From a dark prison cell, a voice calls out: "I want to speak to my lawyer."
From the neighboring cell, another replies: "I'm here!"
The dark humor meme, shared in various languages amid recent crackdowns in countries across the world, seems perfectly fitted to Tajikistan, where authorities have for years waged war on the opposition, civil activists, journalists, and anyone brave enough to defend them.
Even with a top United Nations rights expert in Dushanbe this month, Tajik officials didn't take a break.
As Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, was wrapping up her two-week visit with a stinging assessment of the state of civil liberties in Tajikistan, authorities were wrapping up their latest harsh bout of repression.
Among at least six convictions handed out to activists during Lawlor's visit were a 21-year prison sentence for prominent civic leader Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva and 15- and 30-year terms, respectively, for lawyers Manuchehr Kholiknazarov and Faromuz Irgashev.
Steve Swerdlow, a longtime observer of Tajikistan and associate professor of human rights at the University of Southern California, told RFE/RL that Lawlor's "fiery, clear-eyed press conference" concluding her visit "contrasted strongly with the increasingly muted response" on Tajikistan's ongoing "parade of horrors" from Western governments and international organizations.
That the rash of sentences were handed down while Lawlor was in the Tajik capital "further illustrates the near total impunity with which Tajik President Emomali Rahmon now rules," Swerdlow said.
Long Run Of Repression
Speaking at a press conference in Dushanbe on December 9, Lawlor called out Tajik officials for presiding over an "intensifying climate of fear."
The career rights defender contended that repression in the country was growing after authorities followed up a lethal military operation in the massive autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan with military sweeps and arrests in an area where ethnic Pamiri minorities form the bulk of the 250,000 population.
In an especially notable judgment, Lawlor cited local journalists as saying that it was now more difficult to be a journalist in Tajikistan than during the country's brutal civil war in the 1990s.
While Tajikistan has always been a strongly authoritarian state, many of the screw-tightening trends identified by the special rapporteur in her preliminary findings date back to 2015-16.
This was the period that saw a constitutional referendum enhance Rahmon's powers and brought an end to the authorities' tolerance of a faith-based party called the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) that operated as a moderate opposition force after serving many years in the government and the legislature.
Not long after the party lost its place in parliament in disputed elections in 2015, its top members were arrested on terrorism charges and sentenced the following year to long prison terms ranging up to life.
As speculation has grown that Rahmon is looking to hand the reins to his 34-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, so too have the arrests of journalists, extraditions of political opponents, and reports of pressure on their families.
For all of that, international criticism of Dushanbe's antidemocratic lurch has been limited.
Key partners China and Russia were never likely to protest its authoritarian excesses, but rights defenders have expressed major disappointment in what they view as the passivity of Western governments in the face of the crackdown.
"Even accounting for an international community focused on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, disillusioned by the Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan, and concerned about China's possible pressure on Central Asia, the response of Washington, Berlin, Brussels, London, and other players to Tajikistan's growing human rights crisis has been shamefully weak," Swerdlow told RFE/RL.
As recently as this week, rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, raised alarm over the potential deportation by Germany to Tajikistan of 32-year-old political activist Abdullohi Shamsiddin, whose application for political asylum was rejected by the German authorities.
As the son of a senior IRPT member in exile, Shamsiddin "would be immediately detained and face torture and imprisonment" if returned to Tajikistan, said Mahmudjon Faizrahmonov, spokesman for the National Alliance of Tajikistan, a Europe-based coalition of Tajik opposition groups.
Although his deportation was expected on December 13, "the deportation process was stopped for one week, but he is still in custody," Faizrahmonov told RFE/RL. "There is still a big risk of deportation."
'Unprecedented Yearlong Attack'
The sentencing of the six natives of the Gorno-Badakhshan region last week took place in trials behind closed doors and after a May-June government military operation in the autonomous region that Dushanbe has long sought to control.
Tajik authorities said 10 people were killed and 27 injured during clashes between protesters and police at the peak of the violence.
Residents of the Rushon district that witnessed the worst of the clashes told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that 21 bodies had been found at the sites where the clashes took place.
Lawlor was not permitted to travel to the Gorno-Badakhshan region during her visit, although she was able to visit prisoners elsewhere in the country.
Mamadshoeva, 65, is a journalist and well-known representative of the Pamiri community, whose civic organization implemented projects funded by Western donors.
The day before her arrest, she told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that she had nothing to do with the anti-government protests in the regional capital, Khorugh, or in the Rushon district.
But she was later shown confessing to her involvement in the unrest in footage aired on state television. The confession of her former husband, retired Major General Kholbash Kholbashov, was shown in the same segment. Kholbashov was sentenced to life in jail in September.
In a December 13 statement on the latest convictions, Human Rights Watch said it was concerned that torture may have been used to procure evidence during the security services' investigation of the unrest, especially in the cases of Mamadshoeva and Kholbashov.
The watchdog called on Tajikistan to "abide by [its] international human rights obligations and stop this unprecedented yearlong attack against its own citizens in the Gorno-Badakshan autonomous region."
Except for Mamadshoeva, all those convicted in trials last week had joined an ad hoc group that was set up after a resident of the region was killed by security forces last year during an arrest that fueled protests in the region.
Tajikistan's Supreme Court ruled in August that the group, Commission 44, was an illegal criminal group.
The heavy sentences for Kholiknazarov and Irgashev, meanwhile, will only add to the sense that Dushanbe views independent lawyers as a threat, with Lawlor raising concerns during her visit about the profession's steep decline amid growing government restrictions.
The restrictions enforced by the Justice Ministry came into play in 2015, the same year that two lawyers who had offered their services to jailed members of the banned IRPT were themselves arrested.
Those two men, Buzurgmehr Yorov and Nuriddin Makhamov, are still serving long sentences for fraud and anti-constitutional crimes that rights organizations and government critics say are trumped up.