Murder Invokes Ghosts of Tajikistan's Past

A clash between two police units in a former opposition stronghold reflects the lingering mistrust between the sides in the civil war.

Murder Invokes Ghosts of Tajikistan's Past

A clash between two police units in a former opposition stronghold reflects the lingering mistrust between the sides in the civil war.

The death of a police commander in a shootout has highlighted underlying tensions that have persisted in Tajikistan since a bloody civil war came to an end in 1997.

Colonel Oleg Zakharchenko of the OMON or riot police was shot dead on February 2 in Garm, a small town high in the mountains 150 kilometres east of the capital, Dushanbe.

What makes this case unusual is that the violence was between two units subordinate to the Tajik interior ministry - Zakharchenko’s team, who had driven up to the remote township from Dushanbe, and the district police in Garm.

The head of Garm’s organised crime squad, Mirzohoja Ahmadov, has been accused of Zakharchenko’s murder.

The official version put out by the interior ministry is that Zakharchenko and a number of policemen, together with Rajabali Mahmadaliev, head of the national police directorate for combating organised crime, were sent up to Garm to attend a meeting concerning the performance of the local police.

According to the authorities, the group was approaching the local organised crime squad building when it came under fire from Ahmadov’s men, Zakharchenko was shot in the head as he attempted to intercede, and four of his comrades were injured in the firefight.

Ahmadov tells a different story, telling IWPR that his men were the victims of an unprovoked attack and only fired in self-defence.

“I went to the window and saw armed men wearing masks getting out of a jeep. I wanted to get out by the back entrance but I saw the building was surrounded. My people didn’t open fire on them – it was they who started shooting,” he said.

Since his men had no idea the assailants were police, they had no option but to defend themselves, said Ahmadov, adding, “There’s a ministerial instruction not to allow armed men to come into your area and to defend yourself from a surprise attack. I followed that instruction.”

Ahmadov said his officers were also forced to act because the building they use is also home to various civilian organisations, both government and non-government. “There was panic in the building…. There were people from those organisations working there that day,” he said.

He concluded, “After we injured one of the armed men in masks, they fell back and the firing stopped. I didn’t know who these people were. It wasn’t until the minister rang up and said, ‘You’re going to answer for Zakharchenko’s death’ that I found out it was him and OMON.”

Although accounts of who is at fault differ, the incident is clearly not the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding between two arms of the police.

Contrary to the official report that the Dushanbe team had arrived for a conference, Ahmadov insists they attacked him because he was at one time an opposition guerrilla leader in the 1992-97 civil war.

Like many members of the United Tajik Opposition, UTO, Ahmadov and his men were amnestied and went through a disarmament process as part of the 1997 peace deal, and were then “reintegrated” – in their case recruited as the local police force.

As the paramilitaries on both sides were reined in and some UTO leaders were brought into government, the peace deal seemed to work unexpectedly well given the bitterness and suspicion left behind by the conflict. Making police commanders out of guerrilla chiefs like Ahmadov seemed a pragmatic step in the Garm valley, a stronghold of the UTO and in particular its leading force, the Islamic Rebirth Party.

In the years since then, however, the government of President Imomali Rahmon has gradually reversed the balance, removing most of the senior UTO members from posts at national level, and charging some of them with crimes. In 1995, for instance, Democratic Party head Mahmudruzi Iskandarov, a former UTO commander also from the Garm valley who had returned to civilian life as a politician and head of Tajikistan’s gas monopoly, was arrested and jailed.

Ahmadov says his employers have also been out to get men like him who are lower down the rung.

He says his police are the only ex-UTO unit left in the Garm valley – the rest have been picked off one by one. “Many opposition supporters from Rasht [Garm region] are now in jail, while some live in Russia and are scared to return home as fear persecution,” he said.

Ahmadov claims this was the seventh attempt to arrest him to date, and that he has not even visited Dushanbe in the last six years because of the danger he feels he would be in.

He says he has done his job as a police commander conscientiously, and is not about to go into hiding even though he is likely to be convicted of Zakharchenko’s killing, “I don’t think I will be proved not guilty; someone has to pay for the man’s death.”

The argument that the interior ministry was on a mission to remove Ahmadov was supported by a story in the Vecherny Dushanbe newspaper, which quoted anonymous sources in the ministry as saying a decision had been taken to close down the organised crime squad in Garm.

“The fighters [Ahmadov’s men] refused to surrender their weapons. Then a unit commanded by Zakharchenko was sent to Garm to disarm them, only to be fired on with automatic weapons without warning,” said the source.

The incident shows how old antagonisms have remained alive despite the peace that has lasted since 1997. But most of the analysts interviewed by IWPR played down fears of a return to conflict, saying memories of the bloodshed of those years were too vivid for people to contemplate renewed warfare.

At the same time, analysts warn that in a country stricken by poverty and economic problems, the government would be unwise to provoke hostility by going out of its way to target figures like Ahmadov.

Political analyst Parviz Mullojanov said the attempt to arrest the police chief was part of a general strategy of ousting former opposition commanders.

Such cases also showed, he said, how parts of the 1997 peace deal remained unresolved. “The specific mechanism for the amnesty was not properly worked out,” he said. “As a result, many former opposition combatants never went through the amnesty process and in consequence don’t feel safe. When people are in a tense state like this, they are liable to react spontaneously and inappropriately.”

Rashid Abdullo, another political expert, said that while there was no opposition strong enough to take on the authorities in Dushanbe, memories of the conflict remained vivid on both sides and a complete reconciliation had not yet happened.

All sides, he said, are “constantly revisiting the very recent past”.

Both Abdullo and Mullojanov agreed that the latest incident showed Tajikistan was not quite as stable as it appeared, in large part because of its continuing economic problems and the constant shortages of gas and electricity – recently exacerbated by an exceptionally cold winter.

“Social tensions in the country, and in Garm especially, have reached their highest level since the end of the civil war because of societal problems and the energy crisis. At the same time, the level of trust in the authorities is falling significantly,” said Mullojanov.

“At a time like this, the authorities would do well to avoid any steps that might further complicate an already difficult situation.”

IWPR’s journey to Garm to interview Ahmadov highlighted the rigours of life in the remote mountain valleys of eastern Tajikistan.

Reports of the clash had reached Dushanbe, and no taxi driver wanted to risk the trip.

“They say there’s gunfire there,” one elderly driver told IWPR. “I wouldn’t drive you there for any money.”

In the end, another driver agreed to go to Garm for 300 US dollars, a massive premium on the usual price of around 20 dollars.

The road was hard going because of recent snowfalls and black ice, but there were no police checkpoints until the administrative boundary of the Rasht district.

Garm itself was quiet. Local media reported that international organisations had recalled their staff from Garm following the incident. But IWPR found that local people were going about their business as usual.

Because of the intense cold and the lack of electricity, only one food shop and a cafeteria were open in Garm, while other businesses were shut.

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