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Thursday 23 May 2019

Tajik authorities say that 32 people were killed in a riot that broke out in the maximum-security Kirpichniy prison near Dushanbe on May 19.

A deadly prison riot in Tajikistan has put a spotlight on the alleged role of the eldest son of the country's most-wanted man, a police colonel who defected to Islamic State (IS) four years ago.

Authorities claim that Gulmurod Halimov's 20-year-old son, Behruz Gulmurod, was among four instigators of the riot that broke out on May 19 in the high-security Kirpichniy prison in the Vahdat district, some 15 kilometers east of the capital.

The violence left 32 people dead, including three prison guards, according to the Interior Ministry. Gulmurod's name appeared on a list of the 29 inmates who were "neutralized or perished" during the riot. The ministry further claimed that 17 of the slain inmates were members of IS.

The alleged involvement of both Islamic State and the son of a prominent defector to IS cause added another element of mystery to what led to the incident, with little information available other than the official line.

Family members have confirmed that Gulmurod was buried by law enforcement officers in his native village of Foni, some 30 kilometers west of Dushanbe, on May 20.

No family members were allowed to witness the body or to take part in the burial. No customary Islamic funeral ceremony was held, and there has been no indication that an autopsy was performed.

"I wasn't even given a chance to see my son's body, to see what has happened to him," says Gulmurod's mother, Nazokat Murodova.

"I was just told by an officer that 'we brought your son's body and will bury him in the cemetery.' They briefly said he was killed in a disturbance that occurred in the prison."

Behruz Gulmurod's father, Gulmurod Halimov, is a former commander of the Tajik Interior Ministry's special forces who joined Islamic State in 2015. (file photo)
Behruz Gulmurod's father, Gulmurod Halimov, is a former commander of the Tajik Interior Ministry's special forces who joined Islamic State in 2015. (file photo)

Murodova told RFE/RL on May 21 that she "wasn't even aware that a riot had happened in the prison," where her son had been serving a 10-year sentence since 2017 for trying to join a foreign militant organization.

Gulmurod was allowed only one family visit a year, and Murodova says she last saw her son "four months ago."

The Justice Ministry says that Gulmurod and three other men, armed with knives and other "sharp objects," stabbed three prison guards to death in the evening on May 19.

The four instigators of the riot then allegedly freed several other inmates who belonged to IS, the ministry said in a statement. RFE/RL was unable to independently verify the official account.

According to the statement, the men went on to kill five prisoners, including two prominent members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), a major political opposition group. The Interior Ministry said that a total of three IRPT members were killed in the violence.

The rioters allegedly set fire to a prison medical facility and attacked other guards while trying to escape.

A list released by the Interior Ministry on May 20 claims that, aside from IS members, several of the prisoners involved belonged to the banned extremist groups Jamaat Ansarullah and the Islamic Movement of Turkestan. None of the groups had claimed involvement in the riot as of May 21.

The Interior Ministry list explicitly identified Gulmurod and his three alleged associates as IS members. The other three men, identified as Fathiddn Gulov, 25, Mahmadullo Sharifov, 20, and Ruhullo Hasanov, were not known to the public.

Surrounded By Secrecy

Gulmurod's name has frequently appeared in Tajik media since his father's defection to IS in 2015.

Gulmurod was arrested in April 2017 and charged with attempting to join a foreign militant group to fight as a mercenary.

His arrest and trial were surrounded by secrecy: his trial took place behind closed doors and for months there was no official comment about his arrest.

An official said on condition of anonymity at the time that Gulmurod had purchased a plane ticket to leave Tajikistan via Moscow to join his father in Iraq, but was arrested before his planned departure.

The official was involved in the investigation but wasn't authorized to speak to the media. He said that prior to his arrest, Gulmurod "had been in contact on social media with unidentified people who called themselves friends of his father and urged Behruz to join his father in Iraq."

Gulmurod's relatives portrayed him at the time as a family-oriented son whose life took an unexpected turn at the age of 18 after his father left.

Gulmurod abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor and worked at a market to provide for his family, his mother told RFE/RL in 2017.

Persistent Pressure

In a rare interview, Gulmurod's sister Nilufar said that the family's life "turned into a nightmare" after Halimov vacated his high-profile position as the commander of the Interior Ministry's special forces and joined IS.

Both Nilufar and her mother spoke about persistent psychological and social pressure, police questioning, and financial hardship that the family faced.

After Gulmurod's arrest two years later, Murodova and her three underage children were left dependent on the small income she makes selling goods at a makeshift stall alongside a highway near their village.

Her husband has four other children with his longtime partner Humairo Mirova, a former state customs service employee.

Mirova and her children reportedly joined Halimov in Syria in February 2016.

Two of Halimov's brothers and two nephews were killed in July 2017 in what officials described as a police operation to prevent them from fleeing to Afghanistan to join IS.

In the same operation in southern Tajikistan, two other Halimov brothers and a nephew were arrested, law enforcement officials said.

The three men were sentenced to prison terms ranging from seven to 18 years in October 2017, according to officials .

The trials took place behind closed doors and officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief media.

The bodies of the two brothers and two nephews who were allegedly killed in the operation were taken to their home village by law enforcement officers and buried with no traditional funeral ceremony. No relatives were allowed to attend.

The fugitive colonel's other brother, Saidmurod Halimov, resigned from his post at the department overseeing the country's prison system in December 2017.

The fate and whereabouts of Gulmurod Halimov remains unknown. Iraqi media reported that he had become the militant group's "minister of war."

In August 2016, the U.S. State Department offered a reward of $3 million for information regarding his whereabouts.

Tajik authorities say that three prison guards and 29 inmates were killed in a riot that broke out in a maximum-security prison near Dushanbe. (file photo)

Tajikistan's banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) has accused authorities of concealing the truth about a deadly prison riot that the Dushanbe government said killed 32 people, including three members of the group.

In a statement late on May 20, the IRPT said the actual death toll from the prison riot late on May 19 near the capital Dushanbe was much higher, according to their own sources.

Tajikistan's Interior Ministry said that three prison guards and 29 inmates, including three IRPT members, were killed in the riot that broke out in a maximum-security prison in the Vahdat district, some 15 kilometers east of Dushanbe.

The IRPT was a major opposition group before authorities outlawed it in 2015, in a move widely criticized as unjustified and politically motivated.

The Interior Ministry said 17 of the slain inmates were members of the extremist group Islamic State (IS), a claim that could not be independently verified.

The May 20 riot was the second deadly prison clash to hit the country in the last six months.

In its statement, the IRPT said authorities had also concealed details about the prison riot in November in which the government said 21 prisoners and two prison guards were killed.

The statement said authorities had given the public "very vague and unclear" information about both riots, leading to "questions and suspicions."

"The IRPT holds the government fully responsible for the riots and their outcomes as its policies in recent years have been plagued by violence against political parties, activist groups, and individuals," the statement said.

"The IRPT leadership also stresses that the health and safety of its members in custody and that of other inmates is the government's responsibility," the party added.

The statement called for an independent investigation into the riots, with the participation of "independent journalists and international organizations" like the International Committee of the Red Cross.

RFE/RL correspondents reported on May 20 that the three guards killed in the riot were buried.

At least two inmates killed in the riot were also buried, including 20-year-old Behruz Gulmurod, the eldest son of Gulmurod Halimov, a former commander of the Tajik Interior Ministry’s special forces who joined the IS group in 2015. He was buried without the presence of family and was not given the traditional Islamic funeral prayer.

IRPT member Sattor Karimov was buried on the same day in Dushanbe. His family was in attendance and he was given an Islamic funeral.

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