ALMATY (Reuters) - Authorities in Tajikistan have arrested almost two dozen members of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) accused of plotting a coup, continuing a crackdown which critics say stokes fresh tension.
The prosecutor general's office said on Tuesday that 23 IRPT members had been charged with planning attacks on government bodies with the aim of seizing power in the nation of 8 million, which borders Afghanistan and hosts a Russian military base.
In August, the government told the IRPT, the only official Islamist political party in former Soviet Central Asia, that it was illegal, and late last month Tajikistan's supreme court banned it.
Western human rights groups have condemned the crackdown as politically motivated and said it could push IRPT supporters toward more radical Islamist organizations such as Islamic State, to which a commander of Tajikistan's elite police force defected in May.
"This will have a disastrous effect on the overall climate of freedom of expression in Tajikistan," said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Prosecutors said the IRPT had hatched the alleged attack plans together with a renegade former deputy defense minister, General Abdukhalim Nazarzoda, who was killed by security forces last month.
Gunmen loyal to Nazarzoda had clashed with government forces in gun battles that killed dozens of people.
The IRPT has said it had nothing to do with Nazarzoda or his rebellion. Its leader Muhiddin Kabiri fled to Turkey in June, warning pressure on his party risked stoking Islamist extremism.
A lawyer representing the party has been detained and charged with fraud in a separate case.
The party was part of a broad rebel alliance which fought the government in a civil war in the 1990s. Under a peace deal, some rebel leaders entered a coalition government in 1997 and the IRPT had held several seats in parliament until the latest election in March.
Human Rights Watch's Swerdlow urged Tajikistan's foreign partners, including Western governments, to press the country over the crackdown.
"Not doing so opens up Tajikistan to far greater risk of instability and radicalization," Swerdlow said.
Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Mark Trevelyan