Tajikistan's Islamic party under 'total pressure' ahead of vote

Dushanbe (Tajikistan) (AFP) - An opposition Islamic party in ex-Soviet Tajikistan says the government has cracked down on its politicians ahead of March 1 parliamentary polls in the mainly Muslim but secular country.

Tajikistan, the poorest state to emerge from the Soviet Union, has been led by strongman President Emomali Rakhmon since 1992 and his National Democratic Party of Tajikistan is expected to sweep the polls.

The chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the only legal faith-based opposition party in post-Soviet Central Asia, told AFP the government has ratcheted up harassment of its 42,000 members in the run-up to polls.

"I would say our party is currently experiencing total pressure, especially in the country's provinces," the party's chairman Muhiddin Kabiri told AFP.

"Elections are problematic in Tajikistan but we did not expect difficulties to this extent."

Next month's parliamentary and local council polls will be contested by eight parties.

Currently IRPT has only two seats in the 63-seat people's assembly, the lower house in a bicameral legislature.

- Fake Facebook accounts -

The 49-year-old party chairman said that multiple fake Facebook accounts have been set up in his name, aimed at "blackening" the party's reputation. Allegations of Kabiri's sexual infidelity have also been aired via the social media platform.

More than half the party's 160 candidates put forward for the parliament were not allowed to register, while only 196 of its 720 candidates qualified to stand for council elections.

The electoral authorities told many would-be candidates that they failed mandatory tests in the Tajik language -- the state language that most Tajiks know perfectly.

One of the IRPT candidates who allegedly flunked the test had been President Rakhmon's mathematics teacher at school, Tajik media reported.

In January the party's press secretary, Mahmudzhon Faizrakhmonov, complained of "pressure on our members in the regions from representatives of various government structures."

This month, the party filed a complaint to the Central Electoral Commission after the country's state-appointed chief Mufti, Saidmukkaram Abdulkodirzoda, said on state television that it should remove the word "Islamic" from their name.

He claimed that the party's candidates could be telling people that a vote for IRPT was a vote for Islam.

- 'IRPT always to blame' -

The party is one of the few potential sources of genuine opposition to Rakhmon's 22-year rule.

Founded in 1990, it only earned state recognition after a devastating five-year civil war, which pitted a coalition including Islamic fighters against pro-government forces loyal to Rakhmon.

It comes under regular fire from a government that has a strong sway over media in the country and remains nervous about growing religious adherence among the population of eight million.

"It is always the same scenario -- be it world wars, natural disasters, emergencies, or somebody's relative fighting in Syria -- IRPT is always to blame," Kabiri said.

Visitors to the party's campaign office in the capital Dushanbe are instructed to take off their shoes, like visitors to a mosque.

But the party's campaign platform is broad-based and non-discriminatory, Kabiri said, focusing on "peace and stability" in the impoverished country.

Kabiri said he believes that permitting faith-based parties within secular systems is "one of the main ways to combat the growth of radicalism".

But Tajikistan and its neighbour Uzbekistan, which is regularly listed as a "country of particular concern" in the US State Department's annual International Religious Freedom Report, seem unconvinced.

Tajikistan is still the only country in the world to ban minors from attending mosques. The government once published a book of approved sermon topics for imams and is known for periodic persecutions of men with long beards.

According to government officials, up to 300 Tajik citizens are currently fighting for Islamic forces in Syria. On Tuesday a local court sentenced 13 men to between nine and 12 years for their alleged role in calling on young people to fight in the Middle East.

Rakhmon, a former collective farm chairman, secured a seven-year term with over 80 percent of the vote following presidential elections held in late 2013.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the vote lacked "pluralism and genuine choice".