Early in the morning on August 23, 25 recently convicted prisoners escaped from a high-security detention centre run by Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB) in central Dushanbe. According to GKNB’s statement released soon after the first media reports on the bold escape, three inmates had “taken advantage of the guards’ negligence” by wrestling the keys away from them and setting other convicts free. The prisoners then killed one guard, severely beat another, and seized camouflage uniforms and firearms. As the GKNB’s ward is part of a larger pretrial detention facility, the convicts then attacked guards at the exit of the facility, killing another four, and escaped in three cars. The next day the cars were found in a valley not far from Dushanbe where the fugitives had reportedly taken to the mountains.
It is presently unclear whether the prisoners’ escape was supported from outside the detention centre. According to the General Prosecutor’s Office, fingerprints found in the cars abandoned by the fugitives indicate that they had been assisted at least in fleeing from Dushanbe. Independent experts maintain, however, that the fingerprints could belong to the owners of the cars or their previous passengers. It has been confirmed that the escapees had stolen at least one of the cars they used.
Amidst spreading rumors that several high-profile political prisoners were among the missing inmates, the GKNB hastily publicized a list of the 25 escapees. These include a brother and an uncle of Mirzo Ziyoev, who served as the military commander of the Tajik Islamic opposition forces which fought against president Rahmon’s government during the 1992-97 civil war in the country. Following his dismissal from the post of Minister of Emergencies (that he obtained in the power-sharing deal that ended the war), Ziyoev was killed in July 2009 by militants with suspected ties to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), according to Tajik security agencies.
Most of the 25 escapees had been arrested in 2009 as part of a major security sweep in eastern Tajikistan that followed Ziyoev’s death. Just several days before the escape, they were sentenced to lengthy terms in prison on charges ranging from drug trafficking to terrorism. Following the sentences, they were expected to be transferred from the temporary detention centre in Dushanbe to high-security prisons elsewhere.
Among the other fugitives are alleged members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), classified by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group, four Afghan and two Uzbek citizens, and five militants from Russia’s troubled North Caucasus region. Notably, one of the fugitives, Ibrohim Nasriddinov (also known as Kori Ibrohim), was among several Tajik citizens held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to Radio Free Europe. Nasriddinov was repatriated to Tajikistan in 2007 and sentenced by a local court to 23 years in prison on charges including murder and illegal possession of weapons. By Tajik law, Nasriddinov had to serve his sentence in a regular prison. However, according to the Ministry of Justice, the GKNB requested that he be transferred back to its detention centre. The GKNB is now claiming that Nasriddinov was one of the three master minds of the prison break.
Within several hours after the prison break, Tajik security agencies set up additional checkpoints at airports, railway stations and major roads across the country. Border troops along the Afghan border were also put on high alert in an attempt to prevent the escapees from crossing into Afghanistan. In addition, the government dispatched extra military and police units to the Rasht valley in eastern Tajikistan, the home region of many of the fugitives and an Islamic opposition stronghold during the civil war.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have also reinforced their patrols along the border with Tajikistan. Furthermore, immediately after the prison break, the GKNB requested assistance from the Russian and Afghan security services in recapturing the fugitives. Moscow responded immediately with a promise from President Dmitry Medvedev that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) would assist Tajikistan in hunting down the escapees.
Although the whereabouts of the fugitives remain unknown, Tajik law-enforcement agencies believe that they have divided into several smaller groups and will try to reach the Afghan border through mountainous passes. Given Tajikistan’s terrain and a long porous border with Afghanistan, they are likely to have few problems crossing to the neighboring country. In the meantime, independent analysts, media and the general public across Tajikistan increasingly believe that corruption within the Tajik security agencies rather than their negligence explains how such a high-profile group of convicts could escape so easily from a highly guarded facility in the very centre of the country’s capital.
By Alexander Sodiqov (09/03/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)