A slightly delayed reposting of this press release from international organisation Human Rights Watch. The content is very measured but clear and has had good coverage (though still, the whole situation last week in Khorog has had no coverage in any of the main UK newspapers. I can understand why with the Olympics on our doorstep and atrocities in Syria, but that doesn’t stop the recent military operation in Khorog being any less shocking or upsetting). I was also pleased to play a very small part in the publication of the press release after liaising with the author and putting him in touch with others.
Keep Communication Lines Open
(New York) – Tajik authorities should respect human rights during a security operation in Gorno Badakhshan, a semi-autonomous region of easternTajikistan, Human Rights Watch said today.
Dozens of deaths and numerous injuries have been reported in the provincial capital, Khorog, after the Tajik government sent troops to the region to arrest those responsible for the fatal stabbing of the local state security chief on July 21, 2012.
“The situation in Gorno Badakhshan raises grave concerns,”said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, “Both sides need to take measures to prevent further harm to the general population.”
On July 24, it was widely reported that Tajik authorities dispatched hundreds of troops, along with helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, to Khorog to apprehend Tolib Ayombekov, a deputy commander of a Tajik-Afghan border unit and an opposition leader during the 1992-1997 Tajikistan civil war, and several of his associates. They were suspected of killing Maj. Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, local head of the State Committee for National Security. The agency had long accused Ayombekov’s associates of smuggling drugs, tobacco, and precious stones.
Ayombekov denies involvement in Nazarov’s death. Armed groups associated with Ayombekov engaged in violent clashes with government forces and demanded that they withdraw from the region.
Tajik officials declared a unilateral ceasefire and amnesty for certain fighters on July 25, but violence resumed within a day after Ayombekov refused to surrender to government troops. Various witness accounts reported gunfights across various parts of Khorog last week.
While Ayombekov’s whereabouts are unknown, officials say gunmen associated with Ayombekov have started handing over their weapons as part of the amnesty deal offered by the government. The Internal Affairs Ministry reported on July 30 that more than 60 weapons had been surrendered. In exchange, the government has promised that they will not face charges in connection with the recent fighting.
As of July 28, official sources reported that the violence had killed 17 government soldiers, 30 gunmen, and 20 civilians. Independent sources reported greater numbers of casualties among the general population. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the casualty reports. Officials also reported that 40 gunmen had been detained, including eight nationals from Afghanistan, which shares a border with the region.
In conducting arrests and other policing operations, government authorities, including soldiers, should abide by international legal standards on the use of force, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, to apply non-violent means as far as possible before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is necessary, law enforcement officials are required to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The UN principles allow lethal force only when it is “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
“Whatever serious crimes were committed in Gorno Badakhshan, the government needs to respond in accordance with international law,” Swerdlow said. “That means respecting the basic rights of those accused, as well as of the people in Khorog.
Tajik authorities have periodically blocked Internet, mobile, and landline connections to Gorno Badakhshan province since July 24, although communications were re-established on July 29. Asia Plus, the most widely read independent news source in the country, was blocked for several days. YouTube has been blocked in Tajikistan since July 26, after videos surfaced of small demonstrations in Khorog. There are reports that other Internet news sites remain blocked as well.
The head of the state communications service, Beg Zukhurov, claimed that a stray bullet had severed telephone, mobile, and Internet connections to the region.
Blocking communications to the region isolates families who may already be at great risk and prevents their relatives from obtaining information about their whereabouts and safety, Human Rights Watch said.
There were also reports that the authorities had blocked roads leading in and out of Khorog, in addition to closing the border with Afghanistan, although as of July 30 the roads were again open. Khorog residents with intermittent contacts with the capital, Dushanbe, said that blocking roads made it difficult for residents trying to flee the violence to leave the area. All sides should allow safe passage to those wishing to evacuate the region.
The Tajik government should also ease access to the region for Tajik civil society groups, the media, and international nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said.
The government may reasonably restrict the movements of certain people or groups in conducting its operations in Gorno Badakhshan, Human Rights Watch said. But these restrictions should be proportionate and should not result in a total closure that puts people at greater risk.
(c) Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/07/30/tajikistan-respect-rights-security-operations
This is the text of a press release I have put together based on other excellent notes written by Tajik colleagues around the world. Please, please help us raise awareness in the international community about events taking place RIGHT NOW in Khorog, south-east Tajikistan. We are all absolutely clear that we want PEACE and we want the world to help us achieve that. Thank you.
PRESS RELEASE – FOR IMMEDIATE AND URGENT CIRCULATION
Date: July 27 2012
Civilians killed in military conflict, potential humanitarian crisis in Tajikistan, Central Asia
Armed conflict in the town of Khorog, south-east Tajikistan, on the border with Afghanistan, has been continuing since the early morning of 24 July 2012. Tajik security and military forces has started an operation involving reportedly over 3,000 personnel with automatic arms, armed personnel carrying vehicles and helicopters in the densely populated areas of the town, with no prior notice to or evacuation of the population. According to the Guardian newspaper, ‘the fighting marked one of the worst outbursts of violence in the impoverished ex-Soviet nation since a 2010 government campaign to wipe out Islamist militants’. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting calls the clashes ‘unprecedented’
All lines of communication have been terminated and all roads to Khorog are also reportedly closed. More than 30,000 residents of the Khorog area, including women, children and elderly, are trapped in this conflict. The communications blackout has left many hundreds of Tajiks living outside the Khorog region without any knowledge of whether their families and loved ones are safe or have been victims of the conflict.
Reports by the BBC have suggested over 200 casualties. The Economist has reports of ‘dozens of civilian casualties’. Video footage from the region is slowly emerging, and providing evidence of heavy gunfire.
Apart from the human dimension element of the situation, it poses a risk of escalation and deterioration of the situation in the Central Asian region. There are reports of armed groups gathering on the Afghan side of the border in the area of Khorog, so there is a high potential for a cross-border conflict. Even if there are militants in the area, the lives of innocent people must not be put in danger.
Independent local news agency Asia Plus reports that as at 09.33 BST Friday 27 July, the government has called an end to a temporary ceasefire. This raises the serious possibility that fighting will resume and yet more civilians will be killed or injured in a battle that has nothing to do with them.
With no way to import food or for people to travel safely around, and with unconfirmed reports of corpses in the streets of Khorog, an international humanitarian crisis is brewing. It is not clear whether those who have been wounded received adequate medical care. The surrounding Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Region is the poorest in Tajikistan.
The actions by the Tajik authorities represent violations of the commitments and obligations of the Republic of Tajikistan under the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other UN human rights instruments, the OSCE Human Dimension Commitments and the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The European Union, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and American Embassy in Tajikistan have expressed their concern over the violent clashes and called for lines of communication to be opened.
CNN has reported on a peaceful demonstration in Washington, D.C. by Tajik-Americans. Peaceful demonstrations have also been held in Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia and London, UK. Social media networks such as the newly created Peace in Khorog group on Facebook, with nearly 1,000 members, are acting as informal support networks to the many Tajiks from the region dispersed around the world.
Citizens of Tajikistan around the world call for peace, for the immediate and permanent withdrawal of troops from Khorog and for lines of communication and humanitarian aid.
This is a plea to the international media to raise awareness of the conflict and human rights violations taking place in Tajikistan.
 The principle of proportionality (article 51(5)(b) IAP) is a basic principle that states that even if there is a clear military target it is not possible to attack it if the harm to civilians or civilian property is excessive to the expected military advantage.