Urunboy Usmonov, a reporter for the BBC Central Asian Service for the last ten years and an acclaimed Tajik writer, faces fifteen years in prison for having links to the banned Islamic organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir. At the request of the BBC, Usmonov had previously reported on the judicial trials and activities of the Hizbi Tahrir party in Tajikistan.
The authorities indicted Usmonov on charges of making ‘public calls to forcibly change the constitutional system of Tajikistan’. Other reports claim that he is accused of distributing Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaflets through online social networks. Usmonov denied the charges, and said that he met Hizb-ut-Tahrir as part of his journalistic activities.
The BBC World Service has also rebutted the allegations and issued a public statement that said ‘Usmonov as a BBC journalist is expected to cover all sides of any story and in the course of his work it is only natural that he would meet and interview people representing all shades of opinion.’
Following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan became embroiled in a brutal civil war between the Moscow-backed government and the Islamist-led opposition. At least 50,000 people were killed in the first year of fighting, and peace was only restored in 1997 with a United Nations-brokered agreement. Tajiks are the country’s largest ethnic group, with Uzbeks making up a quarter of the population. The country has never fully recovered from the conflict, and is currently ranked as Central Asia’s poorest nation.
Emomali Rahmon, a former cotton farmer, was elected president in 1994 and is now enjoying his third term in office. International observers deemed the 2006 election to be neither free nor fair. Rahmon retains a tight hold on the media and controls most of the country’s printing presses and broadcasting facilities. According to Freedom House, while violence against journalists has declined in recent years, independent journalists regularly face harassment and intimidation, and the penal code criminalises defamation. ‘Tajik authorities have a history of using the fight against extremism as an excuse to crack down on voices of dissent, as well as to prevent journalists from reporting on politically sensitive issues,’ said Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy at Freedom House. On 17 February 2011, the EU issued a statement expressing concerns about media freedom in Tajikistan and the number of libel lawsuits being brought by public officials and public agencies against newspapers.
Usmonov was reported missing on 13 June 2011 when he failed to appear at his family home in the northern Tajik town of Khujand. The following day he returned home, accompanied by members of the Tajik security services. They told his family that Usmonov had been arrested and conducted a search of the house. Apparently Usmonov had difficulty walking during the search and visible injuries suggested that he had been beaten during his detention. According to Usmonov’s son, Oybek, the police conducted a thorough search of the house but did not take anything away.
Hamid Ismailov, head of the BBC’s Central Asian Service, went to Tajikistan at the end of June to visit his colleague in prison and to establish his legal situation. He examined the investigation documents with Usmonov’s lawyer, Fayziniso Vohidova, and claims that there is nothing in them that constitutes a crime:
Urunboy met several members of Hizbut Tahrir, yes, he interviewed some of them, yes, he kept in his computer some files related to that outlawed party. But he is a professional journalist, accredited by the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a reporter for BBC, which expects him both to report and be on the top of any local issue, including a religious issue … As if answering our doubts and concerns, at that time the investigator decided to drop two charges [relating to Urunboy’s alleged membership of Hizbut Tahrir] … But the charge that he did not inform the security services about his contacts with the members of Hizbut Tahrir remains.
International pressure has certainly helped Usmonov’s case: on 14 July he was released on bail, looking frail and tired. However, he still faces criminal prosecution. The BBC’s Global News director Peter Horrocks said the BBC was ‘encouraged that Tajik authorities have considered our appeals’.
Readers might like to send appeals calling for a fair and impartial investigation into the accusations against Urunboy Usmonov; demanding that he be given full access to his lawyer and full enjoyment of his right to a fair trial, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other international legal instruments; condemning the reported beating of Usmonov; and calling for the authorities to investigate these claims.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Mr Emomali Rahmon
President of Tajikistan
Tajikistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Fax: 992 372 210 259
HE Erkin Kasymov
The Embassy of the Republic of Tajikistan in the United Kingdom
26–28 Hammersmith Grove
London W6 7BA
Fax: +44 (0) 208 834 1100
Update: On 22 June 2011 Ai Weiwei (LR, June 2011), the internationally acclaimed artist, was freed on bail. He has been charged with tax evasion and was presented with a bill for over 12 million yuan (about 1.3 million Euro) in unpaid taxes and fines. Ai’s supporters in China and abroad believe that these heavy fines have been levied in retaliation for his criticism of the government.
On 13 July 2011 poet and student Ayat Al-Gormezi (LR, July 2011) was released one month after she was sentenced to a year in prison for poems critical of the Bahraini king. Her family fears that she is at risk of re-arrest since her conviction has apparently not been revoked. Calls continue for the charges against Ayat Al-Gormezi to be quashed.