Berlin, Brussels (23/5 – 28)
“We will destroy anyone who raises his head. If you try to complain, you will suffer the fate of those Pamiris arrested and executed. We order you to halt any kind of dissent or criticism of the government.”
Governor Alisher Mirzanabatov
On a warm spring day last May, an ominous news conference was held in the picturesque city of Khorog, the regional capital of Tajikistan’s autonomous mountain region of Badakhshan, and where protestors had been gathering by the hundreds to decry government injustices. Speakers included senior officers of both the country’s internal security services and feared secret police, but the last word was by the region’s recently appointed governor, Alisher Mirzanabatov (Mirzonobot). The grim faced, stocky governor and former deputy head of the Tajikistan secret police, warned that “criminal elements” were destabilizing the region and that protests needed to cease, or else action would be taken.
A few days later, Mirzanabatov coordinated the launch of a campaign of ethnic cleansing – killing, arrests, torture, and silencing, that targeted the non-violent demonstrators and civil society leaders of the Pamiri ethnic minority. Most Pamiris are followers of Ismaili Shi’ite Islam, speak languages separate from Tajik and boast of an ancient cultural history that sets them apart from the majority Sunni Muslims of Tajikistan. A hardy, highly educated and peaceful people, the Pamiris inhabit the “rooftop of the world” – the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) that comprises 40 percent of the country.
It is precisely their autonomy and insistence on being culturally separate but equal Tajik citizens, that set the Pamiris on a collision course with the aspirations of President-for-life Emomali Rahmon for complete control over a country that has essentially become his extended family’s fiefdom.
Knowledgeable sources inside the security services describe how an escalating campaign against Pamiri autonomy gathered steam in November 2022 with the appointment of Mirzanabatov as governor, replacing a conciliatory Pamiri. Secret police, civilian police, and government apparatchiks imposed increasingly repressive measures on the population, neighborhood “watch committees” were organized like those in communist Cuba, and security service officers humiliated Pamiris daily with threats, sexually abusive language toward women, and provocative insults of the Pamiris’ Ismaili faith and their spiritual leader the Aga Khan.
The May 2022 new conference marked the long-planned launch of what a well-placed source access to the presidential office described as the “final solution” to the problem of Pamiri autonomy, and the perceived humiliating outside economic support the Pamiris had received by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), that employed thousands in health, education, rural development, and cultural institutions. This, despite the decades of educational initiatives by the AKDN to inculcate the values of citizenship and national unity among Pamiri youth.
Two days after governor Mirzanabatov marched off the stage, Tajik military trucks and armored personnel carriers carrying units of both the dreaded Alpha Unites of the GKNB secret police, and elite units from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) descended on Pamiri protestors in the town of Vamar who were blocking their access to Khorog, 60 km to the south.
The 18th May has become a day of infamy for Pamiris, as the security forces carried out a blood bath, shooting protestors not only from the ground, but also from circling helicopters with snipers who hunted down protestors fleeing to the mountains. Sources estimate that around 40 persons were killed, and many more injured. Others were arrested and tortured, some to in jail death, and their bodies dumped near the local hospital. Videos of distraught and wailing relatives outside the hospital were smuggled out of the country.
Proportional to the population of Pamiris, almost 300 Russians would have died, or almost 3,000 Chinese in a single incident. What followed in the weeks and months after the Vamar massacre were the arrests of hundreds of Pamiris, many subjected to extreme torture, and then condemned to lengthy prison terms, including popular athletes, journalists, and religious leaders. The community was further traumatized as the security forces systematically hunted down and killed all remaining informal community leaders who had once led self-defense militias during the bloody Tajik civil war of 1991-1997. They played a critical role in preserving community harmony, promoting cultural traditions, and allocating social aid to needy families. Dozens of Pamiris, including leaders of the diaspora community in Russia, were extradited to Tajikistan to disappear into prison.
Human rights researchers note that there is no evidence of any arrested Pamiri advocating violence against the state, or the overthrow of the regime. These same researchers estimate that around 2,000 Pamiris are now imprisoned, including Pamiris arrested before 2022. The economic impact of these numbers is incalculable, as families have had to sell their homes to move near their loved ones’ prisons far from GBAO in order to support them with food and medicine that is not provided by the prison authorities.
The AKDN’s development projects have come under bureaucratic strangulation threatening the livelihoods of an estimated 3,000 breadwinners. Small businessmen and merchants have been forced to shutter their companies, and religious ceremonies in homes forbidden. Today, GBAO resembles North Korea, with its omnipresent surveillance cameras, forced cult of the President-for-Life Rahmon, mandatory marching parades, and somber town hall meetings led by governor Mirzanabatov and his police chief, who lecture sullen citizens about the merits of obeying the law. Hundreds of families have abandoned their homes and fled to freedom in distant countries.