Human Rights Watch on Khorog military clashes

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A slightly delayed reposting of this press release from international organisation Human Rights Watch. The content is very measured but clear and has had good coverage (though still, the whole situation last week in Khorog has had no coverage in any of the main UK newspapers. I can understand why with the Olympics on our doorstep and atrocities in Syria, but that doesn’t stop the recent military operation in Khorog being any less shocking or upsetting). I was also pleased to play a very small part in the publication of the press release after liaising with the author and putting him in touch with others.

Tajikistan: Respect Rights in Security Operations

Keep Communication Lines Open

(New York) – Tajik authorities should respect human rights during a security operation in Gorno Badakhshan, a semi-autonomous region of easternTajikistan, Human Rights Watch said today.

Dozens of deaths and numerous injuries have been reported in the provincial capital, Khorog, after the Tajik government sent troops to the region to arrest those responsible for the fatal stabbing of the local state security chief on July 21, 2012.

“The situation in Gorno Badakhshan raises grave concerns,”said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, “Both sides need to take measures to prevent further harm to the general population.”

On July 24, it was widely reported that Tajik authorities dispatched hundreds of troops, along with helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, to Khorog to apprehend Tolib Ayombekov, a deputy commander of a Tajik-Afghan border unit and an opposition leader during the 1992-1997 Tajikistan civil war, and several of his associates. They were suspected of killing Maj. Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, local head of the State Committee for National Security. The agency had long accused Ayombekov’s associates of smuggling drugs, tobacco, and precious stones.

Ayombekov denies involvement in Nazarov’s death. Armed groups associated with Ayombekov engaged in violent clashes with government forces and demanded that they withdraw from the region.

Tajik officials declared a unilateral ceasefire and amnesty for certain fighters on July 25, but violence resumed within a day after Ayombekov refused to surrender to government troops. Various witness accounts reported gunfights across various parts of Khorog last week.

While Ayombekov’s whereabouts are unknown, officials say gunmen associated with Ayombekov have started handing over their weapons as part of the amnesty deal offered by the government. The Internal Affairs Ministry reported on July 30 that more than 60 weapons had been surrendered. In exchange, the government has promised that they will not face charges in connection with the recent fighting.

As of July 28, official sources reported that the violence had killed 17 government soldiers, 30 gunmen, and 20 civilians. Independent sources reported greater numbers of casualties among the general population. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the casualty reports. Officials also reported that 40 gunmen had been detained, including eight nationals from Afghanistan, which shares a border with the region.

In conducting arrests and other policing operations, government authorities, including soldiers, should abide by international legal standards on the use of force, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, to apply non-violent means as far as possible before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is necessary, law enforcement officials are required to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The UN principles allow lethal force only when it is “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

“Whatever serious crimes were committed in Gorno Badakhshan, the government needs to respond in accordance with international law,” Swerdlow said. “That means respecting the basic rights of those accused, as well as of the people in Khorog.

Tajik authorities have periodically blocked Internet, mobile, and landline connections to Gorno Badakhshan province since July 24, although communications were re-established on July 29. Asia Plus, the most widely read independent news source in the country, was blocked for several days. YouTube has been blocked in Tajikistan since July 26, after videos surfaced of small demonstrations in Khorog. There are reports that other Internet news sites remain blocked as well.

The head of the state communications service, Beg Zukhurov, claimed that a stray bullet had severed telephone, mobile, and Internet connections to the region.

Blocking communications to the region isolates families who may already be at great risk and prevents their relatives from obtaining information about their whereabouts and safety, Human Rights Watch said.

There were also reports that the authorities had blocked roads leading in and out of Khorog, in addition to closing the border with Afghanistan, although as of July 30 the roads were again open. Khorog residents with intermittent contacts with the capital, Dushanbe, said that blocking roads made it difficult for residents trying to flee the violence to leave the area. All sides should allow safe passage to those wishing to evacuate the region.

The Tajik government should also ease access to the region for Tajik civil society groups, the media, and international nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said.

The government may reasonably restrict the movements of certain people or groups in conducting its operations in Gorno Badakhshan, Human Rights Watch said. But these restrictions should be proportionate and should not result in a total closure that puts people at greater risk.

(c) Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/07/30/tajikistan-respect-rights-security-operations

4 responses »

  1. Dear Emma:

    Note that HRW does not go into much detail and specifics on the facts and human rights issues surrounding the Badakhshan clashes. They don’t tell the reader anythying of significance that s/he has not already read on the web in the immediate days following the clashes.

    One critical human rights issue HRW missed (and this may be the second of its kind in the past 18 months they have overlooked or willfully ignored) is the likely case of “extrajucidial execution” by governemnt forces in Tajikistan, that is, the arrest and killing of Sabzali Mamadrizoev, the IRP Badakhshan regional head. If HRW does not make a big deal out of such a likley gross violation, who should?

    “eTajikistan” Editor

    • Hi eTajikistan,

      Thanks for taking the time to post this comment. Whilst I agree that the HRW statement doesn’t add anything new to what was published at the time, they can only publish what can be verified as fact. Otherwise they would be criticised for being subjective. So whilst many of us knew more than what had been made publicly available (through individual contacts, social media groups, etc), I don’t think it would have been right for HRW to publish this information in its statement. I think it’s also important to remember that almost nothing was published in international and English-language media about events in Khorog so my personal view is that at least HRW published something – which is better than the ‘nothing’ of other outlets.

      Now that the dust is settling on the 24 July attacks and a little more is known, it may be more appropriate for HRW to revisit its initial statement, especially in the light of as yet unexplained deaths such as Sabzali Mamadrizoev’s. I can give you the contact details for the Central Asia person at HRW if you’d like to follow up directly.

      All the best,
      Emma

      • (Response from eTajikistan but posted by Emma due to eTaj’s problems in connecting to WordPress):
        I agree with you – partially. The problem is that even after “the dust has settled” HRW normally remains silent on gross violations of rights in Tajikistan. There are reasons for it: (1) Tajikistan is not the “sexiest” HR case in region. For the more grossly attractive violators focus on Uzbekistan and wag that horse to death if you can, HRW! (2) Tajikistan’s own population and civil society have failed to lobby the internatioanl community, of which HRW is a component. (3) the big powers are focusing on NDN now and seldom if ever a Western politician brings up rights violations in Tajikistan, as a result of which HRW is affected (read remains passive on the topic). The annual report of HRW on Tajikistan was a mere internet compilation. There is no first hand data there. That is unaacceptable, especially given the fact that in the 1990s they had some excellent full-time representatives in Dishanbe, very brave and dedicated people. Now, it was not the Tajik govt wh/ kicked HRW out, it was the org itself, claiming lack of funds. That argument does not hold any longer. Running out word-limit …-”eTajikistan”

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