It appears that justice in Tajikistan is increasingly reserved for those with strong international pressure behind them. On November 30, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court dismissed the appeal filed against the conviction of Urunboy Usmonov by the Sughd provincial court in Khujand in October. Usmonov, a reporter for the BBC’s Uzbek Service in Tajikistan, was arrested in June on charges of membership in a banned Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT). Strong international pressure, including from the European Union and the United States, prompted the authorities to drop the original charges. Moreover, the journalist was released from pre-trial detention after what was announced as a personal intervention of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.
Usmonov was apparently not so important for Tajik authorities that they would imprison him even at risk of ruining their relations with Western powers. On October 14, Usmonov was freed under a nationwide amnesty despite the court finding him guilty and sentencing to three years in jail for not informing the authorities of his meetings with HuT activists. International pressure was central to the authorities’ decision not to put Usmonov in jail.
The reporter and his lawyer have apparently overestimated their ability to sustain this pressure after Usmonov’s release. They vowed to seek a full acquittal of his conviction in higher courts, assuming perhaps that Europe and US would continue pushing for the reporter’s exoneration. This was clearly a mistake. The pressure on Tajik authorities over Usmonov’s case declined to almost negligible after his imprisonment was out of question. Therefore, the Supreme Court upheld the reporter’s conviction.
International press freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, condemned the ruling. On December 1, the group announced: “By persisting in this absurd verdict, the legal system has once again proved its lack of impartiality… The main effect of this decision is to intimidate journalists who hope to cover the activities of Hizb-ut Tahrir and the anti-religious activities of the Tajik government”.
Yet, Usmonov is not giving up. His lawyer announced that they would be filing an appeal with the Presidium of the Supreme Court. The Presidium is composed of the highest judicial authorities and has the power to overturn the verdicts of Supreme Court bench. If the appeal to the Presidium is also dismissed, Usmonov’s lawyer says they will take the case to international courts.
Usmonov’s case has clearly demonstrated that a significant amount of international pressure can be instrumental in prompting the Tajik authorities to overturn unjust court rulings. If you still doubt it, ask Vladimir Sadovnichy, a Russian pilot, who was recently released from a Tajik jail after a strong backlash from Moscow over his earlier imprisonment threatened to ruin Tajikistan’s economy.