$80 birthday party can fetch you $600 fine in this country

When Tajik programmer Amirbek Isayev invited friends to celebrate his 25th birthday in the capital Dushanbe in June, he could never have imagined the consequences.

Held in an Irish-themed pub, it was a modest fete by all accounts. The cake had no candles and no writing to indicate it was a birthday celebration.

"The restaurant bill came to just over $80 (71 euros) for 13 people, but our 'dessert' turned out to be much more expensive," Isayev told AFP bitterly.

Nearly two months after pictures of the gathering were posted on Facebook, Isayev was slapped with a $600 fine.

The young man, it turns out, had broken a ban on public birthday celebrations -- part of a 2007 law to limit exorbitant spending on parties in this impoverished ex-Soviet state of more than eight million people.

Currently unemployed and unable to pay the fine, Isayev has vowed to appeal what he calls "this great injustice".

International media caught wind of the story, bringing amused attention to this little-known Central Asian state northeast of Afghanistan with its "party ban".

Elite impunity

But the incident barely brought a grin to Tajiks themselves, tired of what they say is a double standard on excessive spending on weddings and parties.

Ordinary citizens, they say, appear to be subject to a different set of rules than the country's elite.

One oft-cited example is a video leaked onto YouTube in 2013 showing 62-year-old President Emomali Rakhmon singing and dancing exuberantly at a lavish wedding for his oldest son.

The unpopular 2007 law was adopted to stop families from racking up giant debts hosting huge events, traditionally seen here as boosting one's social status. Among its restrictions are stringent limits on the number of guests able to attend weddings and funerals.

According to the government's Commission to Monitor Compliance with Customs and Traditions, Isayev's party was one of 249 such violations registered in the first half of 2015.

Well-known political commentator Zafar Abdullayev conceded that while there may be "objective reasons" for the measure, it affects poor people disproportionately in a country where the minimum wage is just under $40 per month.

"The fines represent huge sums for poor families -- perhaps three to six months of their income," Abdullayev told AFP.

"But for rich violators of the law, many of whom are relatives of highly ranked officials, these fines are hardly a punishment at all."

Nepotism and inequality

Nepotism and inequality have become common complaints in a country led by Rakhmon since 1992. Yet all has been grudgingly tolerated thanks to the relative stability his rule has ensured following a five-year civil war that ended in 1997.

"In recent years, the relatives of officials in Tajikistan have been involved in drug smuggling, shooting at police officers and killing pedestrians in hit and runs," said Edward Lemon, a researcher on Tajikistan from Britain's University of Exeter.

"All of them have escaped with minor punishments where ordinary citizens would have been severely penalised," he told AFP.

To add insult to injury, in March the president named his oldest son, Rustam, believed to be in his late 20s, in charge of the state anti-corruption agency.

The leader's youngest son, Somoni, also made headlines when a schoolboy posing as him last year extorted more than $50,000 from a businessman in exchange for a promise of land.

Although the imposter was detained in May, Tajik social media users saw the incident as indicative of the public's lack of faith in the rule of law.

Trivialising 'darker side’

This month, Tajikistan's government took steps to counter perceptions of impunity for the elite -- and bring much-needed cash into the state budget -- by publishing lists of pop stars who have racked up dozens of unpaid fines for violating traffic laws.

Among them is Zhanna Shainyan, a sweet-voiced blonde believed to be a personal favourite of Rakhmon who has headlined major concerts organised by the national leadership.

The interior ministry said she had violated the traffic code 54 times -- though oddly said she had not paid a single fine.

The international press has jeered other examples of Tajik heavy-handedness, including reports of police detaining Halloween party-goers dressed as zombies and witches, or shaving the beards of observant Muslims as part of a crackdown on fundamentalists.

The reported shavings, which police denied were official policy, gave rise to scams in which con artists sold devout citizens fake permits for the right to sport facial hair.

While such offbeat stories grab headlines, Lemon of the University of Exeter warned about trivialising the country's "darker side".

"Freedom of speech is severely restricted, torture is widely used by police and the same regime has ruled the country for over 20 years," he said.

Homepage photo courtesy Shutterstock

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