Early on September 6, the security services in Tajikistan issued a press release containing some apparently alarming news.
The State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, claimed in the statement that government forces had confronted a trio of heavily armed Islamist militants bent on mounting deadly attacks on Independence Day, which fell on September 9.
The men, all Tajik nationals, had crossed the border from Afghanistan carrying rifles, handguns, ammunition, grenades, medicinal supplies, religious literature, blueprints of government buildings, $10,000 in cash, and even a beard trimmer, officials said in a statement accompanied by photos.
This purported plot, hatched in cooperation with an unspecified foreign intelligence service agency, was thwarted, however. All three men were cornered in a location in the Darvoz area, near the Afghan border, and were killed after they refused to surrender, the GKNB maintained.
Frustratingly for reporters and members of the public eager to learn more, the would-be militants have quickly been buried at undisclosed locations. No explanations have been offered for how the group were able to hide out for several days in a sensitive and closely guarded area near the border. And it is also unclear why metadata of the GKNB-issue images dated them to September 2020.
And so, sceptical Tajiks have taken to wondering if there might not be more – or less – to this troubling episode than meets the eye. Thoughts have focused in particular on a very different set of events that began evolving in the middle of last month.
On August 14, General Prosecutor Yusuf Rahmon caused eyebrows to rise when he announced at a press conference that he had ordered the arrest of well-known businessman and writer Abduhalil Kholikzoda.
Rahmon explained that the arrest had been triggered by the contents of memoirs, titled Events of My Life, written by Kholikzoda and published in March.
The book, which has been obtained by Eurasianet, is a grab-bag of genres. At times, Kholikzoda, who is perhaps best known in Tajikistan as the founder of the Ibni Sino private medical clinic, shares stories from his career, as suggested in the title.
Elsewhere, he drifts into highly subjective commentaries, in part about the mindset of Tajiks from various parts of the country. He reserves special criticism for inhabitants of the south, where much of the current ruling elite comes from, for what he perceives as their lack of refinement.
Kholikzoda has much to say about the economic climate in Tajikistan too. He bemoans the poor state of affairs for business, the lack of foreign investment and the woeful state of the healthcare sector.
None of which makes Kholikzoda a gadfly. He writes in his book of his sincere friendship with the heads of both the GKNB and the Interior Ministry, noting that some of the accounts he shares came from their own lips. It is inconceivable the book would even have been printed and allowed to hit bookstores without those bodies giving the green light.
But while the GKNB and the police get an easy ride in the book, the businessman has less kind things to say about prosecutors. In one passage, he alleges that an intermediary acting on behalf of the mayor of Panjakent, a city in western Tajikistan, paid a large bribe to the General Prosecutor’s Office to get it to refrain from opening a criminal case against him.
What is particularly intriguing about this hazily substantiated accusation is what Kholikzoda says the General Prosecutor (whom he does not name outright, although it is Yusuf Rahmon that holds the post) then did with the solicited bribe. The businessman alleges that the cash was used to fund a lavish wedding – this appears, although it is not explicitly spelled out in so many words, to be a reference to the 2022 nuptials between a son of Yusuf Rahmon and the youngest daughter of President Emomali Rahmon, Farzona.
The two Rahmons are not blood relatives.
By general consensus, the General Prosecutor has strongly consolidated his authority as a result of his son marrying into the ruling family. Which makes the nature of the allegations in Kholikzoda’s book all the more incendiary and perilous.
Rahmon, the prosecutor, is now getting his payback. Speaking to journalists last month, he accused the businessman of seeking to sow hatred among residents of Tajikistan’s regions. Inciting intolerance is an offence punishable by prison time.
Some time after Kholikzoda was detained, the same treatment was reserved for the well-known writer Abdukodir Rustam, who is said to have edited the offending book. People familiar with the investigation have said it is believed Rustam was the person responsible for including the claim about the Panjakent bribe.
Zooming out, the whole affair has begun to look like another flashpoint in a longstanding conflict between Tajikistan’s law enforcement agencies.
On September 4, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, Radioi Ozodi, reported, citing unnamed sources, on a testy confrontation between the heads of all three agencies at which President Rahmon was also present.
“Yusuf Rahmon asked them: ‘How can you be friends and stand up for a person who opposes the policies of the Leader of the Nation?’” Ozodi reported, citing the prosecutor’s reference to his presidential namesake.
Ozodi’s analysis suggests that the GKNB and the Interior Ministry chiefs may have overplayed their hands by seeking to tarnish the reputation of a man now tied to the ruling family in a very deep sense.
In that optic, disquieting accounts of narrowly thwarted terrorist plots appear potentially designed to enhance the sense of indispensability around such bodies as the GKNB, which is ostensibly in charge of border security and takes the lead on anti-militant activity.
This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.