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Tajikistan's Official Calm Belies Potential Prison Break Crisis

"Always on Guard" at Tajikistan's prisons -- but not this time.
A major international manhunt is under way after dozens of enemies of the Tajik state broke out from prison this week, but you wouldn't know it from the official reaction.

Among the 25 men who escaped from a high-security State Security Ministry prison on the night of August 22-23 were Tajiks convicted of planning to overthrow the government. Others had been imprisoned for terrorist and Islamic militant activities. Eleven were foreigners, including Uzbek, Afghan, and Russian citizens of North Caucasus origin.

The prison break was carried out within sight of the presidential palace and left one guard dead and another beaten up. Just hours later, in a prison belonging to the Justice Ministry within the same walled complex, four guards were killed in a firefight with the escapees.

The brazen escape has led the authorities to dispatch additional troops in an attempt to catch the fugitives before they can leave the country. Their presumed destination is Afghanistan, where some of the escapees reportedly spent time in the 1990s.

High-profile fugitives
The escape has attracted the attention of outsiders, with Russia's Federal Security Service agreeing on August 25 to help with the search operation, and Tajik authorities requesting help from Interpol and neighboring countries. Kyrgyzstan has responded by strengthening security measures along the Tajik border.

And inside the country, as Tajiks question how such a bold maneuver could be carried out without inside help, the Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal investigation and discussed whether to press charges against prison officials.

But while the escape might appear to be too close for comfort for Emomali Rahmon, the Tajik president has gone about business as usual.

On August 25, Rahmon went ahead with a scheduled trip to the southern Khatlon region, opening new schools and discussing education. And during his numerous meetings with local people, Rahmon made no mention of the escape that is on the minds of so many in Tajikistan.

High-Profile Prisoners

Upon hearing news of the prison break, speculation was rife in Dushanbe that family members of two high-profile men with ties to the government were involved.

One of these central figures is the former chief of the presidential guard, Ghaffor Mirzoev, a onetime Rahmon ally who is currently serving a 30-year prison sentence on charges including uprising against the government.

The second is Mirzo Ziyoev, a former Islamic opposition commander who went on to join the government as emergency situations minister and who was killed during a mysterious military operation in the eastern Tavildara district in 2009.

The Tajik government has since provided clarity by releasing a list of the 25 wanted men and their pictures. The list indeed included the names of a brother of Mirzoev and an uncle and brother of Ziyoev. However, Mirzoev himself and two of Ziyoev's sons who were sentenced to long prison terms in separate cases this year were not on the list.

Juma Ibrohimov
Many of the fugitives, including Hikmat Azizov and Juma Ibrohimov, are believed to be loyal allies of Ziyoev who fought alongside him against the secular government during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war.

The whereabouts of the men is unknown and details of the break sparse, with government officials reluctant to disclose any details that could hinder the ongoing investigation and search operations.

However, it is known that at least seven security checkpoints have been set up on the highway connecting the Tajik capital and the northern province of Sughd.

And RFE/RL's Tajik Service has reported that government troops have been dispatched to the Rasht Valley, including the Tavildara district, a onetime stronghold of the Islamic opposition and birthplace of many of the fugitives.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Rasht, Mahmud Shodi, reports that a search operation for the escaped convicts is taking place in the area, and is causing panic and fueling speculation among locals.

Challenge To Government

The "prison break of the century" is also a hot topic among insiders and experts on Tajikistan.

"Under the current circumstances in Tajikistan, it is very difficult for these men to unite under one specific aim and cause trouble for the government," says Davlati Usmon, a former member of the Islamic opposition and former presidential candidate. "It's very difficult but not impossible. The government, too, is concerned that they would create serious problems for authorities."

Parviz Mullojonov, a Dushanbe-based political expert, suggests that the fugitives "have no clear support base in Tajikistan now, therefore it would be impossible for them to destabilize the country," but that this could change if they "and other forces who oppose the government decided to cooperate."

Andrei Grozin, the head of the Central Asian department at the Moscow-based Institute of CIS Countries, suggests that the escape puts the spotlight on widespread corruption in the Tajik prison system. Grozin does not rule out that "someone from very high position" could have been involved.

...And Serious Signal To President

Tajikistan's security service is largely filled with people loyal to Rahmon. Many of the highest positions are held by people from the president's native south.

But Usmon says this incident is a serious warning to the president to review his security policies.

Whatever the reason behind the prison break -- corruption or the incompetence of current security officials -- the president can no longer rely on these people, Usmon says.

"It's time for the president to change his criteria for selecting security officials, and it better be based on professionalism."

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.