The public in Tajikistan knows all too well that police officers are far from always on their side.
But a few recent high-profile incidents – and countless more that have gone unreported – are serving to deepen that distrust.
Far from solving crimes, police are increasingly the ones committing them. And then getting away with it.
Tales of petty abuse are legion.
Over the summer, Akmal, a 35-year-old taxi driver, was out on the road when his car was scraped by a fellow motorist who turned out to be an Interior Ministry officer. As Akmal told Eurasianet, the policeman was driving fast and lost control of his vehicle.
In the weeks that followed, Akmal tried but failed to get any compensation to repair his taxi.
“The policeman threatened me and said that if I called him again and demand money for repairs, he would find something for which to put me in jail,” he said.
Such episodes do not shock Tajiks anymore. The worry is that the brazenness may be getting worse and that individual police officers are growing more impudent in their conduct.
Muhammad, a 15-year-old from Dushanbe, lives in a neighborhood in the vicinity of a police precinct. He told Eurasianet that one officer, whom he identified by the name Fayzullo, spotted him a few times on the street and decided to enlist him as his personal assistant.
Fayzullo purportedly kept demanding that Muhammad bring him drinks and food, or face ominous consequences for refusing his orders.
“If I refused to do something, he said that they had my photo, and that he ‘knows what to do with me,’ which meant that that he could throw me into jail. He also said that if my parents intervened on my behalf, then the police would deal with them too,” Muhammad told Eurasianet.
The people who spoke to Eurasianet for this story all did so on strict condition of anonymity over fears that they could face reprisals.
On one occasion, a relative of Muhammad’s spotted him chatting with Fayzullo. After learning what had been happening, they reached out to the prosecutor’s office and other state bodies for assistance.
In some instances, the aberrant behavior is impossible to hide.
On June 21, an officer with the State Traffic Inspectorate of the Interior Ministry, Orzubek Khabibzoda, was driving his service car at more than 100 kilometers per hour when he veered into the oncoming lane and collided with a Mercedes. The accident caused death of the Mercedes driver and his three passengers.
In another episode in Dushanbe on July 13, Akmal Yusufzoda, a high-ranking officer in the same ministry’s organized crime department, kidnapped a university lecturer in a fit of jealousy – Yusufzoda’s wife worked at the same place as his victim – and later threw him into the Zarafshon River.
In some cases there is pushback. In May, residents of the Istaravshan district, in northern Tajikistan, surrounded and attacked three police officers who they allege were trying to drive away with a 15-year-old girl with the intention of sexually abusing her.
“When she screamed, people around gathered near the car and demanded that the police officers explain what was happening, and this escalated into a confrontation,” the girl’s mother told reporters.
This week, four of the alleged attackers were sentenced to between two-and-a-half and three years in prison, one received a two-year suspended sentence, and one was fined the equivalent of $2,000.
No incident has proven more notorious than the kidnapping and murder of local banking executive Shukhrat Ismatulloyev in June. Investigators eventually learned that current and former police officers and prosecutor service employees were behind the botched ransom plot.
Even the authorities are unable to disguise the problem.
Speaking at a press conference in August, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda revealed that 23 Interior Ministry personnel had been detained on suspicion of committing a crime in the previous six months. But Rahimzoda tried to qualify this troubling statistic.
“Interior Ministry officers in most cases commit crimes as citizens of the country. So consider a car accident; when a person is driving, they are not an Interior Ministry officer, they are a driver,” he said.
One retired policeman with extensive experience in reform projects in the service told Eurasianet, on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, said that the crime rate among law enforcement officers is growing year by year, but that officers cover for one another. The climate of impunity is causing the gravity of the offenses to deepen, he said.
The most common transgression is specifically tied to police work.
“The situation changed greatly after the [alleged revolt of deputy defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda in 2015], when employees at the prosecutor’s office and the [Interior Ministry’s] Organized Crime Control Department did a joint investigation, and to speed up the process, they tortured suspects, applied electric shocks, and denied them fresh air. In situations like that, it is rare that people can withstand [the torture] and they will accept culpability for any crime,” the former policeman told Eurasianet.
Emboldened by the lack of consequences for the abuse of prisoners, police officers allegedly began to make far more extensive use of torture after that time.
“Senior officers don’t pay any heed, but the rank-and-file become used to the fact that they can easily break the law and nothing will happen to them for it,” the retired policeman said.
Another source, who still works in Interior Ministry, argued that reform is ongoing, though, and that work is being done to increase the public’s trust in the police. But he conceded it was an uphill struggle.
“Unfortunately, when a law enforcement officer commits a crime, it is widely discussed in the media, and when they manage to avoid punishment or get off with much softer punishments, the public reacts negatively. Why, when an ordinary citizen commits a crime, are they immediately brought to justice to the fullest extent of the law, but when police officers commits a crime, they somehow escape responsibility or get fired but are not held accountable?” he said.