A closed-door trial has begun in Tajikistan of 18 suspected members of the banned Salafiya movement, with almost no information made public about the defendants or the charges they face.
The trial comes just two months after the country's Supreme Court handed down prison sentences to nearly 120 people whom it had convicted of being members of another outlawed Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Tajik authorities often warn about what they describe as "serious threats" posed by religious extremist groups seeking to overthrow the secular government in Dushanbe and destabilize the Muslim-majority Central Asian country.
Critics, however, accuse the government of exaggerating the threats in order to crack down on dissent and ordinary members of the opposition.
Security raids against alleged extremist cells, the arrest of suspects, and subsequent trials are often shrouded in secrecy in Tajikistan.
The latest group of Salafiya suspects -- all of them residents of the Bobojon Ghafurov district in northern Tajikistan -- were arrested in a police raid in February.
The defendants deny having links with the Salafi movement or any other religious extremist group, their relatives said ahead of the trial on June 12. They also accused police of torturing the detainees to obtain confessions.
Leading human rights lawyer Oinihol Bobonazarova said the defendants weren't given access to defense lawyers in the first five days of their detention.
"It is a common practice in Tajikistan that suspects are tortured in the early days of pretrial detention to get confessions, and only after that authorities allow the detainees to meet with lawyers," said Bobonazarova, the head of the Perspektiva+ human rights group.
She added that at least one of the defendants has told the court that his confession was obtained under duress.
RFE/RL hasn't been able to get details of the charges against the 18 defendants and their ongoing trial in the northern province of Sughd.
The charges in the previous case -- involving suspected members of a Muslim Brotherhood cell -- included setting up an extremist group, funding terrorist activities, and promoting extremism.
That trial -- which concluded on April 8 -- marked the largest number of defendants in a single extremism-related case in recent years. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging between three and 23 years.
There were university professors, schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers, students, and religious figures among the suspects that were arrested in several raids across the county in early 2020. All of them denied the charges against them.
Fight Against Terrorism, Extremism
Tajikistan has banned 18 groups as terrorist and extremist organizations that include Islamic State, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda.
Among the banned organizations is the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRTP), a major opposition party that boasted about 40,000 members at its peak. The increasingly influential IRTP -- whose members previously served in parliament -- was branded terrorist and banned in 2015.
The party maintains it has no "terrorist" or "extremist" links or agenda.
The secular opposition movement Group 24 was banned as an "extremist" organization in 2014 after calling for anti-government protests.
IRPT and Group 24 accuse the government of authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon of targeting political opponents, journalists, and activists using the fight against extremism and terrorism as a pretext.
Critics also say that many peaceful followers of Islam have been targeted in the government's campaign against terrorism.
But the government insists that the threat of religious extremism is real and that it has been rapidly rising in Tajikistan in recent years.
Just ahead of the pandemic, Prosecutor-General Yusuf Rahmon (no relation to the president) said Tajikistan had recorded 1,029 extremism and terrorism-related crimes in 2019, marking a 30 percent increase from the previous year.
The official also said authorities had opened criminal cases against 395 Tajik nationals with suspected links to foreign terrorist organizations or for allegedly fighting alongside terrorist groups abroad.
Another 214 probes were opened against suspected Salafiya followers, Rahmon said.
He also spoke about terrorism and extremism-related activities in Tajik prisons. Without providing details, Rahmon said 29 extremist cell leaders in prisons "had been brought to justice."
In a separate statement in early 2020, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda announced 161 suspected members of extremist and terrorist movements had been detained in the previous year.
According to the minister, 81 of them belonged to Islamic State (IS), while 54 had links to Salafiaya.
The government says some 2,000 Tajiks have joined IS in Syria and Iraq. Dozens more fight alongside an IS affiliate and other militant groups in Afghanistan.
IS has claimed responsibility for two deadly prison riots in Tajikistan that took place in November 2018 and May 2019 in the Khujand and Vahdat prisons, respectively. Authorities say more than 50 inmates and five prison guards were killed in the riots.
The extremist group also claimed it was behind a terrorist attack that killed four western cyclists in southern Tajikistan in July 2018.
Tajik authorities, however, rejected that claim and blamed IRTP followers. The IRPT has vehemently denied any involvement in the attack, saying the government's claim was "shameless and illogical slander."