KHORUGH, Tajikistan -- A noted religious cleric in Tajikistan's restive Gorno-Badakhshan Region (GBAO) has been sentenced to five years in prison on extremism charges that his relatives call "wrong and unjust."
Relatives of Muzaffar Davlatmirov -- one of the most well-known leaders of the Ismaili Shi'ite Muslims in the volatile region, who was detained on July 26 -- told RFE/RL on August 4 that he had been sentenced after a court in the regional capital, Khorugh, found him guilty of public calls for extremist activities.
One of the relatives said the 58-year-old cleric was sentenced for his criticism of local authorities during the deadly dispersal of protests earlier this year.
"In his sermons he called on people to be calm and tolerant, but frequently criticized the illegal actions of the authorities. Law enforcement officers could not stand his fight for justice and the fact that Davlatmirov was well respected both by ordinary people and by informal leaders in the region," the relative said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A close associate of Davlatmirov suggested that the cleric's imprisonment was most likely "retaliation" by local authorities for his leading of religious services at the funerals of three local informal leaders who were killed in May and June by police during what authorities called special operations against extremists.
Davlatmirov also took part in negotiations between the GBAO's nongovernmental organizations and authorities earlier this year regarding protests in the region bordering with Afghanistan.
Deep tensions between the Tajik government and residents of the GBAO have simmered since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
The latest crackdown on activists in the GBAO followed protests that were initially sparked in mid-May by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Khorugh Mayor Rizo Nazarzoda.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called a "counterterrorist operation."
The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.
Gordo-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.
While it occupies almost half of the country's territory, its population is a mere 250,000. The region's mountainous terrain makes travel difficult, while its economy suffers from unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.