiston television channel saying that they, along with opposition politician Alim Sherzamonov, and an informal regional leader, Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov, had planned and organized the protests, which the authorities in the Central Asian country have called "terrorist actions."

It was not clear whether the statement was made under duress, but on May 17, a day before she was arrested, the 65-year-old Mamadshoeva, who is also a rights activist, told RFE/RL that she had nothing to do with the anti-government protests in the region's capital, Khorugh, and the Rushon district.

Authorities say in the footage showing the so-called "confessions" that an unspecified Western country was involved in organizing the unrest.

Mahmadboqirov was killed on May 22 in Khorugh. His relatives say law enforcement officers killed him, while the authorities insist he was killed "when criminal groups were settling scores."

Sherzamonov told RFE/RL that he had nothing to do with the planning of any riots in Gorno-Badakhshan, and that he suspects Mamadshoeva and Kholbashov were forced to make the statement on television.

Tajik authorities have said 10 people were killed and 27 injured during the clashes between protesters and police. Residents of the Rushon district, however, have told RFE/RL that 21 dead bodies had been found at the sites where the clashes took place.

Deep tensions between the government and residents of the restive region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Still, protests are rare in the tightly controlled state 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 a peace deal that Russia helped broker.

The latest protests were initially sparked in mid-May 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, 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called an "counterterrorist operation."

The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

Gordo-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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