In the centre of Kazakhstan's new capital, Astana, jostling for attention amid gleaming skyscrapers built on profits from the country's vast oil and gas fields, a glass pyramid stands on a hill overlooking the Presidential Palace.
Designed by the British architect Norman Foster, the £36m "Palace of Peace and Reconciliation" is the brainchild of Kazakhstan's autocrat president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who commissioned a building where religious leaders from around the world could meet and find common ground.
The irony of the building's construction was not lost on local human rights activists who have documented an increasingly hostile attitude towards religious groups in Kazakhstan – and raised serious questions about the recruitment by Mr Nazarbayev of Tony Blair as an adviser to the nation.
The most serious assault on religion was unveiled this month, just days before it was revealed that the former British prime minister, who runs a faith foundation, had been taken on by the Kazakh government in a role he has not yet fully explained.
A new law, rushed through the country's parliament and announced by Mr Nazarbayev, forbids prayer rooms inside state buildings, orders all religious groups to re-register or face liquidation through the courts, bans foreigners from setting up faith groups, and severely limits where religious literature can be bought.
For Mr Blair – who set up his eponymous foundation after leaving Downing Street to promote religion as "a powerful force for good in the modern world" – the timing of the law is embarrassing and piles on the pressure to explain the exact nature of his business dealings with the regime.
The Kazakh government has admitted that Mr Blair – through his business Tony Blair Associates – has set up an office in Astana. His former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, and former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, have also been hired for consultancy work inside the Central Asian republic which has been run by Mr Nazarbayev since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
A coalition of human rights groups has now called on Mr Blair to use his friendship with Mr Nazarbayev to encourage the Kazakh leader to make democratic reforms rather than simply polishing the image of an increasingly autocratic state.
In statements sent to The Independent, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have launched critical attacks on Mr Blair's involvement in Kazakhstan and – in particular – his silence on Astana's repression of religious communities.
"There are numerous human rights issues in Kazakhstan that Tony Blair needs to be frank about with his hosts, and one of them is the lack of religious freedom in the country," said Kate Allen, Amnesty's UK head.
David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, said: "Blair should press Nazerbaev to lift his latest repressive measures and bring Kazakh policy into line with international human rights standards."
Mr Nazarbayev has insisted that the new religion law is necessary to combat the emergence of a small number of radical Islamists on the western edge of the nation, which is 70 per cent Muslim. But critics say the government has always been hostile to any organised religion other than the Orthodox Christian Church and a handful of approved Muslim organisations.
Born in the chaos of the Soviet Union's collapse, Kazakhstan sits on the northern edge of one of the most autocratic regions in the world. In contrast to its neighbours – in particular Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – it is a business friendly country that has welcomed international investment it its huge oil and gas resources. The country's rich elite has swollen in cities like Astana and the former capital Almaty, where Range Rovers fill the streets. This new Kazakh elite also has an increasing presence in London, not least through Prince Andrew, who counts the glamorous energy tycoon Goga Ashkenazi among his friends.
But many Kazakhs complain that they see little of this elite's newfound wealth in a country that has been condemned for its endemic corruption and lack of democratic progress. An ongoing strike in western Kazakhstan has seen thousands of workers at oil and gas facilities demand better conditions.
The state has responded with arrests and beatings. Natalia Sokolova, a lawyer who represented the striking workers, was recently sent to prison for six years for "inciting social disorder". A number of key activists have been shot with rubber bullets by unknown assailants.
According to one presidential advisor, Mr Blair has been hired to consult on "the question of social-economic modernisation" of Kazakhstan. He and potential investors will no doubt keep a close eye on the strikes if they spread.
There was no response from the former prime minister's spokesman, Matthew Doyle, who was asked to comment on whether Mr Blair was concerned about religious repression inside Kazakhstan and whether he would use his advisory role with the Kazakh government to promote democratic reforms. Mr Blair has previously released statements stating that although he has helped "put together a team of international advisers" in Kazakhstan, neither Tony Blair Associates nor Mr Blair personally are profiting from the deal.
Tony's cronies: the Blair network
The details of Mr Blair's consultancy work in Kazakhstan are shrouded in mystery. In statements released to the media Mr Blair has said he has "put together a team of international advisers" in Kazakhstan but insists neither he nor Tony Blair Associates are making a profit. Mr Nazarbayev's top presidential adviser, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, said Mr Blair would work on "the question of social-economic modernisation of Kazakhstan". Relations between Britain and Kazakhstan are booming and the country's new wealthy elite, which includes the oil tycoon Goga Ashkenazi,below, are making London their second home.
Tony Blair Associates has a contract to provide advice on governance for "several years". The tiny oil-rich Gulf country was the first client of Mr Blair's consultancy business and the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah, counts himself a close friend of the former British prime minister. Mr Blair became popular there after he backed the removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Iraq.
United Arab Emirates
Mr Blair has fostered a range of business interests in the Gulf kingdoms including acting as an adviser for Mubadala, the sovereign wealth fund which invests Abu Dhabi's oil profits. Mubadala's interests included oil exploration contracts in Libya.
During his time in office Mr Blair – alongside MI6 and Foreign Office staff – was instrumental in bringing Colonel Gaddafi in from the cold. Following his departure from Downing Street he made a number of trips to Tripoli. Critics have accused him of visiting Libya to promote the business interests of JP Morgan, which hired Mr Blair as a consultant. Mr Blair has firmly denied this and said his trips to Libya were part of his ongoing initiative to improve governance in Africa. Documents uncovered in Tripoli after Gaddafi's fall show how Mr Blair flew in the Colonel's private jet twice to Tripoli, in June 2008 and April 2009. At the time Gaddafi was threatening to withdraw his country's business interests in Britain unless the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbasset al-Megrahi was released.Reuse content