* More than 100 sites blocked for "maintenance"
* Source says this is trial run of bid to silence critics
* Veteran leader Rakhmon brooks little dissent, seeks new
By Roman Kozhevnikov
DUSHANBE, Dec 25 Tajikistan blocked access to
more than 100 local and foreign websites on Tuesday, in what a
government source said was a rehearsal of silencing critics
before next year's election when President Imomali Rakhmon will
again run for office.
Rakhmon, a 60-year-old former head of a Soviet cotton farm,
has ruled the impoverished Central Asian nation of 7.5 million
for 20 years. He has overseen constitutional amendments that
allow him to seek a new seven-year term in November 2013.
The Internet remains the main platform where Tajiks can air
grievances and criticise government policies at a time when the
circulation of local newspapers remains tiny and television is
tightly controlled by the state.
Tajikistan's state communications service blocked 131
Internet sites "for technical and maintenance works".
"Most probably, these works will be over in a week," Tatyana
Kholmurodova, deputy head of the service, told Reuters. She
declined to give the reason for the work, which cover even some
sites with servers located abroad.
The blocked resources included Russia's popular social
networking sites www.my.mail.ru and VKontakte (www.vk.com), as
well as Tajik news site TJKnews.com and several local blogs.
"The government has ordered the communications service to
test a possibility of blocking dozens of sites at once, should
such a need arise," a senior government official told Reuters on
condition of anonymity.
"It is all about November 2013," he said, in a clear
reference to the presidential election.
Other blocked websites included a Ukrainian soccer site, a
Tajik rap music site, several local video-sharing sites and a
Predominantly Muslim Tajikistan, which lies on a major
transit route for Afghan drugs to Europe and Russia, remains
volatile after a 1992-97 civil war in which Rakhmon's
Moscow-backed secular government clashed with Islamist
Rakhmon justifies his authoritarian methods by saying he
wants to oppose radical Islam. But some of his critics argue
repression and poverty push many young Tajiks to embrace it.
Tighter Internet controls echo measures taken by other
former Soviet republics of Central Asia, where authoritarian
rulers are wary of the role social media played in revolutions
in the Arab world and mass protests in Russia.
The government this year set up a volunteer-run body to
monitor Internet use and reprimand those who openly criticise
Rakhmon and other officials.
In November, Tajikistan blocked access to Facebook, saying
it was spreading "mud and slander" about its veteran leader.
The authorities unblocked Facebook after concern was
expressed by the United States and European Union, the main
providers of humanitarian aid for Tajikistan, where almost a
half of the population lives in abject poverty.
Asomiddin Asoyev, head of Tajikistan's association of
Internet providers, said authorities were trying to create an
illusion that there were no problems in Tajik society by
silencing online criticism.
"This is self-deception," he told Reuters. "The best way of
resolving a problem is its open discussion with civil society."
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Pravin Char)