Controversial trial of Islamic opposition opens in Tajikistan

Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmon, seen on a banner on November 3, 2013 in Dushanbe, could see the end of any formal opposition after this trial (AFP Photo/) (AFP/File)

Dushanbe (Tajikistan) (AFP) - Thirteen members of a moderate Islamist opposition party went on trial behind closed doors in volatile Tajikistan on Tuesday, accused of fanning a wave of unrest that killed dozens of people last year.

The high-profile proceedings in the ex-Soviet republic could mark the end of any formal opposition to strongman leader Emomali Rakhmon and radicalise his opponents, analysts say.

The 13 members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) face an array of charges including attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and organising a criminal group, but few expect a fair trial.

More than 50 people were killed in nearly two weeks of clashes in September between security forces and followers of a renegade deputy defence minister, according to the interior ministry.

A total of 199 people were arrested over the violence, which left ex-deputy defence minister General Abduhalim Nazarzoda dead along with 37 followers and 14 troops.

The IRPT, which was banned by the government last year, has denied involvement in the clashes, which erupted after Nazarzoda and his followers broke ranks with the government.

The United Nations, Washington and Brussels have all expressed concern at the ban and the arrest of the party leadership.

"The charges in this case are clearly politically motivated, draped in vague and overbroad allegations of extremism," said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"Tajikistan has not demonstrated that the accused IRPT members are in any way linked to terrorism, extremism, or the specific incidents connected to the alleged mutiny," Swerdlow told AFP by email.

Critics say the trial is part of the government's attempts to eradicate Islam from public life in a country riven by a five-year civil war in the 1990s pitting the government against pro-Islamic and other factions.

"If the court determines their guilt in organising the violence, then the people of Tajikistan will support prohibiting the formation of faith-based parties," said Abdugani Mamadazimov, head of the National Association of Political Scientists of Tajikistan.

"This was something tolerated as part of the agreements following the civil war and it makes this one of the most important trials in Tajikistan's independent history."

- Clampdown could backfire -

But critics warn the clampdown in the impoverished country of eight million people could backfire.

Hundreds of Tajiks -- including a former special forces chief -- are believed to have joined the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

There have been reports of Tajik police carrying out forced shavings of men's beards and restricting Islamic clothing while lawmakers have voted to ban Arabic and other "non-Tajik" names for children.

The IRPT's absence from parliament following disputed elections last March has left Rakhmon's People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan effectively unchallenged.

Attacks on the group are "creating risks further down the line," said Tim Epkenhans, an expert on Tajikistan at Germany's University of Freiburg.

"The IRPT was a tame opposition, but one that could absorb a more conservative Islamic-minded electorate as well as young people disillusioned with the corruption and emptiness of the Rakhmon regime," Epkenhans told AFP.

"These people now have no platform."

- 'Nil' chance of fair trial -

Preparations for the trial -- which a supreme court spokesman said could last "a long time" -- have already been marred by allegations of mistreatment of IRPT members in custody, including torture, and pressure on the defence.

Last year, the government arrested two lawyers defending the IRPT on fraud charges, while lawyers from Turkey and Russia attempting to make contact with defendants were detained and deported in January.

"The chances for a fair trial are nil when authorities are denying detainees access to counsel and their families," said Swerdlow, noting "strong, credible indications" that the party's leaders had been tortured in custody.

"There's an unmistakable message that is being sent here: legitimate criticism of president Rakhmon's government will not be tolerated."