Two Tajik journalists who were recently convicted in separate trials on charges related to their professional activities have appealed their verdicts. On October 14, reporters Urunboy Usmonov and Mahmadyusuf Ismoilov were handed guilty verdicts by Tajik courts in the northern town of Khujand, but were freed following the verdicts. Despite their release, the two journalists have refused to accept the verdicts and vowed to push for full exoneration in higher courts.
Usmonov, a local correspondent of the BBC’s Uzbek service, was detained in June and accused of membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT). HuT is an Islamic movement that has been banned in Tajikistan since 2001, primarily because its members are openly critical of Tajikistan’s secular government and call for the replacement of Central Asian states with an Islamic caliphate. The only evidence that the investigation had linking the journalist to HuT was the fact that he had in the past met with the group’s activists and received samples of religious literature from them. Although meetings with representatives of banned groups do not necessarily mean supporting their cause, in Tajikistan such meetings as well as the possession of unapproved religious literature are often enough to be accused of “extremism” and get a lengthy prison sentence.
According to Usmonov’s lawyers and the BBC, his contacts with HuT were limited to his professional duties as a journalist. Local and international media advocacy groups claimed that the reporter was being punished by local authorities for his critical journalism. Thus, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced that Usmonov’s arrest was an “attempt to silence a journalist who writes on sensitive topics in Tajikistan.” The U.S. and European governments called on the Tajik authorities to ensure a fair trial for Usmonov.
The international criticism and adverse publicity generated by Usmonov’s detention prompted the Tajik authorities to be particularly cautious in handling the case. On July 14, he was freed from pre-trial detention but ordered not to leave the country pending a trial. The investigation also dropped the original charges brought against Usmonov. Thus, when he went to trial in mid-August, it was only for failing to inform the authorities that he had met with HuT activists.
On October 14, the provincial court in Khujand found Usmonov guilty and sentenced him to three years in jail. The verdict was largely symbolic because the reporter was released immediately under a nationwide amnesty. After the release, Usmonov told media that the prosecution had not provided any evidence against him during the trial and that he would seek a full acquittal of his conviction. BBC said in a consequent statement that “no evidence of wrongdoing whatsoever emerged during the trial,” and that “only a complete exoneration of [the] correspondent is acceptable.” The statement also maintained that the Tajik justice system should restore Usmonov’s “reputation as a highly respected writer and journalist.” On October 27, Usmonov’s lawyer filed an appeal against the provincial court ruling in the Supreme Court.
The international attention to media freedom issues in Tajikistan drawn by Usmonov’s case have also seemingly contributed to a relatively mild verdict for Ismoilov. Unlike Usmonov, who had had the BBC behind him, Ismoilov was a reporter for Nuri Zindagi, an independent weekly with a tiny print run in the northern district of Asht, when he was detained in November 2010. He was charged with extortion, criminal libel, insulting public officials, and inciting “parochial hostility” (mahallagaroi). However, the editor of Nuri Zindagi and Tajik human rights watchdogs claimed that Ismoilov was targeted for criticizing local authorities. In his latest reports, the journalist criticized corrupt local officials, particularly the district prosecutor. The OSCE denounced Ismoilov’s detention as a “threatening message to Tajikistan’s journalists.”
On November 14, the town court of Khujand cleared the reporter of the extortion charges, but found him guilty of inciting “parochial hostility” and insulting public officials, and ordered him to pay 35,000 somoni (about US$ 7,300) in damages to the government officials he had allegedly insulted. The court released Ismoilov from custody but banned him from practicing journalism for three years. Following the verdict, Ismoilov announced he would appeal because the court had not provided convincing evidence of his guilt. Besides, Ismoilov’s lawyer and Tajik media advocacy groups announced that the fine the reporter was ordered to pay appeared unreasonably high for a country in which almost half of the population live below the poverty line. On October 26, Ismoilov’s lawyer filed an appeal against the town of Khujand court in the Supreme Court.
It appears unlikely at the moment that the Supreme Court will grant the two journalists full exoneration. Such an outcome appears unrealistic without a significant amount of international pressure on the Tajik authorities, which would be difficult to sustain after the release of the reporters. Yet, whatever the outcome of the appeal process, the trials of Usmonov and Ismoilov will most likely serve further to entrench self-censorship in the Tajik media community.
(By Alexander Sodiqov, originally published in the CACI Analyst 13 (20), November 2, 2011)