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Death Of A Fugitive: Abduhalim Nazarzoda, Tajik General Blamed For Recent Violence


Former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda was not the first senior military officer in Tajikistan to have been accused of plotting attacks against the government. (file photo)
Former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda was not the first senior military officer in Tajikistan to have been accused of plotting attacks against the government. (file photo)

At age 51, Tajik General Abduhalim Nazarzoda seemed to have everything going for him.

He was promoted to deputy defense minister last year, and away from work commanded a substantial business portfolio ranging from a string of bakeries, cafes, and shops to real estate, a horse farm, and other farmland.

The general, who authorities say had three wives, is accused of leading what the government calls a "terrorist" attack -- a spate of violence that left at least nine police and 17 militants dead and revived memories of the Central Asian country's devastating 1992-1997 civil war.

Police say Nazarzoda and a group of gunmen under his control launched a predawn attack on the main police station in the Vahdat district east of the Tajik capital on September 4, and clashed later that day with security forces at a Defense Ministry building not far from the Dushanbe International Airport.

Authorities say Nazarzoda, his alleged associate Colonel Juhaidulloh Umarov, and several other gunmen then fled to the Romit Gorge, adjacent to Vahdat, where security forces targeted them in a large-scale manhunt that ended September 16 with Dushanbe's announcement of their deaths.

Shortly after the attacks, Nazarzoda was sacked for "committing a crime" and was later charged with treason, terrorism, sabotage, and creating an extremist group.

Fragile Political Arrangements

The attacks put impoverished Tajikistan and its strongman President Emomali Rahmon in the spotlight, causing concern that the fragile political arrangements put in place after the civil war could be coming apart.

It came days after Rahmon's staunchly secular government effectively banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the country's largest political party and the only registered Islamic party in any of the tightly controlled states of former Soviet Central Asia.

It also set off speculation about a motive -- or what many in Tajikistan say is the lack of a motive.

The IRPT swiftly rejected any connection to the fugitive general and said the violence was the result of internal rivalries within Tajikistan's law enforcement agencies.

Nazarzoda joined the Defense Ministry in 1997, after the government signed a power-sharing deal with the Islamist-led opposition that ended the five-year civil war.

Nazarzoda had a stint of several months with the opposition early in the conflict, when he led a unit fighting against pro-government forces in Dushanbe and the southern Vakhsh district.

But he left the country in 1993 for Kazakhstan, where he described himself as a successful businessman involved in trade, although the nature of his business activities remains unclear.

He returned to Tajikistan with money and a convoy of SUVs a few months after a peace accord was signed in June 1997, sources close to the Islamic opposition say.

Rising Through The Ranks

Nazarzoda allegedly gave 10 jeeps to the opposition leader at the time, Said Abdulloh Nuri, who appointed him the commander of the 25 battalion of former opposition fighters to be integrated with government forces.

The move angered opposition commanders who believe Nazarzoda was unfairly promoted over them.

Nazarzoda, who was also made a colonel, never looked back -- rising in the ranks at the Defense Ministry and expanding his business portfolio.

In the wake of the September 4 attacks, those business interests sparked speculation that Nazarzoda could have been targeted by powerful people who wanted to sideline him in order to seize his assets.

Parallels were drawn between Nazarzoda and Zayd Saidov, a jailed tycoon whose numerous businesses and properties have been seized following his arrest in 2013 on polygamy, rape, and financial fraud – charges he denies.

However, Nazarzoda's business portfolio is far smaller than that of Saidov, who controlled a vast business empire involved in construction, textiles, jewelry, and real estate. And before the attack, there were few signs Nazarzoda's business interests were at risk.

The attacks came only months after Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, the commander of the Interior Ministry's special forces, left the country to join the Islamic State extremist group.

Some likened Nazarzoda to Halimov, who criticized Rahmon's crackdown on Islamic practices on videos posted on YouTube.

Nazarzoda, however, was not seen as a particularly religious person, although he performed a Hajj pilgrimage in the early 1990s, a trip that earned him a nickname, Hoji Halim.

Those who doubt he had a motive ask what he stood to gain by attacking a rural police headquarters if he was unhappy with the government's policies on religion.

Officials who blame Nazarzoda for the attacks say the choice of Vahdat as a target was not random.

A police official who spoke to RFE/RL's Tajik Service on condition of anonymity claimed that Nazarzoda and his supporters had been plotting an attack against Rahmon during a trip to the district that was planned for September 6.

The official said that, on September 3, police "entirely accidentally" arrested a Vahdat woman who was allegedly serving as an information carrier between members of the group.

The official said police suspect that, after the woman’s arrest, Nazarzoda knew the alleged plot had been uncovered and decided to seize weapons from the police headquarters and avoid arrest.

It is not the first time a senior military officer in Tajikistan has been accused of plotting attacks against the government: In the past two decades, four Tajik generals and two colonels in high positions have faced similar accusations.

In a rare interview, Nazarzoda once said that "no one is immune to arrest" and that "anything can happen in life."

Written by Farangis Najibullah; RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondents Mumin Ahmadi and Mirzo Salimpur 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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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