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Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Tajik authorities to end the “unwarranted detention” of residents of the volatile region of Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO), a Central Asian country, dozens of whom have been arrested since protests of May and “face closed and unfair trials. »

In a statement released Aug. 23, HRW said Tajik authorities arrested and detained more than 200 GBAO residents, including at least 90 activists, on charges related to the protests and ensuing clashes. Some of the accused persons reportedly disappeared from Russia and were forcibly taken to the GBAO for trial.

Syinat Sultanalieva, HRW’s Central Asia researcher, said in the statement that dozens of activists and other natives of the troubled region “face unfair trials behind closed doors without access to lawyers”.

“Without a lawyer, the defendants cannot benefit from a fair trial and run a greater risk of being tortured or ill-treated,” Sultanalieva said.

The report comes a day after relatives of Salam Imomnazarov said the international judo master and son of one of GBAO’s informal leaders had been sentenced to 16 years in prison for drug trafficking at the end of June.

Imomnazarov was arrested at Dushanbe airport on February 19 as he was returning from Turkey where he received medical treatment. He was charged, police said, because his name was mentioned by a drug dealer in 2015 during questioning. Imomnazarov and his family have vehemently denied the charges.

His father, Imomnazar Imomnazarov, was killed in his home in Khorug in August 2012, a month after the launch of a government security operation in the area that claimed at least 30 civilians and killed 17 government soldiers. Relatives accuse the Tajik authorities of his death. Authorities deny any involvement.

One of Imomnazarov’s relatives, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL on 22 August that the family had not been informed of the trial date and that the only contact allowed was with his sister, who only saw him 10 to 15 minutes before the verdict fell.

“He has told his relatives not to appeal the verdict as he does not believe he will get justice and considers there is no point in appealing to a higher court,” the family member said, noting that ‘Imomnazarov had pleaded not guilty.

In 1999, Tajikistan acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates that anyone charged with a criminal offense has the right to a fair and public trial, has access to a lawyer and has sufficient time to prepare his defence, and may examine the evidence against them.

However, according to HRW, the autonomous region has only seven lawyers officially registered as members of the bar association GBAO to cover the region’s population of 250,000.

Lawyers in other parts of the country report being warned against taking on the cases of those arrested, while others fear reprisals. Several of those charged were reportedly forcibly taken from Russia and brought to the area for trial.

Deep tensions between the Tajik government and GBAO residents have simmered since a five-year civil war erupted shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million people where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.

The latest crackdown on GBAO activists follows protests initially sparked in mid-May by anger over the lack of investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal of regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional governor Alisher Mirzonabot. and the mayor of Khorugh, Rizo Nazarzoda.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting authorities to launch what they called an “anti-terror operation”.

Escalating violence in the region has prompted calls 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, hosted rebels who opposed government forces during the 1990s conflict.

The region’s mountainous terrain makes travel difficult, while its economy suffers from unemployment, harsh living conditions and high food prices.

“Tajik courts have become a treadmill for handing out long prison sentences without due process to anyone linked to the May protests,” Sultanalieva said. “The Tajik authorities must put an end to this injustice and respect their international obligations to end unjustified detentions and guarantee fair trials.

Jennifer C. Burleigh