Dushanbe (Tajikistan) (AFP) - Rustam Gulov was walking in Khudzhand, a city in Central Asia's Tajikistan, when police detained him and took him to the station. By the time he came out, his beard had been shaved clean -- against his will.
Forcible shaving, restrictions on who can make the annual hajj pilgrimage and a campaign against hijabs are some of the elements in a crackdown on devout Muslims in ex-Soviet Tajikistan, whose secular authorities fear the growing influence of Islamist fighters returning from Syria.
"Judging by the hair in the room, I estimate they shaved the beards of approximately 200-250 people before me," Gulov, a well-known blogger, wrote in an open letter this month to Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon.
He said officers told him and another detainee that having a beard was against "state policy", saying they can "sodomise them and then shave their beards" after he complained.
Some Muslims say these allegations of forced beard shavings are part of a broader campaign against believers in the most impoverished country of the former Soviet Union, amid reports of its citizens fighting and dying for the jihadist Islamic State group in Syria.
A spokesman for the interior ministry denied that the government had ordered beards to be shaved, blaming it on officers "exceeding their remit", but confirmed that police could approach young bearded men to ensure "that they take care of themselves and observe personal hygiene."
- 'Officials ruined my dreams' -
Muslim believers complain repression has grown since controversial parliamentary elections last month handed a landslide victory to the ruling People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT) and booted the moderate Islamic opposition out of parliament.
In a move that riled the faithful, the country's Committee for Religious and Cultural Issues declared last week a ban on people younger than 35 applying for the hajj pilgrimage, saying the decision was made "out of respect to the elderly" on the government-controlled waiting list.
"Everyday I pray to God that I might visit our sacred holy places. But now state officials have ruined my dreams," Maksadullo, 31, who works as a petty trader outside the capital Dushanbe, told AFP.
Over 6,000 Tajiks undertake the hajj every year, around a third of them under 35 according to the committee. Demand for the pilgrimage far outstrips the quota provided by Saudi Arabia and complaints of corruption in the process are frequent.
"Should this decision be taken by the government bureaucracy whose job it is to control all religious activity in the country or the Muslim community itself?" asked Felix Corley, editor of the Forum 18 News Service, which monitors religious freedom in the ex-Soviet republics.
"Everyone, whatever their age, has the right to freedom of religion or belief," Corely told AFP, noting that Tajikistan also restricts the public participation of minors in religious activities.
- Passport burnings -
Rakhmon, the strongman president who oversaw the government's victory against a coalition of Islamist, regional and pro-democratic forces in a five-year civil war that ended in 1997, has complained about the rise of Middle Eastern influence in the country.
Last month he said that until recently Tajik women "never wore" the black clothing traditional in Arab states "even at funerals".
The mayor of Dushanbe said Monday the authorities will also conduct raids to make sure hijab headscarves are no longer imported or sold.
Authorities in the majority Muslim country are cagey about the roughly 300 citizens they claim are fighting alongside Islamic State group and affiliated jihadists. According to government data at least 50 citizens have died in Syria since the violence began.
Some recruits are suspected to have come from the roughly million Tajiks working as unskilled labourers in Russia, where the economic crisis exacerbated by the Ukraine conflict has put many out of work.
Last year Tajikistan blocked the video-sharing platform YouTube shortly after a video appeared showing five young men purporting to be Tajik nationals in Syria burning their Tajik passports.
Opponents say the authorities have extended their control over the religion and use imams in state-controlled mosques to rail against the opposition.
Despite the claims of a crackdown, the authorities say they are supportive of Islam and are building the biggest mosque in Central Asia to hold up to 100,000 believers.
Rakhmon, 62, consolidated his 22-year grip on power in disputed March elections that left the ruling PDPT without meaningful competition in the parliament and the country's largest opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) out in the cold.