* Websites closed after criticism of veteran president
* Facebook's popularity has soared in Central Asian state
* Closure follows crackdown on religious groups
By Roman Kozhevnikov
DUSHANBE, March 3 Tajikistan blocked local
access to Facebook and two Russian-language sites that published
an article critical of its long-serving president on Saturday,
representatives of two Internet providers said.
The shutdown was ordered by the state-run communications
service, the local Internet providers told Reuters, requesting
anonymity. Users who tried to access Facebook or the two
websites, which published a story critical of President Imomali
Rakhmon, were automatically re-directed to the home page of
Tighter Internet controls echo measures taken by other
ex-Soviet, Central Asian republics, where authoritarian rulers
are wary of the role social media played in revolutions in the
Arab world and mass protests in Russia.
Government opponents in Tunisia and Egypt used Twitter,
Facebook and other platforms to run rings around censors and
organise protests that eventually toppled their leaders.
"This morning, we carried out the instruction of the
communications service and blocked the sites facebook.com,
tjknews.com and zvezda.ru," said one of the providers. "We could
not refuse to carry out this instruction."
The communications service was not available for comment.
Government officials directed all questions about the shutdown
to the service.
Rakhmon has ruled Tajikistan, a mountainous country of 7.5
million people bordering Afghanistan and China, for two decades.
Though media operate with less restrictions than in neighbouring
Uzbekistan, journalists have been detained in recent months.
Authorities have also launched a crackdown on religious
groups and imprisoned more than 150 people in the last two years
on charges of extremism and attempting to subvert the
Facebook's popularity has soared in Tajikistan. Membership
of the social networking website doubled there last year to
26,000 people. Several Facebook groups openly discuss politics
and some users have been critical of the authorities.
Russia-based zvezda.ru had published an article on Friday
entitled: 'Tajikistan on the eve of a revolution'. Local news
site tjknews.com republished the article.
Access to microblogging site Twitter appeared unaffected.
Tajikistan is the most impoverished of 15 former Soviet
republics. Its economy relies heavily on exports of aluminium
and cotton, as well as remittances from around 1 million migrant
labourers, most of them young men living in Russia.
Rakhmon must stand again for election by November 2013.
Victory would secure seven more years as president of the mainly
(Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Ben Harding)