Tajikistan has increased its pressure on so-called informal leaders and other influential figures in Gorno-Badakhshan, a remote, restive region that the central government in Dushanbe has trouble exerting full control over.
Within several weeks, three prominent Gorno-Badakhshan natives were formally charged with inciting ethnic hatred and other serious crimes. The move has aroused anger and suspicion among many people in the region, residents say.
In the provincial capital, Khorugh, prosecutors announced on February 2 they had charged local leader Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov with insulting and using force against a government representative, as well as inciting ethnic hatred.
The charges stemmed from a recent encounter between Mahmadboqirov and a regional education official. Mahmadboqirov, 58, denies the accusation.
The same day in Dushanbe, prosecutors confirmed that another informal Gorno-Badakhshan leader, Amriddin Alovatshoev, had been extradited from Russia and was being held in pretrial detention.
Alovatshoev, 44, had been missing in Russia since January 11. Despite denials by the Tajik authorities, many believe he was detained and forcibly sent to Tajikistan.
The authorities accuse Alovatshoev of organizing protest rallies and provoking anti-government sentiment among young people in Gorno-Badakhshan "from abroad." He denies the accusation.
Meanwhile, Chorshanbe Chorshanbiev, a popular mixed-martial-arts fighter from Gorno-Badakhshan, is being held in Dushanbe on charges of stirring up ethnic and religious hatred as well as calling for the overthrow of the government.
The charges against Chorshanbiev reportedly stem from a video statement in which he appears to imply he prefers to identify himself as a Pamiri -- a native of Gorno-Badakhshan -- rather than as a Tajik. It's a sensitive topic in Tajikistan, where such statements are seen by some as a sign of seeking division between Gorno-Badakhshan -- also known as the Pamir region -- and the rest of the country.
Chorshanbiev, 26, later apologized for the statement, which the athlete and his supporters say had nothing to do with politics.
The developments come as military prosecutors continue a probe into anti-government rallies in Khorugh on November 25-28 that reportedly left three people dead and several wounded.
'Unease And Uncertainty'
The criminal cases -- especially the extradition of the men from Russia -- has angered many people in Gorno-Badakhshan, several residents told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity on February 3. It has left people wondering about the government's "next step against us," a local man said.
The residents claim there has been a general sense of "unease and uncertainty" among many people since the November protests.
"Some people suspect that law-enforcement authorities are deliberately trying to provoke people so they have an excuse to conduct another security crackdown in the region," a Khorugh resident said.
"The government just wants to show us that they can hunt down any influential Gorno-Badakhshan native, and punish them with fabricated charges of serious crimes," a resident of the Shughnon district told RFE/RL.
His remarks echo a comment by Central Asia expert Edward Lemon: "The Tajik government is trying to send a signal that activists, no matter where they are, are not safe."
Lemon, a researcher at Texas A&M University, added, "If they challenge the central government by calling for more autonomy for the Pamirs or criticize it for its repressive measures, the government will track them down and arrest them, even abroad."
The locals who spoke to RFE/RL said they believe the ultimate goal of the central government is to eliminate local leaders and assert complete control over the region.
Controversial Local Leaders
There have been less than a dozen informal local leaders in Gorno-Badakhshan over the past two decades.
In the past, some of the leaders and their loyal armed groups were suspected of smuggling drugs, weapons, and gemstones. Their armed supporters were linked to attacks and the killings of government officials.
In the most recent public warning in October 2018, Alovatshoev, Mahmadboqirov and five fellow leaders were cautioned by the local government against getting involved in "criminal" actions.
A regional state TV channel reported at the time that the men signed a document pledging not to "set up criminal groups, incite mass unrest and the seizure of government buildings and entities, insult government officials, smuggle weapons and drugs, stage illegal gatherings, or undermine the security of the state and society."
The other five leaders who signed the letter were Tolib Ayombekov, Yodgor Mamadaslamov, Khursand Mazorov, Munavvar Shanbiev, and Zoir Rajabov.
That document was signed several weeks after President Emomali Rahmon voiced his frustration with lawlessness in the region, which he blamed on "five or six criminals," alluding to the informal leaders.
Rahmon gave regional authorities a one-month deadline to restore order.
Security raids followed to gather illegal weapons and stop cars with tinted windows. Informal leaders said they complied and gave up their weapons, while being given reassurances by the government that "they were free to live their lives."
But similar reassurances and pledges have been made -- and then broken -- several times by both sides.
In 2020, Mahmadboqirov, Ayombekov, and Mamadaslamov were added to the National Bank's blacklist of people "linked to terrorism," thus barring them from conducting any financial operations in the banking system.
It was just one example of a lack of trust between the central government and influential figures in Gorno-Badakhshan.
This mutual distrust has a long history. Gorno-Badakhshan sided with the opposition during the five-year civil war in the 1990s. Over the decades, there have been calls for greater autonomy in the nominally autonomous province.
The majority of Gorno-Badakhshan's roughly 250,000 people have their own distinct local languages. The majority of them follow Ismailism, a branch of Shi'ite Islam, while most people in the rest of Tajikistan consider themselves Sunni Muslims.
The province has been the scene of many protests and violent clashes. The deadliest of them occurred in 2012, when dozens were reportedly killed and injured in fighting between government forces and local militants sparked by the fatal stabbing of a security official.
In 2014, fighting between locals and police in Khorugh left at least three people dead and seven injured. Several buildings were also set ablaze.
The government has in the past sent army reinforcements to Gorno-Badakhshan, a move that never sat well with the local population.
Central Asian expert Lemon doesn't rule out the possibility of future disturbances if the authorities continue to use "repressive measures to arrest those accused of opposing the government."
He said that since the November protests, Dushanbe had refused to restore Internet access, dismantle military checkpoints, or to investigate what happened amid the violence and high number of deaths.
"We are likely to see renewed conflict in and around Khorugh," he warned.