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Tajik singer Firuza Hafizova was fined by a Dushanbe court after a video clip emerged showing her dancing and singing along with several people.

It might be your birthday, but as a local Tajik celebrity was just reminded, Tajikistan can spoil the party.

After video emerged of Firuza Hafizova celebrating her big day with song and dance, the popular Dushanbe-based singer found herself in court and short $500 for violating the country's law regulating private functions, Tajikistan state television reported on February 2.

The news report, which did not mention when Hafizova's birthday party took place, showed the singer attending her trial in a Dushanbe district court.

The so-called regulation law dictates that birthday parties should take place only "within the family circle." But the video clip posted online showed Hafizova dancing and singing along with several people identified by state TV as the singer's "colleagues."

The law was introduced in 2007 in an effort to spare citizens the expense of lavish weddings, funerals, and other gatherings, such as baby boys' circumcision parties.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (file photo)
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (file photo)

It was drafted after President said that social pressure to throw extravagant celebrations was putting undue financial strain on families in the impoverished country.

The law set a limit on the cost and duration of parties, as well as a permissible number of the guests.

It was amended in 2017 to add further restrictions and tougher punishments, especially for government officials.

According to the new changes, such officials face losing their jobs if they or their immediate family members violate the regulation law.

Punishments include hefty fines that increase for repeat offenders.

Saifiddin Nazarzoda, a former director of Tajikistan's National Library, became the first government official to be removed from his post after he was tried and found guilty in September 2017 for violating the newly amended law.

Nazarzoda was accused of breaching the limit set on the number of guests at a private party that he hosted in Dushanbe.

Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny was in St. Petersburg on February 2 to launch his "smart voting" campaign for the city's municipal elections.

When Aleksei Navalny addressed supporters at a St. Petersburg banquet hall to promote his campaign to unseat United Russia's candidates in local elections this spring, he called for mass protests and civil disobedience if the opposition is barred from running.

"If they don't register you, we will go and close the roads. Agreed?" he shouted, as the crowd erupted in applause.

But amid the rush of media coverage that followed the February 2 event, some commentators drew attention to another meeting Navalny was accused of holding that day, setting off a bizarre chain of allegations and denials involving the opposition leader and a controversial Russian businessman popularly known as "Putin's chef."

On February 3, popular Telegram channel Nezygar published photos it claimed were proof that the opposition leader had met with Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman indicted by Washington in February 2018 on charges of orchestrating Moscow's meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and suspected of funding Russia's military involvement in Syria and Africa.

Two of the photos purport to show Navalny walking on the sidewalk outside the Sokos hotel with his secretary Kira Yarmysh; another shows a man resembling Prigozhin passing what appears to be the same balcony of the hotel. The post does not clarify when the photos were taken, and none of the photos shows the two men together.

In a text accompanying the photos, Nezygar alleges that the meeting had taken place on the sixth floor of the Sokos hotel in St. Petersburg, and that Navalny afterward climbed into a Volkswagen parked outside while Prigozhin walked by foot to a nearby building. The address it cites for the building -- 7 Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment -- belongs to Concord Catering, the restaurant business Prigozhin allegedly owns.

Navalny immediately took to Telegram to denounce the claims as "black PR" and Telegram channels as an unreliable source of information. He explained that he had been part of a group of seven people that checked into the Sokos hotel on February 2, and the published photos likely came from people that followed his team throughout their stay in the city. He denied that he had met with Prigozhin and alleged that the businessman reputed to have close ties to the Kremlin had himself ordered Nezygar to spread the rumor.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

In November, investigative outfit Proyekt published a report claiming that political channels on Telegram had been infiltrated by people close to the Kremlin and were increasingly being used to discredit the Russian opposition, and Navalny in particular.

Among the claims made in the investigation is that Nezygar, one of the most popular channels among journalists and the elite with over 200,000 followers, is controlled by the deputy head of Putin's administration, Aleksei Gromov.

'Have Things Gotten THAT Bad?'

But by the time Navalny mounted a campaign to quash the rumor, it had spread online. Popular Prague-based blogger Rustem Adagamov tweeted a link to the Nezygar post, appending a summary of the claims made. Navalny angrily rebuffed it in the comments section.

"Rustem, I understand that you live in a foreign country. You have no money. You've sunk so low that you're working for [Ksenia] Sobchak," Navalny wrote, referring to the controversial socialite who ran against Putin in the 2018 presidential election. "But do you really have to become an old revolting prostitute? Have things gotten THAT bad?"

Other Twitter users reacted with humor, mocking the Nezygar post. "Shocking news! Navalny paid a visit to Chip 'n' Dale to discuss a plan to rescue Russia! I attach photo evidence," reads one tweet, alongside an image of Navalny pressing a door buzzer and another of the two cartoon characters.

Eventually Navalny himself joined in the mockery, tweeting a photoshopped version of a photo of Prigozhin serving a meal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Putin replaced by an image of Navalny eating noodles from a takeaway box.

"Anonymous Telegram channels have published proof that simply destroys me," reads the caption. "There are no more justifications. Forgive me, friends."

There was, however, another round of allegation and denial. The twist came when the BBC's Russian service published comments it received from Prigozhin's press service, in which the businessmen's representatives confirmed a meeting with Navalny had taken place.

One of the topics discussed, they say, was an offer Navalny allegedly made to stop publishing compromising material about Prigozhin's business in exchange for "loyalty" toward Navalny's team during the upcoming municipal elections in St. Petersburg. Prigozhin is cited as responding: "I don't exchange soldiers for a marshal."

Navalny repeated his denial of the rumors. "Prigozhin is lying and no meeting took place," he told the BBC.

Navalny had come to St. Petersburg to launch his "smart voting" program, a campaign to oust United Russia deputies from the city's parliament. In a speech to several dozen supporters beside the Smolenka River on February 2, he said that 90 percent of the municipal deputies in St. Petersburg represent the ruling party, and urged the opposition to band together to unseat them.

"If we don't start now, then by 2030 nothing will have changed," he said.

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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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