Ramzi Vazirbekov and Oraz Vazirbekov appeared in a Tajik news YouTube video on July 30, the day after they had disappeared in Moscow. (video grab)
Relatives of two Tajik activists who have resided in Russia for years and are Russian citizens say they were forcibly taken to Tajikistan, where they may face illegal incarceration and arbitrary trials amid an ongoing crackdown on activists from the remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO).
Oraz Vazirbekov and Ramzi Vazirbekov, who are not related, went missing in Moscow on July 29. A day later, the Bekhdosht TV YouTube channel showed the two GBAO natives saying they had decided to go to Tajikistan of their own free will.
On August 1, the men's relatives told RFE/RL that the video was most likely made under duress as the men had warned earlier that if they turned up in Tajikistan it would mean they had been kidnapped and brought to their former homeland under duress.
Deep tensions between the Tajik government and residents of the volatile GBAO have simmered since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
The latest crackdown on activists in GBAO followed protests initially sparked in mid-May by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Khorugh Mayor Rizo Nazarzoda.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called an counterterrorist operation.
The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.
Gordo-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.
While it occupies almost half of the country's territory, its population is a mere 250,000. The region's mountainous terrain makes travel difficult while its economy suffers from unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.