Once, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) shared power in the government of Tajikistan. The IRPT was the only registered Islamic political party not only in Tajikistan but anywhere in the former Soviet Union.
Today in Tajikistan, you can't even talk publicly about the IRPT without risking arrest, as was just seen.
Independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus reported on April 2 that four men, all in their 30s, were sentenced to six years in prison for continuing to speak about the IRPT and supporting the party's ideas.
Asia-Plus referred to a "source in the Sughd provincial court" who said the four continued party activities in the northern city of Istaravshan despite a ban on the IRPT that has been in effect since late 2015.
The source said, "For example, during 2016, under the guise of having plov, they would meet in chaihanas (teahouses) and, criticize the Supreme Court decision to declare the IRPT a terrorist and extremist organization, and preach party ideas to those gathered."
Six years, in a maximum-security prison, for talking about subjects that just three years ago, and for 18 years previously, would have been acceptable, or at least legal.
Even after the 1997 Tajik peace accord, when opposition groups such as the IRPT were allowed to return to the villages, towns, and cities, and live openly, the IRPT's situation was not easy. IRPT members were increasingly harassed, sometimes beaten, and an unofficial campaign to smear the party's image gained traction in the decade leading up to the IPRT being banned
Places in government, allotted to the opposition as part of the 1997 peace accord, gradually diminished. The IRPT lost its last two seats in parliament in the March 1, 2015, elections, a vote that some felt was rigged.
A few months later, authorities claimed the party was not sufficiently active throughout the country and the IRPT's registration was revoked. On September 29, 2015, after authorities drew dubious links between the IRPT and a dubious mutiny in one small area of the outskirts of the capital, Tajikistan's Supreme Court declared the IRPT to be an extremist organization. All its activities were prohibited and 14 high-ranking members still in the country were arrested and later given lengthy prison sentences, two of them life sentences.
The four men in Istaravshan, identified as 33-year-old Kurbonboy Abidov, 38-year-old Nasim Barotov, 30-year-old Shukrat Mavlonov, and 38-year-old Shoumed Okilov, were simply IRPT members.
There were officially some 40,000 of them when the party was legal though unofficially the number might easily have been more than twice that.
The incarceration of the four men seems a new step in the Tajik government's campaign to wipe all traces of the IRPT from the country and it potentially affects all those tens of thousands of people still in Tajikistan who supported the IRPT when the party was legal.