DUSHANBE -- Tajik lawmakers have voted to give President Emomali Rahmon the title "Leader of the Nation" and grant him lifelong immunity from prosecution, drawing sharp criticism from opponents and activists who called it a new step away from democracy.
A bill passed on December 9 by the parliament's lower chamber would officially designate Rahmon "the founder of peace and national unity of Tajikistan" and state that he cannot be prosecuted for anything he has done while in office.
It would also protect relatives of the authoritarian Rahmon, 63, a former collective farm chief who has been in power in Tajikistan since the year after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Members of his family would enjoy immunity and their property would be exempt from legal proceedings.
The bill is likely to win approval in the upper house. Both chambers of parliament are dominated by government supporters in Tajikistan, where elections are routinely criticized by international observers and deemed fraudulent by opponents of Rahmon.
Prominent Tajik human rights activist Oinihol Bobonazarova, who sought to run for president in 2013 but was not allowed on the ballot, said the bill made a "mockery of democracy."
"Tajikistan positions itself as a democratic country; therefore it must keep on sticking to democratic norms," she told RFE/RL. "It must be democracy in action, not an imitation of democracy."
Rahmon has sought to strengthen his grip on the poor, predominantly Muslim country, which borders volatile Afghanistan and has seen hundreds of citizens leave for the Middle East to fight alongside Islamic State militants.
Its government banned Central Asia's only registered Islamic party this year after designating it as extremist, and leaders of the party -- once a major opposition force -- have been accused of planning to overthrow the government. Members of the party, which was involved in a civil war that gripped Tajikistan in 1992-97, rejects the accusations.
Lower house speaker Shukurjon Zuhurov said that the law would not contradict what he called "ongoing democratic processes in Tajikistan," and that titles like Leader of the Nation had been given to heads of state in several countries. Among others, he named the United States, whose president has no such title.
The bill is similar to laws in two other Central Asian states whose presidents have held power for years and tolerate little dissent.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has enjoyed immunity since 2000 and was designated "Leader of the Nation" in 2010. The late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov held the title Turkmenbashi (The Leader of All Turkmen) until his death in 2006; his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is officially called Arkadag -- the Protector.