Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Tajikistan’s government to refrain from abusing participants in the protests that erupted earlier this month in the restive Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region.
The 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 Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after a protester was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called a “counterterrorist operation” during which as many as 40 people were killed by the security forces, according to Fernand de Varennes, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues.
As government forces dispersed the protests, the authorities also cut Internet and mobile connectivity in the autonomous region.
“Tajik citizens in the autonomous region were peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly to protest abuses against their community when the police engaged in excessive force,” HRW’s Syinat Sultanalieva said in a statement on May 26.
“Tajik authorities should immediately stop harassing protesters, investigate the abuses against them, and restore communications in the region to allow citizens access to information,” the statement said.
“The authorities should also immediately end abuses against protesters in the towns of Khorugh and Rushan, whom central Tajik authorities have labeled ‘militants’ and ‘members of terrorist groups,'” the statement added.
Gorno-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region whose residents identify themselves as “Pamiri,” was home to rebels who opposed government forces during the Tajik civil war in the 1990s.
Although it occupies almost half of the entire Central Asian country, it has a population of only 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.
The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.