The streets of Khorugh were half-empty and businesses were forced to close during Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s recent trip to the remote city, the capital of the restive Gorno-Badakhshan region.
Rahmon’s unannounced visit from August 15-18 marked his first to the region since at least 34 people were killed in Dushanbe’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protests in Khorugh and the nearby Rushon district in May 2022, with several activists also being arrested and sentenced to long prison terms.
The trip took place amid very tight security measures, with all businesses, shops, and bazaars ordered to close a day before the president arrived, residents told RFE/RL on August 21.
“During the president’s previous visits, the public reaction was usually mixed and perhaps only a few people were unhappy with those trips, with many locals welcoming him. But this time it seemed that people in Khorugh and the districts of Rushon and Roshtqala were equally [displeased with the visit],” said a local journalist.
“The reasons behind it are the bloody events last year and the government’s takeover of some of Agha Khan [Development] Network’s properties,” the journalist said on condition of anonymity.
The reporter was referring to Tajikistan’s recent takeover of several major properties linked to the Aga Khan network in Gorno-Badakhshan.
The Aga Khan is the imam of the Ismaili Shi’ite community, and an overwhelming majority of Gorno-Badakhshan’s citizens identify as Ismailis. The appropriation of the properties — including a hotel, a city park, and private school — began shortly after the May 2022 protests and continues.
The government has also intensified the persecution of prominent figures from the region, arresting several journalists and community leaders in the past year.
The remote region in eastern Tajikistan has been the scene of several deadly protests and clashes between the security forces and local armed groups over the past three decades.
Several planned meetings and events were scrapped from Rahmon’s agenda at the last minute, according to RFE/RL sources.
Rahmon was expected to visit Rushon, one of the epicenters of last year’s violence. But the trip didn’t take place. At least 114 Rushon residents were arrested during what the government called an “anti-terrorist operation” during the violence. It said weapons were seized during the raids.
Authorities accused some local groups of attacking government officials and blocking a major highway. Residents, however, said security forces opened fire on unarmed people, while also arresting and extrajudicially killing several men in the district.
Ahead of the president’s trip “there were rumors that women in Rushon were planning to wear black clothes to greet Rahmon and express their discontent,” the journalist in Khorugh said. “I don’t know if the rumors were true, but Rahmon’s trip to Rushon was canceled.”
A source in the regional government told RFE/RL that the speculation about possible protests by women were baseless, and that Rahmon was unable to take part in some planned events “due to his health issues.” No further details were given.
“The president was to attend opening ceremonies in nine locations, but he was only able to visit four of them. The rest were opened by the other dignitaries visiting from Dushanbe with the president,” the source said.
The trip to the region went without any security incidents, the source said on August 21.
“There were risks of some unforeseen incidents happening during meetings with activists in Roshtqala or Khorugh in regard to last year’s events, but no such incidents took place and everything was under control,” the source added.
Concerned Over Security
Tajik authorities made no comment about the changes to Rahmon’s itinerary. The local government reported on several new entities being officially launched during the president’s visit, though he was notably absent from some of them.
In contrast, Rahmon’s trip to the Vanj and Darvoz districts went “quite well,” according to RFE/RL sources. Vanj and Darvoz were unaffected by the violence last year.
“The tight security measures showed that authorities were concerned about the president’s safety during the trip,” the sources added.
Rahmon did officially open a new school, a residential building, and two factories. He also addressed a gathering in Khorugh with government officials and what the president’s website called “activists in Gorno-Badakhshan.”
Rahmon praised development and investments in the area and claimed his government is committed to improving people’s lives in Gorno-Badakhshan.
But he made no mention of the violence last year or the arrests, killings, and persecution that followed the protests.
Source: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty