On July 7 Eribek Ibraghimov, a former Tajik opposition field commander, went on trial before Tajikistan’s Supreme Court. Better known by his nickname “Sheikh,” Ibraghimov stands trial with four other former militants of the United Tajik Opposition: Davlat Sahovarov, Umar Shomahmadov, Hudoer Saidov, and Ahkomiddin Saidrahmonov. All five defendants are residents of Tajikabad, part of the Karaghetinskaya Valley near the Pamir Mountains in eastern Tajikistan. Sakhovarov and Shomahmadov fought under the command of Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, a UTO former field commander who now chairs the Democratic Party of Tajikistan. Before his arrest, Sakhovarov was Iskanderov’s personal driver.
Ibraghimov and his accomplices were detained last August for allegedly firing on the Tajikabad district Department of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor’s Office during the night of August 27-28, 2004. None of the law-enforcement staff was injured.
At the same time, officials from the Department to Fight Organized Crime and the Ministry of Internal affairs discovered a cache of weapons in the Almalik Gorge. The mini-arsenal contained one “Grad” multiple-rocket launcher, 15 PTURS anti-tank guided missile systems, 10 “Igla” anti-aircraft missile systems, four Kalashnikov machine guns, two AKMs, 113 mortars, 80 anti-tank projectiles, 21 TOW missiles, 112 air rocket weapons, 73-mm armored personnel carrier cannons, as well as 5,000 bullets and a box of explosives. During his initial interrogation, Ibraghimov said that the arsenal had been brought to Tajikistan from Afghanistan during the civil war of the early 1990s. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan militants allegedly left additional weapons. Ibraghimov is charged on eight counts, including terrorism, gangsterism, murder, maintaining a private security force, and illegal possession of weapons.
“Sheikh” is one of the most odious figures of the Tajik opposition. A Jamestown correspondent who visited the Karategin Valley in 1996 when opposition militants seized control can state with certitude that the militants installed a medieval order. Under threat of punishment, the militants forced all residents to pray in mosques. Women were forced to wear headscarves in public that concealed their whole face except the eyes. Sales of alcohol and tobacco were banned. Anyone caught violating the rules were lashed in mosques. After the formation of the coalition government, the field commanders formally joined the state army, but they also retained control of the government in Karategin.
After the February 1999 terrorist acts in Tashkent, frightened Uzbek authorities indiscriminately arrested religious leaders who held views differing from those of the Uzbek government. Few of the arrested were actually linked to the armed underground movement.
Around that same time, many families started moving from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan. A number of settlements, densely populated by ethnic Uzbeks, sprung up in the Karategin Valley. A proposal to hand over part of the Karategin Valley to the Uzbek refugees appeared and was seriously discussed in official circles in Dushanbe. The plan called for creating a “Free Islamic Uzbekistan in Exile.” In addition to the peaceful Uzbek settlements, there were also military camps in Karategin. Almost all of the Uzbek refugees settled on territory controlled by Sheikh. There were two Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) training camps on his territory (e.g. on the outskirts of the village Hait, and on the territory of the former seismic studies station near the settlement of Tajikabad).
A group of Sheikh’s fighters took part in the 2000 military raid undertaken by Uzbek militants from Tajikistan who invaded Kyrgyzstan as part of a plan to reach the Fergana Valley (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 16, 2000).
In May 2000, at the urgent request of Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, the Uzbek migrant camps in Tajikistan were eliminated, and the migrants were transported to neighboring Afghanistan. The Tajik opposition regarded Rakhmonov’s policy as a betrayal. Sheikh demonstratively resigned from all government positions and accepted a job as chairman of a collective farm.
In November 2000, Sheikh told Jamestown that, as a Muslim, he should be at one with the Uzbek mujahideen, and therefore he had no wish to participate in politics. However, Sheikh secretly retained at least a small band of fighters under his command. Sheikh was also accompanied everywhere by 10 well-armed bodyguards. Locals believed he could pull together up to 150 well-armed men in just a few hours.
The current trial of Sheikh and the upcoming trial of Mahmadruzi Iskandarov serve to prove that President Rakhmonov, who fought against the opposition in the civil war, now feels so confident of his power that he is gradually starting to neutralize the most odious and dangerous figures among the Tajik opposition’s former field commanders.