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Pyotr Markelau says his cell has little air but lots of lice.

An election monitor in Belarus jailed for filming the ballot count at one polling station during the recent parliamentary elections has complained of the conditions in the Minsk detention center where he is being held.

Pyotr Markelau said his cell had little air but lots of lice, his mother told RFE/RL.

His lawyer, Alvina Mingazova, was denied access to her client on December 13 because prison authorities said the visitors' room was full.

Markelau was arrested on December 9 and sentenced to 14 days in jail for filming the counting of ballots at one polling station in Minsk. His arrest was captured on video.

Markelau was working for the campaign of Stas Shashka, an independent candidate from the Youth Bloc who competed in the November 17 elections to the lower house of the Belarusian parliament. As such, he had the right to serve as an election poll observer.

Although a high number of independent candidates managed to get on the ballot, not one of the 110 candidates elected to the largely rubber-stamp parliament was not allied with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus for a quarter of a century with an iron fist.

The fate of Markelau has resonated beyond Belarus. A member of the Lithuanian parliament sent a letter on December 11 to the Belarusian Embassy in Vilnius to protest Markelau's arrest. Ausrika Armonaite said Belarusian authorities "should not prevent young people from taking part in the building of a democratic state."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe, whose monitors observed the November 17 balloting in Belarus, said the election failed to meet democratic standards.

Sergei Lebedev, the head of a monitoring mission from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Russia-led grouping of several former Soviet republics, said the vote had been "free, democratic, and in line with the constitution of the country."

The run-up to the election was marked by signs of creeping discontent in the tightly controlled Eastern European state of more than 9 million.

A crowd estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500 demonstrated on Minsk's Freedom Square on November 8 demanding democratic change.

The vote also came with Moscow upping pressure on Minsk to speed up military and economic integration.

Minsk is reliant on Russia for cheap oil and on roughly $5 billion worth of yearly subsidies for its outmoded Soviet-era economy that is mostly state-run, barring its flourishing information-technology industry.

The two countries signed an agreement in 1999 that was supposed to create a unified state and their joint border is an open one under a customs-union arrangement.

Putin and Lukashenka met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on December 7 to work on a "road map" for closer integration, but the talks ended in stalemate.

The two leaders met as hundreds took to the streets in Minsk to protest against the plan.

Some 3,400 Tajik students have come home from foreign madrasahs since 2010, when the president demanded parents bring their children back to prevent them from potentially becoming "terrorists."

Tajikistan is trumpeting the repatriation of children from Bangladesh who were studying at Islamic madrasahs, as the Muslim-majority country keeps strict tabs on religious education.

But the return home for the children is not yet over as they have been put in schools for children with special needs to undergo what officials describe as an indefinite "readjustment" period.

Some 3,400 Tajik students have come home from foreign madrasahs since 2010, when President Emomali Rahmon demanded parents bring their children back to prevent them from potentially becoming "terrorists."

But one family says they haven't been allowed to contact their 13-year-old son -- a former madrasah student -- since he was taken to the boarding school in early November. "The family isn't allowed to bring him home even on weekends," says the boy's father, Mahmadzarif Saidov. "We aren't even sure if our son is really studying at that boarding school or somewhere else."

"We're worried that our child's circumstances are being kept secret from us," Saidov adds. "He must be allowed to come home on weekends and tell us what he's studying, unless of course [the authorities'] aim is brainwashing."

The Education Ministry says the returnees undergo the special readjustment classes to help them adjust to the secular Tajik school system. "These children haven't been to a regular school and aren't accustomed to our way of life," ministry spokesman Ehson Khushvakht said on December 10.

Khushvakht said teachers will work with the children "to determine which grades of school the children should attend in the future" and prepare them for regular schools before sending them back to the families. "The duration of the readjustment period depends on each child's ability -- it could last three months, six months, or one year," he told RFE/RL.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon visits a school in the Rudaki district last year.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon visits a school in the Rudaki district last year.

Authorities haven't publicly commented on the exact number of Tajik children studying privately in Bangladesh or the circumstances of their return.

One law enforcement official put the number of recent returnees at around 10 and said they were brought back to Tajikistan during the past eight months. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't allowed to speak to the media.

The authorities reportedly found out about the children after one of them -- Saidov's son -- was detained during a trip to the United Arab Emirates in February and deported to Tajikistan due to his expired documents.

Under Scrutiny

As part of efforts to combat extremism, Tajikistan has banned its citizens from sending minors to religious schools abroad without hard-to-obtain, written permission from government agencies.

Authorities estimate that several hundred Tajik nationals, including minors, are currently studying in Islamic schools abroad.

A decade ago, Rahmon warned Tajik students studying in Islamic schools abroad that if they didn't quit immediately and return home, "the majority of them will turn into extremists and terrorists in five or 10 years."

"They don't only study religion there," Rahmon warned. "They will come back and create problems for the nation and the government."

The majority of the 3,694 Tajiks that were studying in religious schools in Iran, Pakistan, and Arab countries in recent years have returned to Tajikistan, authorities say.

One former madrasah student, who swiftly stopped attending his school in Egypt after Rahmon's appeal, says he is still under scrutiny by the authorities nearly a decade after his return.

Dilshod, a 33-year-old resident of the Hisor district near Dushanbe, tells RFE/RL that earlier this year police regularly summoned him and asked about his everyday life, contacts, and the whereabouts of his relatives and friends.

"They summon me every five or six months," Dilshod says. "Each time I'm required to bring a photo and a letter from the local authorities."

Three other former madrasah students who quit their religious studies in Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia offered similar accounts of being regularly questioned by Tajik police since they returned.

Shortly after returning religious students from abroad, Tajikistan also closed down all but one madrasah in the Central Asian country.

In September, Khoja Ansori, the last madrasah in the southern region of Kulob, was turned into a music school, four years after it was shut down for allegedly failing to meet license requirements.

The country of some 9 million is currently left with only one official madrasah and an Islamic University, both located in the capital, Dushanbe.

The government also prohibits minors from attending Friday Prayers.

Some Tajiks fear the state's harsh measures against the freedom to practice the Islamic faith will lead to the opening of underground schools and alienate the parents who want their children to have basic religious knowledge taught to them by qualified professionals.

Tajik officials often emphasize the threats of religious extremism and terrorism in an apparent bid to justify their strict control of religious institutions.

Two deadly assaults and two prison riots in Tajikistan since 2018 were claimed by Islamic State, although the group's claims can't be independently verified.

Hundreds of Tajik citizens went to the Middle East in recent years to join IS.

Critics of the government, however, say widespread corruption in state institutions, extremely high unemployment that sends hundreds of thousands abroad to find work, abject poverty, and a lack of civil liberties in Tajikistan contribute to people's discontent and pose a much bigger threat to the country's stability.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Mumin Ahmadi of RFE/RL's Tajik Service. Kayumars Ato of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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