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Qishloq Ovozi

The current situation is so bad that even the president has come out to criticize the lawlessness of police.

The tales are appalling.

Surprise, unexplained vehicle checks by armed men. Masked men appearing at sunrise to take people away, not to be seen again until their corpses are delivered to relatives. A man slain and his body chopped up -- parts of it burned, others thrown into a river.

Terror thrives in Uzbekistan, and it is the representatives of state law enforcement agencies who are responsible.

Uzbekistan has long had a bad reputation owing to the ill-treatment of people taken into custody by law enforcement agencies. It reputedly is a place where prisoners can be boiled alive. (That's actually unfair. Only one has been allegedly boiled alive, although countless others who have died in Uzbek prisons are believed to have been subjected to physical and mental abuse lasting for weeks, months, or sometimes years before they succumbed to their injuries and despair.)

But lately the country's police, security forces, and prison guards seem to have become even more brutal than usual, for reasons that are not clear.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, has been following the trail of apparently extrajudicial, and criminal, punishment meted out by representatives of law enforcement organizations.

Ozodlik reported on March 9 about a businessman in the Besharyk district of Uzbekistan's eastern Ferghana Province who was killed and his body taken to a field where the head was cut off, placed in plastic bag, and thrown into a nearby river. The rest of the body was burned and put in a shallow grave.

The alleged perpetrator was a senior police lieutenant who had detained the businessman, then for some reason shot the suspect dead in the police car and fled to the secluded field to dispose of the body.

A farmer spotted the policeman, who was wearing his uniform, as the lieutenant was leaving the scene. The lieutenant told the farmer he was burying a dead sheep in the field. The police officer then went to town, bought a sheep, came back to the field where he proceeded to kill the sheep, dig up the remains of the businessman and throw them into the river, and bury the dead sheep in the grave.

The police lieutenant was arrested and charged on March 6.

Beaten, Tortured To Death

Then there is 44-year-old Bukhara businessman Ilhom Ibodov and his 48-year-old brother Rahim. The two owned an automobile sales business. They were arrested by the National Security Service (SNB) in August 2015 on charges of illegal financial activities.

Their mother, Hursand Rajabova, told Ozodlik at the beginning of March that less than one month after their arrest, she was told Ilhom had died of a heart attack. Rajabova has photos that she says are pictures of her son's body and which indicate Ilhom was beaten before he died. Older brother Rahim was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Younger sister Dilfuza Ibodova told Ozodlik Rahim told her the jailors would bring them both to the same room and beat one while the other was forced to watch.

Qishloq Ovozi also recently reported that the body of 34-year-old Sharof Nasibov, who sold car parts in Bukhara, was delivered to his family in January. Nasibov and his brother had been detained in December 2015 for tax evasion, a charge the Nasibov brothers denied. Relatives said Sharof Nasibov's body showed signs of torture, including having had his fingernails torn out.

In February there were reports that the body of 42-year-old Mahmujon Hasanov was delivered to his relatives in Andijon Province. A hastily arranged funeral was held under the watchful eye of security agents. No cause of death was given. Hasanov was serving a nine-year term in the notorious Navoi prison for being a member of the banned group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Ozodlik learned at the start of March that armed men wearing black masks and clothing staged raids in the Altyaryq district of Ferghana Province on February 16. Starting at 6 a.m., as the faithful were heading to morning prayers, the masked men arrived and over the course of a few hours arrested 11 men, between the ages of 25 and 34, most in the village of Tynchlyk ("peaceful" in Uzbek].

The suspects were taken from their homes with hoods over their heads to waiting vehicles. It was unclear exactly who the masked men were -- police or SNB -- but Ozodlik learned from sources in the area that the 11 were charged with membership in the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Rumors Are King

There have been lesser incidents, such as the sudden interest in "damas" vans in the southern city of Termez, on the Afghan border. These vans are used as minibuses in the city. Ozodlik reported on March 11 that people in Termez said damas vans were regularly being stopped at roadside checkpoints in and around Termez, the vehicles searched, and documents of passengers checked.

One person told Ozodlik that no explanation was being given to the public about why this is happening. The source said that, in the absence of information, rumors were circulating around Termez that it's part of a counterterrorist operation; that people have already been arrested; and that police are looking for explosives that might have been planted in the vans.

A source with local law enforcement told Ozodlik that none of this was true and police were searching for the driver of a damas van who hit a pedestrian and fled the scene.

Ozodlik received a video on March 2 that showed police in Samarkand trying to force a woman into the trunk of a police vehicle. The video clip lasts only 14 seconds -- the person recording the incident on their mobile phone was worried about being seen by the police. But the person said they later heard that the woman, carrying a child, was walking around begging for money and police had come and taken her child from her, which caused the woman to become agitated.

The Uzbek authorities have meted out some tough justice in the past. There are many, many allegations of abuse, failure to observe due process of law, convictions based on flimsy evidence, coerced confessions, false witnesses, false charges, and so forth. Some periods have been worse than others.

But this latest round of brutality comes after President Islam Karimov, in an address marking Constitution Day in early December, voiced rare criticism of the police.

"Our people can tolerate all kinds of difficulties, but they cannot tolerate injustice," Karimov said. "It is no secret that in our daily life...one can often notice such facts as nonobservance [of laws] and gross violation, in practice, of norms and provisions of the legislation and of the principle of justice, as well as callous attitude of law enforcement and supervising bodies to their duties, which leads to unlawful actions."

