December 9, 2015 / 2:02 PM / 3 years ago

Tajik lower house votes to declare President Rakhmon 'Leader of Nation'

DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Tajikistan’s lower house of parliament approved a bill on Wednesday that strengthens President Imomali Rakhmon’s grip on power by awarding him the title of “Leader of the Nation” with lifetime immunity from prosecution.

Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmon poses for photographers during his inauguration ceremony in Dushanbe in this November 16, 2013 handout photograph provided by the Press Service of presidential administration of Tajikistan. REUTERS/Press Service of presidential administration of Tajikistan/Handout via Reuters

Rakhmon, 63, who was a state farm boss in the Soviet era, has gradually consolidated his power during 23 years of rule over the predominantly Muslim nation of 8 million that went through a 1992-97 civil war in which tens of thousands died.

Parliament’s move to enshrine Rakhmon’s tenure resembles a previous decision by lawmakers in Kazakhstan, another ex-Soviet Central Asian state which in 2010 bestowed the same Leader of the Nation title on autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Western officials and human rights groups accuse the presidents of Central Asian republics of being among the world’s most repressive leaders. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region in November but tempered any criticism given its exposure to Islamist militancy.

The Tajik bill, entitled “On the Founder of Peace and National Unity - the Leader of the Nation”, will become law after approval by the rubber stamp upper house and Rakhmon himself.

The lower house has not published the text of the bill, but one of its authors, parliamentarian Abdurakhim Kholikzoda, said it reflected Rakhmon’s status as a political institution of his own and granted him immunity from prosecution.

“The passing of this bill will strengthen the foundations of constitutional order,” Kholikzoda told Reuters. “People already refer to the head of state as the savior and leader of the nation.”

The main opposition group, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, failed to win any seats in parliament in the March election and has since been outlawed by Rakhmon’s government, with its leaders accused of plotting a coup.

In Turkmenistan, also an ex-Soviet republic, late president Saparmurat Niyazov was officially declared “Turkmenbashi” (Head of all Turkmen), and his successor Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is commonly referred to as “Arkadag”, which means “protector”.

Kerry avoided direct criticism of human rights records in the region during his visit amid mounting Western concerns about threats posed by Islamic State militants and about Russia which, fresh from forays into Ukraine and Syria, has been reasserting its geopolitical influence in competition with Washington.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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