Tajik authorities have unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on a group the Tajik government has identified as Islamic terrorists. Until this year, these terrorists were part of Tajikistan's government and partners in a peace deal that had lasted 18 years.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a press release on November 2 criticizing "the Tajik government's ongoing efforts to control religious activities, [including]...the recent ban of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan [IRPT] due to allegations of extremism."
The USCIRF reported that, since early September, when the Justice Ministry officially closed down the IRPT, some 200 members had been arrested, many of them before a Tajik court that ruled in late September that the IRPT was a "terrorist" group.
The press release noted that among the IRPT members now in jail were "former parliamentarian Saidumar Husaini, IRPT Deputy Chair Mahmadali Hait, journalist Hikmatulloh Saifullohzoda, [and] Islamic scholar Zubaidullah Roziq."
According to Human Rights Watch, Husaini told his lawyer, Buzurgmehr Yorov, he was being tortured in jail.
Yorov recounted Husaini's claim in an interview on September 28 and was himself arrested later that same day. Yorov now faces charges of fraud and document forgery.
Yorov is not the only IRPT lawyer currently under arrest; there are several, including Nuriddin Mahkamov, who was arrested at the end of October.
An IRPT lawyer was also among those arrested. USCIRF reported that "jailed IRPT lawyer Zarafo Rahmoni informed her sister that she had been raped [while in custody]...." According to Rahmoni, she was released after she threatened to commit suicide.
Under amendments passed by parliament on November, Yorov and Rahmoni are likely to lose their legal licenses. The amendments require all lawyers to undergo certification by the Justice Ministry every five years and any attorneys who have previously faced charges will no longer be allowed to practice law.
Fayzinniso Vokhidova is a well-known lawyer in Tajikistan who has regularly defended opposition figures. She told RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, that it will be the Justice Ministry's decision who can and cannot work as a lawyer. "Those lawyers who defend the interests of opponents of the authorities will lose the possibility of receiving permission to work [as an attorney]," Vokhidova said.
IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri was out of the country when, several months ago, it became clear Tajik authorities were preparing criminal charges against him. Kabiri has remained outside Tajikistan since, denying accusations against him and charges against other IRPT members.
But according to the USCIRF, Kabiri's relatives still in Tajikistan have been targeted. "Many of Kabiri’s relatives and his driver were tortured into confessing involvement in a deputy Tajik defense minister's violent attack on a police station."
There are many unanswered questions about the former deputy defense minister's attack on a police station and about his alleged connections to the IRPT.
The IRPT was part of a curious alliance during the 1992-97 Tajik Civil War. The IRPT is exclusively a Sunni Muslim group but during the war years its allies were a mainly Shi'ite group from eastern Tajikistan -- Lali Badakhshan -- and the Democratic Party of Tajikistan. Together they formed the United Tajik Opposition (UTO).
Their wartime opponents -- the Tajik government -- were overwhelmingly officials from the Soviet-era communist government, atheists with no exposure to representative democracy.
The conflict quickly became a standoff. According to some estimates, as many as 100,000 people were killed before the exhausted combatants reached a peace deal in June 1997. As part of the deal the UTO received 30 percent of the places in government and the IRPT was officially registered as a party, becoming the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia. The IRPT, as the major contributor to UTO forces, took the lion's share of the government positions. In the years since the peace deal the opposition's 30 percent dwindled.
At the start of 2015, the IRPT still had two members in Tajikistan's parliament. But despite being the second largest party in Tajikistan with a conservative estimate of some 40,000 members the IRPT failed to win even one seat in the March 1 parliamentary elections this year.
Since June 1997, the IRPT has upheld its pledge to keep the peace in Tajikistan. Any credibility as the Tajik government could claim was greatly enhanced by the presence of an opposition Islamic party and now that is gone.
Now the IRPT, the Tajik government's partners in peace, have been stripped of their political legitimacy and are being hunted and jailed.
As a result, amid myriad problems Tajikistan already faces, the durability of an 18-year peace is now an issue.