Based on material from Ozodlik
A clash between Tajik forces and gunmen on the Afghan border on March 5 reportedly left two people dead. (file photo)

A murky security operation on Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan on March 5 brought attention briefly back to an area that for nearly 25 years has rarely seen an entire week pass without some sort of incident taking place.

The reported firefight between Tajikistan's security forces and an armed group from Afghanistan that left a Tajik border guard and one of the Afghan combatants dead comes as the situation on both sides of the frontier is changing -- and as warmer spring weather heralds the likely start of increased hostilities in areas of northeastern Afghanistan that border Tajikistan.

There is a lot in play at the moment along Tajikistan's frontier with Afghanistan's border provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, and Kunduz.

Some of the processes underway might lead to a further deterioration in the security situation along this almost perpetually unquiet border. However, the Afghan government's renewed attention might help government forces gain better control over the area.

This week, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a Majlis, or discussion panel, to assess what happened along the Tajik-Afghan frontier on March 5 and, more importantly, to talk about what is changing along either side of the border.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating from Dushanbe was Rashid Ghani Adbullo, an independent political analyst, while Amin Mudaqiq, the director of RFE/RL's Pakistani service, known locally as Mashaal, joined in from a studio in Prague where I was also in attendance. Although I wanted to hear what our guests said, I threw in a few comments of my own as well.

Traffickers Or Militants?

The discussion started with the recent incident along the border. There have been several versions of what happened. According to Abdullo, "the first report was done by Tajik border guards. They say that there was a group of traffickers and the border guards clashed with them." Nonetheless, Abdullo later added that "based on reports from the Afghan government, the [Tajik] national security [committee] for the border said it was a group of Taliban."

Mudaqiq spoke with a journalist in Kunduz on March 9 who said the border incident on March 5 started "when [Tajik] government forces pushed the Taliban to the bank of the Amu River (Amu-Darya) [where] there are some small islands which are disputed… Some Taliban, fearing the government's heavy artillery and tank fire, fled to [a] small island, and the Tajik border guards from the other side saw [them] and then a helicopter gunship came and bombarded the area."

Whether this armed group consisted of drug traffickers or militants remains unclear. It was suggested that they could be both and Mudaqiq said that, at the very least, "drug traffickers are always escorted by the Taliban; they prepare the security and the drug traffickers move on in this area."

The topic of cooperation between Tajik and Afghan security forces came up and --while it was agreed that collaboration is better it than it was five or 10 years ago -- it was also agreed that there is much which can still be done.

Abdullo mentioned that the Tajik side has difficulties knowing whom to contact on the Afghan side of the border when a problem erupts. "There are a lot of field commanders," he said. "When everybody who can gather around himself 10, 20, or 50 persons considers himself a source of law, it's very difficult for [information] to be exchanged."

According to Mudaqiq, during this recent occurrence along the border, "Afghan forces were complaining in Takhar that, in this particular incident, they had already informed the Tajik side but they [the Tajik authorities] didn't take it seriously."

Afghan forces now seem to be genuinely paying more attention to the situation in the northeastern part of the country.

Mudaqiq noted that, after the Taliban briefly captured Kunduz city in late September last year, the Afghan government restructured its forces in northeastern Afghanistan.

"After the fall of Kunduz, the Afghan government now has a central command for what they call the northeastern zone -- both the police of the Pamir command and the Afghan military's 20th Division [are] now based in Kunduz," he said. "Both of these military entities are in charge of the whole area from Badakhshan to Kunduz."

Russian Troop Reductions

At the same time, Russia, which has in recent years frequently voiced concern about security along Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, seems to be taking less of an interest in events there.

The Russian 201st Division has remained stationed in Tajikistan since the 1991 collapse of the U.S.S.R. and, as recently as late 2015, Russian military officials spoke about augmenting its forces there. However, the Russian military declared at the end of January that it would reduce the number of troops in Tajikistan. This news came after the 201st withdrew last year from Kulob -- one of its three bases in Tajikistan and the base closest to the Afghan border.

The announcement about troop reductions also came after Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan confirmed late last year that Russian officials met several times during the summer of 2015 at the Kulob base with Taliban representatives from northern Afghanistan.

A December 29 article from the independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus identified one of the Taliban officials at the Kulob meetings as Qari Dinmuhammad Hanif, a commander who controls the Darqad district in Takhar Province, "which borders on the Farkhor district of [Tajikistan's] Khatlon region." The article said that Afghan government forces could not retake the Darqad district from the Taliban because "it is guarded with Russian weapons, and this province will remain the point of Russia's link with the Taliban."

Speaking about Russia's decision to reduce troops in Tajikistan, Abdullo put forward the idea that the move has more to do with Russia's experience in Syria. "It was possible for them in a very limited time to bring a lot of forces from Russia to the main [Syrian] airbase," Abdullo said, adding that "maybe they will not need to keep [as large a] force as it was previously in Tajikistan." Instead of keeping substantial troop numbers there, Abdullo suggested that Russia might simply maintain bases and that men and materiel could be quickly transported to these locations if required -- at "the request of Tajikistan."

The Majlis discussed this possibility and many other important issues concerning developments along the Tajik-Afghan border. You can listen to the full roundtable below:

Majlis Podcast: All Unquiet On The Tajik-Afghan Frontier
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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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