Tajik lawmakers have voted to grant the president, Emomali Rahmon, and his family life-long immunity from prosecution, drawing sharp criticism from pro-democracy campaigners.
The parliament’s lower chamber has passed a bill that gives Rahmon the title “Leader of the nation” and officially designates him “the founder of peace and national unity of Tajikistan”.
The authoritarian Rahmon, 63, is a former collective farm chief who has been in power since 1992, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the bill, property belonging to both him and his relatives would also be exempt from legal proceedings.
With both chambers of parliament dominated by government supporters, the bill’s approval by the upper house is considered a formality.
Elections in Tajikistan are routinely criticised by international observers and deemed fraudulent by Rahmon’s opponents.
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 said. “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 Afghanistan and has seen hundreds of citizens leave for the Middle East to fight alongside Islamic State militants.
The government banned central Asia’s only registered Islamic party this year after designating it extremist. Leaders of the party, once a major opposition force, have been accused of planning to overthrow the government. The party, which was involved in Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war, rejects the accusations.
Lower house speaker Shukurjon Zuhurov said that the law would not contradict what he called “ongoing democratic processes in Tajikistan”, adding that titles such as Leader of the Nation had been given to heads of state in several countries.
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.