Authorities in Tajikistan have maintained almost perfect silence over a prison riot that claimed dozens of lives, but there are indications now that they could seek to make political capital out of the deaths.
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, has cited unnamed sources as stating that around 50 people, including two guards, were killed in the unrest of November 8 at a prison colony in the northern Sughd region. Uncertainty over figures, which have not been confirmed by the government, is mirrored by lack of clarity about what provoked the violence in the first place.
Sources talking to Akhbor, a Prague-based news website focusing on Tajikistan, suggested the unrest may have been provoked by mistreatment of inmates. According to this account, the director of the prison, Faizullo Safarzoda, declined to raise the alarm immediately as he feared punishment for his inability to maintain calm.
The picture was complicated, however, when Amaq, the news agency of the Islamic State, claimed that one of the group’s militants was responsible for instigating the violence. This claim was devoid of any corroborating information.
In the most recent attempt at explaining the sources of the violence, Akhbor on November 16 cited what it said was a government assessment of the incident. The document reportedly states that a prisoner called Subhiddinhuja Khujayev attacked prison employees while shouting Islamic slogans. Akhbor notes that Khujayev was propagating the ideals of the Islamic State, although it is unclear on what this claim is based.
Akhbor reported that Khujayev was serving a five-year prison sentence for theft. An accomplice, Umar Rizoyev, was allegedly serving 22 years on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization.
Further complicating the process of establishing a proper tally of fatalities, most of whom likely succumbed to a heavy-handed suppression of the unrest, many of the dead have been buried without their families being allowed to view the bodies.
State news agency Khovar had made no reference to any prison riot taking place at all until November 17, when it reproduced an article on the episode initially published on Centrasia.ru, a regional news and commentary website. This piece, authored by Anvar Turayev, a person identified as a member of the public law council of the Sughd region, claims to have information that the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, was to blame.
Turayev produces no evidence for his assertions and his piece consists mainly of a screed against the IRPT. But the allegation fits into an established pattern for such incidents.
In July, days after a group of foreign cyclists were fatally mown down in southern Tajikistan by attackers who later were found to have declared loyalty to the Islamic States, police sought to pin the blame on the IRPT.
The IRPT, whose leadership has been jailed or driven into exile, has routinely denied any involvement in violent acts and says it has always pursued peaceful opposition.