Normally, a banker visiting a remote region wouldn't attract much media attention in Tajikistan, or anywhere else. But Hasan Sadulloev, the head of Orienbank, is no ordinary banker.
The brother of President Emomali Rahmon's wife, Sadulloev is one of Tajikistan's top business figures and political insiders. But he suddenly disappeared from public view in May, and was notably absent during a visit by Rahmon to Kazakhstan, where economic issues were high on the agenda.
Rumors began to arise that Sadulloev's apparent disappearance was connected to a family feud among Rahmon's close relatives, and that Sadulloev had been killed or at least seriously wounded by one of the president's children. Regional media reports spoke of an alleged dispute among the president's children and relatives over the control of Orienbank.
But on July 15, a new rumor emerged that Sadulloev had been spotted in the remote eastern Badakhshan region. Tajik reporters flocked to interview him, but the man thought to be Sadulloev refused to speak to them, although local officials who met with the man confirmed that he was in fact the powerful banker.
Local Orienbank officials said Sadulloev was in the region to assess the reconstruction of a stadium in the city of Khorog. The bank is partly funding the project.
Mirzojalol Shohjamol, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Tajik Service in Badakhshan, said Sadulloev was in the region, but was keeping his distance from reporters during his visit.
"This trip is different to Sadulloev's previous visits to the region," Shohjamol said. "Unlike before, he is not staying at the governmental residence. Instead, he is staying at a private house that belongs to the head of the Orienbank regional branch. When I went closer to [Sadulloev] with my camera, it seemed to me that he was willing to talk to reporters, but people surrounding the banker prevented us from taking photos and speaking to him.”
While many are convinced that Sadulloev has resurfaced, the latest reports have done little to squash widespread suspicions that something is seriously awry inside the first family.
Rajabi Mirzo, a Dushanbe-based independent journalist, tells RFE/RL that many suspect the first family has something to hide.
"If there wasn’t any problem, [then why] was it so difficult for Mr. Sadulloev to appear on a television program and talk about any issue -- let’s say about investments or money or any other issue -- just to prevent people from believing all sorts of rumors?" Mirzo asks.
Tajikistan's official media has kept silent about the banker's case. The regional news website "Uzmetronom" reported that the president's office has warned the media to stay away from the issue.
"Rahmon and Sadulloev are public figures, and the rumors circulating in the past months have harmed Tajikistan's reputation abroad," Mirzo says. "And the public, understandably, wants to know what has been going on behind the scenes."
Through his presidential connections, Sadulloev quickly rose from his job as a village gas station attendant to become one of the wealthiest people in Tajikistan.
He reportedly owns at least 13 companies in Tajikistan, including several factories and cotton mills. Sadulloev's business empire also extends to real estate development, transport, media, insurance, and banking.