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“Paper Tiger” or “Snow Leopard”: The EU Sanctions Tajikistan One Year On?

Brussels, Frankfurt (29/5 – 33)

European Parliament members have strongly condemned ongoing repression by the authorities of Tajikistan against journalists, activists and protesters in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). A history of violence escalated extending several years, following confrontational events in November 2021 and May 2022 where dozens of civilians were killed.

The European Parliament has since passed a resolution on 7 July 2022. European deputies called on the Tajik government to “put an end to repression against the residents of GBAO”.

“We call on the government of Tajikistan to stop persecuting protesters, independent journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and civil society activists, allowing them to carry out their work freely and without the fear of losing their lives.”

Deputies also called on Tajik authorities to immediately release detained activists and journalists, namely Ulfathonim Mamadshoeva, Daleri Imomali, Abdullo Gurbati, Manuchehr Kholiknazarov, Faromuz Irgashov, Khursand Mamadshoev, Chorshanbe Chorshanbiev and Amriddin Alovatshoev.

The crackdown by Tajik security forces in Rushan on May 18, 2022 turned into a tragedy with numerous casualties among protesters. Local witnesses told of snipers and military helicopters firing live ammunition at civilians, killing at least 40. A violent dispersal in Khorog left many protesters dead and some wounded.

The firm resolution of the European Parliament asserts the collective expression of concern about “deterioration of the human rights situation” in GBAO. May 14, 2022 saw a protest in Khorog, the capital of GBAO, home to the Pamiri people. About 1,000 Pamiri citizens had gathered to peacefully demand the resignation of regional leader Alisher Mirzonabatov, known locally as “The Butcher of the Pamir.” They also demanded an effective investigation into the murder by security forces of Gulbidin Ziyobekov in November 2021.

The authorities rejected these demands and delivered an ultimatum, that if demonstrators did not disperse by 4 p.m. on 16 May 2022, they would be removed by force.

On 16 May 2022, government authorities cut off all internet access and shut down the mobile phone network over GBAO. This halt on the internet continued on until the end of June 2022, resulted in difficulties in obtaining verified information and news out of this region during that period. However, there were posts on social media based on eyewitness reports, describing how security forces arbitrarily broke into homes and ransacked them, seized mobile phones and arbitrarily detaining residents. There are also allegations of torture and extra-judicial executions of Pamiris detained during the crackdown.

Reports said that President Emomali Rahmon’s security forces attacked the civilians with tear gas grenades and this continued till 17 May 2022. On 18 May, the Ministry of the Interior announced that it would carry out an “anti-terrorist operation” in Rushan District, where mobile, landline, and internet communication was subsequently cut, and people were denied the right to enter or leave the area under occupation.

Violence by the regime escalated when residents attempted to block the road to Khorog with their cars, to prevent a military convoy from entering the city. The crackdown in Rushan turned into a tragedy, with numerous casualties among protesters. Local witnesses told of snipers and military helicopters firing live ammunition at civilians, killing at least 40. A violent dispersal in Khorog left many protesters dead and some wounded.

The culmination of the event was the assassination of Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, an influential local leader and a hero standing against Rahmon’s authoritarian regime. He was shot dead by government security forces on 22 May 2022.

The European Parliament also warned Tajikistan that “the fight against terrorism and violent extremism must not be used as a pretext to suppress the opposition.” It reiterated that “those who were arbitrarily detained be released immediately and all charges against them dropped.”

However, experts are of the opinion that consideration of the issue of the situation in GBAO and the adoption by the European Parliament of a resolution on this issue will in no way have any effect on the actions of Tajik authorities toward this autonomous region. Nearly a year has passed, with no significant response by Tajik authorities to the resolution of the European Parliament. The key question: will the EU act like “a snow leopard” by demanding Tajik authorities comply with the resolutions that have been handed down, or will they be seen as “paper tigers” keeping quiet about the brutal, illegal and inhumane acts by that country?