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Facebook Photos Help Convict Tajik 'Birthday Boy'

Amirbek Isoev will probably not post photos of his next birthday party online.

When Amirbek Isoev posted a few photos of his 25th birthday bash on Facebook, all he was hoping for was likes and comments.

But the young man, who describes himself as a former market strategist from Dushanbe, got more than he bargained for.

Authorities in his native Tajikistan more accustomed to banning and pillorying social media -- including apparent blocks this week on Facebook and YouTube -- have found a use for such online communities.

Isoev's photos were presented as evidence by prosecutors who convinced a Dushanbe court that he had broken the law by throwing his party. Officials from the Ismoili Somoni district court also acknowledged it was the first time Tajik prosecutors had used Facebook photos and comments in such a case.

The event took place on June 5 in Dushanbe's Irish Pub, a trendy downtown venue popular with urbanites in their 20s and 30s. Isoev admits to having 13 guests -- close friends who "paid for their own drink and food."

Holding a birthday party in a pub in a circle of friends can violate a Tajik law that regulates private citizens' public functions. The law puts a limit on the number of guests, the amount of money spent, and the duration of each type of gathering.

The law also stipulates that birthday parties must be held solely within the family circle.

"I was aware of the law," Isoev says, "but I always thought it was against people who spend lots of money to throw lavish parties." Isoev says he and his guests spent 540 somonis -- or around $85 -- in total.

The birthday boy says he was "dumbstruck" when the district court summoned him shortly after the party.

Isoev didn't initially admit in court that the pub gathering was a birthday party, insisting instead it was a friends' night out. But the prosecutors used his Facebook photos and friends' comments as evidence to prove Isoev wrong.

Isoev was found guilty and ordered to pay 4,000 somonis ($630), a hefty sum for the former market strategist, who is currently between jobs.

Isoev also lost an appeal in August when a Dushanbe city court upheld the district judge's ruling.

The Traditions, Celebrations, and Ritual Regulations Law -- known locally as "tanzim," or the regulation law -- was adopted in 2007 after President Emomali Rahmon said Tajiks' practice of lavish parties was putting a heavy strain on families.

Rahmon noted that many people were left in debt after trying to keep up appearances by throwing weddings, funerals, circumcision parties, and other private functions that lasted for days and cost thousands of dollars.

The law allows up to 150 guests at wedding banquets, while the guest list for birthday parties is limited to family members only.

Organizers of private functions are required to apply to the authorities, providing information that includes the number of guests, the number of cars expected in a convoy, the menu, and even how many kilograms of meat or rice are being served.

Isoev, meanwhile, has removed the costly birthday photos from Facebook and is talking to family and friends to help him raise money to pay the fine.

The Dushanbe man admits to learning a tough lesson from the memorable birthday party that he wishes he could forget.

Tajik authorities have long been criticized for blocking Google services, YouTube, Facebook, and other popular social networks. Such government action has frequently coincided with the online activities of opposition groups or events tied to social and political events in the Central Asian country.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting and interview by RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent Mirzo Salimov
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.