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Collective Punishment: Payback Hellish For Family Members Of Bicyclist Attackers In Tajikistan

Mahliyo Tukhtaeva (right) with her husband, Asliddin Yusupov, one of the attackers: "He destroyed my life."

After more than three decades working as a teacher at her local school in southern Tajikistan, Nabotbegim Yusupova looked forward to a peaceful retirement spent helping out with her grandchildren.

Instead, she is out of a job, ostracized by society, and heading to Russia in her mid-50s to start a new career as a migrant laborer.

Yusupova is the mother of Asliddin Yusupov and Jafar Yusupov, two of the five men Tajik authorities say carried out the deadly attack on Western cyclists on July 29.

The Yusupov brothers and two of the others were killed in a police manhunt immediately after the attack, while the fifth, Hussein Abdusamadov, survived and was subsequently sentenced to life in prison.

The attack, widely condemned by Tajik authorities and public, claimed the lives of four tourists -- two Americans, a Dutch, and a Swiss national -- and wounded three others.

It also destroyed the lives of the families of the attackers, relatives say. Some of them were immediately dismissed from jobs, some ended up behind bars, and others have become accustomed to frequent visits from the police.

Just days after the attack, the administration of School No. 5 in the southern city of Norak, where Yusupova has taught since 1986, confirmed to RFE/RL that she no longer worked there.

The school administration declined to comment further, but one teacher said under condition of anonymity that Yusupova was dismissed at the order of "higher authorities."

In an interview with local media, Yusupova said, "I worked hard for 32 years...and my children spoiled it all."

Days later, the Yusupov brothers' aunt, Mohbegim Yusupova, was dismissed as the head of a Norak neighborhood committee, an unpaid but highly regarded government-backed position that involves working with local communities.

Parroting Government Propaganda

In the southern region of Panj, near the border with Afghanistan, Juma Safarov frequently takes part in government-sponsored meetings with young people. He warns them about the dangers of joining terrorist groups and urges parents to be watchful of extremists trying to brainwash their children.

Safarov knows about such dangers firsthand: his 19-year-old son, Zafar Safarov, was among the five who targeted the cyclists. The teenager, along with the other assailants, appeared in a video that shows them pledging allegiance to the extremist Islamic State group ahead of the attack. Also in the video was his cousin, 19-year-old Asomiddin Majidov, who was also killed in the manhunt.

A soft-spoken village farmer, the elder Safarov isn't keen on speaking about his family's ties to the attack, but he doesn't have much choice. Relatives of those linked to religious extremism are pressured to take part in the government's anti-extremism propaganda campaign.

Just days after the attack, Safarov told RFE/RL that he "knew nothing" about how his son and Majidov might have gotten involved in the plot to attack the bicyclists. "I never thought he would do something like this," he said of his son. "He went to Russia in February.... I didn't even know he was back in Tajikistan."

The head of Safarov's hometown of Selga, Mehrob Khojaev, says the parents of each of the teens regularly attend government-sponsored gatherings. "Since the July attack, we have organized meetings with young people and invite them to talk to the audience," Khojaev says.

In the capital, Dushanbe, the mother of convicted ringleader Abdusamadov, Gulchehra Shodmonova, has become a regular fixture at pro-government rallies and media, denouncing opposition leaders.

Supporting the authorities' official line, Shodmonova blames the July attack on the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, and claims her son was brainwashed by the party.

A video provided to RFE/RL shows part of a group of foreign cyclists a day before they were targeted in a deadly attack on a highway in southern Tajikistan.
A video provided to RFE/RL shows part of a group of foreign cyclists a day before they were targeted in a deadly attack on a highway in southern Tajikistan.

Ended Up In Jail

Abdusamadov is the only surviving attacker, but he wasn't the only person to be convicted in connection with the incident.

Fourteen others went on trial in November in connection with the attack, in which the group of seven Westerners were run down by a vehicle as they bicycled on a highway outside Norak, after which the assailants exited the vehicle and stabbed survivors before fleeing.

Two men were found guilty of providing support to the attackers, and were sentenced to 16 years in prison. Twelve others got up to 18 months in prison each for failing to notify authorities of a possible crime, a charge they deny.

All of the 12 are believed to be relatives and acquaintances of the Yusupov brothers, and lived in Norak and nearby areas.

One mother insists her son, Mansur Solehov, ended up in prison solely for being a cousin of the Yusupov brothers, who visited the family several weeks before the attack.

Solehov was sentenced to 18 months in prison for failing to report the plot, but his mother, Taghoigul Solehova, claims his cousins never mentioned their plan to their relatives. "They came to our house to visit their uncle -- my husband -- who was ill with high-blood pressure complications," Solehova says.

She also claims her son was "beaten and given electric shock" in pretrial custody, but authorities reject allegations of mistreatment.

Video said to show men who attacked foreign cyclists in Tajikistan.
Video said to show men who attacked foreign cyclists in Tajikistan.

Bahrinisso Haidarova, the only woman among those sentenced, was a neighbor of the Yusupovs in Norak. Her one-year jail sentence was deferred, with the judge citing her status as a single mother and sole provider of two small children.

Haidarova, who sells snacks at a stall near the Dushanbe-Kulob highway where the attack took place, admits speaking with the Yusupov brothers and Abdusamadov several days before the assault.

"They bought food from me," Haidarova told RFE/RL in November. "They were asking other merchants if tourists stopped here to eat. Our stands are on a hilltop that provides a good view of the area. There were several tourists there that day."

Haidarova, 27, denies having any idea that her neighbors might have had murder on their minds.

Shattered Lives

It took four months for Mahliyo Tukhtaeva, 26, to obtain a death certificate for her husband, Asliddin, the elder of the two slain Yusupov brothers.

Mahliyo Tukhtaeva and her family
Mahliyo Tukhtaeva and her family

Tukhtaeva's life has changed since police summoned her in late July to break the news that her husband had committed a terrorist act. The following day she learned that her husband had been killed.

What followed for the widow with two young children were numerous visits by police, being shunned by society, and an uncertain future.

"I constantly feel very, very sad. I don't leave home because I can't face people saying my husband was a terrorist. I haven't slept properly since," Tukhtaeva told RFE/RL on November 30.

Tukhtaeva said she wasn't aware of her husband's plans, as he had moved the young family hundreds of kilometers away to her native town of Isfara in the months leading up to the attack.

Tukhtaeva still lives with relatives in Isfara, as there is no place for her to call home in Norak. The housewife doesn't have the resources to complete the half-built family house her late husband left her in Norak's Kibil district.

"He destroyed my life," she says. "He let me down."

Mumin Ahmadi and Orzu Karim of 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.