Government authorities in the former Soviet Central Asian republic Tajikistan have jailed many government critics, including opposition political figures and activists, lawyers, journalists, and relatives of peaceful dissidents abroad, for lengthy prison terms on politically motivated grounds, including life imprisonment, merely for peacefully exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression, the United Nations Human Rights Committee said in advance of its pre-sessional review of Tajikistan, which set to be released in July.

Human Rights Watch estimates that in the last five years well over 150 individuals in Tajikistan have been imprisoned on politically-motivated grounds. The crackdown on the freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and religion has extended to virtually any manifestation of dissent directed at the government or the country’s longtime authoritarian leader, Emomali Rahmon. The persecution has extended to even include all social media users who express mild criticism of government policy and have received prison terms ranging from five to 10 years.

Tajik authorities and the country’s secret police, the SCNS, have also regularly led a campaign of state-orchestrated retaliation against the relatives of peaceful dissidents abroad in the form of mob violence, threats of rape, arbitrary detention, confiscation of passports and bans on travel outside of the country.

Since 2015, according to Human Rights Watch, the security organs within the Tajik government have also regularly abused the Interpol system of “red notices” to detain, extradite, and force the return to Tajikistan of peaceful political dissidents abroad, including numerous individuals from Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Greece, and elsewhere.

While there is no complete list of political prisoners in the country, local activists have reported hundreds have been imprisoned. Among the primary targets are human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, and religious believers.

Of particular interest are members of the outlawed Islamic Renaissance Party, which was the only legal Islamist part in Central Asia before being banned and labelled a terrorist organisation in 2015. Founded before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the Islamic Renaissance Party, or Islamic Revival Party, became a major political force in the country following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

When Tajikistan became independent, the party was banned in 1993 due to its Salafist ideology. It fought with the United Tajik Opposition, the alliance of democratic, nationalist, anti-Soviet, and Islamist forces – that fought against Rahmon’s Russia-backed hardline Communist government forces during the 1992-1997 Tajik Civil War, a largely under reported conflict that killed an estimated 60,000 people.

As part of the UN-sponsored armistice, the Islamic Revival Party was again formally legalised and quickly grew to be the second largest party in Tajikistan.

The party remained the leading opposition movement to Rahmon’s rule, but found itself nearly leaderless after 14 of its senior members, including First Deputy Chairman Saidumar Husaini and Deputy Chairman Mahmadali Hayit,were  both sentenced to life in prison.

Far more disturbing, according to the UN, is the fact that the Tajik law enforcement authorities continue to use torture and forcibly disappear both religious figures and opposition activists.

In February, Tajik and Russian officials arbitrarily detained and forcibly returned to Tajikistan Sharofiddin Gadoev, a peaceful opposition activist who was visiting Moscow from his home in The Netherlands. Officials in Russia and the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, used force to detain him in Moscow and force him onto the plane where he was reportedly beaten on the flight to Tajikistan.

Tajikistan is a landlocked country in that borders Afghanistan to the south, Xinjiang in China to the east, Kyrgyzstan to the north, and Uzbekistan to the west. The poorest and least Russified of the 15 former Soviet republics, Tajikistan – a rare Persian-speaking and Shi’ite nation surrounded on three sides by mostly Turkic-speaking, Sunni neighbours – has struggled with poverty and instability in the two decades since the end of the civil war.

Though formally independent from Moscow for nearly three decades, Tajikistan remains strongly dependent on Russia both for its economy and to help counter security problems tied to drug smuggling from neighbouring Afghanistan and the emergence of an increasingly radical Islamist movement since the early 2000s.