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Bad Bread? Dead Tajik Prisoners' Relatives Suspicious Of 'Food Poisoning' Explanation

Saodat Solehova holds up a cellphone picture of her son, Nekqadam Solehov, a prison inmate who Tajik authorities said died of food poisoning.
Saodat Solehova holds up a cellphone picture of her son, Nekqadam Solehov, a prison inmate who Tajik authorities said died of food poisoning.

The relatives of some of the 14 Tajik inmates who reportedly died after eating spoiled bread are suspicious of the official explanation of their deaths after seeing their bruised and broken bodies.

“His nose was broken, his face wasn’t recognizable anymore,” Saodat Solehova told RFE/RL on July 9, adding that there were other signs on the body of her 34-year-old son, Nekqadam Solehov, that he had been severely beaten.

He was among the inmates that Tajik prosecutors say perished from food poisoning inside a prison vehicle on July 7.

Solehova buried her son, who was serving a 13-year sentence for extremism, in their home village of Varzob on the outskirts of Dushanbe on July 8.

The other Tajik inmates who allegedly died along with Solehov as they were being transferred to a new prison were hurriedly buried as neighborhood committee heads and security officials watched at different locations.

Some relatives told RFE/RL that journalists were ordered by authorities to stay away from the funerals.

Several family members claim they saw signs of apparent beatings on the bodies of their relatives, casting serious doubt on the authorities' explanation of how they died.

The mother of one inmate told RFE/RL that "there wasn't an unharmed place left" on the body of her son, whom authorities had also released for burial on July 8.

According to the official version of the event, the poisonings occurred while authorities were transferring 128 inmates in several vehicles from prisons in the northern province of Sughd to other jails in Dushanbe and in the southern part of the country.

Prosecutors said that an inmate had shared three loaves of bread with 16 other prisoners that resulted in the poisonings and subsequent deaths within hours of having consumed the bread. Three men reportedly survived.

Abrupt Burials

In the village of Baghalak, west of the capital, Dushanbe, relatives buried 42-year-old Valijon Odinaev, who was imprisoned on extremism-related charges.

Odinaev's immediate family members declined to speak to journalists, saying the authorities told them not to talk to media.

But one of Odinaev's relatives told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that his face was covered in bruises and there was a wound on the back of his head, "as if he was beaten with a hammer."

The family received the body at around 1 a.m., the relative said, adding that "several officials in civilian clothes" were present at the various burial ceremonies and demanded the family bury Odinaev without delay.

Women hurry to one of the inmates' funerals in Baghalak village, an event that relatives say was held with undue haste.
Women hurry to one of the inmates' funerals in Baghalak village, an event that relatives say was held with undue haste.

RFE/RL correspondents who traveled to Baghalak to report on the July 8 burial were ordered by officials at the scene to leave the area.

In the Gulbutta neighborhood outside Dushanbe, Hasan Abdurahmonov buried his 22-year-old son, Abdurahmon, who was serving a 12-year prison sentence after having been convicted of trying to join a foreign terrorist organization.

Abdurahmonov said several police officers brought the body early on July 8 but did not allow the family to inspect it.

The father told RFE/RL he was given "only five minutes" to see his son before being forced to arrange a quick funeral.

Abdurahmonov said that, although he wasn't given time to check his son's body, he didn't get the impression that his death was caused by food poisoning.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contacted Tajikistan's prison affairs department and other state agencies for comment on the deaths but received no response.

Asked about the claims of signs of abuse on the deceased inmates' bodies, Interior Ministry spokesman Umarjon Emomali told RFE/RL on July 9 that "none of the relatives of the inmates who died during the transfer from Khujand to Dushanbe has approached the ministry with a complaint."

Other Deaths

Tajik officials did release the names of those prisoners who died the suspicious deaths. The men's ages and hometowns are also listed, but there is no information about the crimes they were convicted of.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said an investigation is under way into the circumstances of the deaths that come as Tajikistan has witnessed two instances of deadly violence at its prisons in less than a year.

On May 19, three prison guards and 29 inmates -- including several opposition members -- were killed in what authorities said was a riot at the maximum-security prison in the Vahdat district, about 15 kilometers east of Dushanbe.

In November, violence broke out at another maximum-security prison in the northern city of Khujand.

Officials said 21 prisoners and two prison guards were killed in that incident.

The government blamed both prison riots on the Islamic State extremist group.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik Service