The lawyer for a BBC reporter in Tajikistan charged with membership in a banned Islamic radical group says investigators are denying her access to her client. Colleagues say the veteran journalist was arrested to silence his critical reporting, marking the latest attack on independent media in Tajikistan.
Fayziniso Vohidova says she has not been allowed to see BBC Uzbek Service correspondent Urinboy Usmonov, 59, since he disappeared on June 13. Two days later, investigators took him home to search for evidence. Family members present say Usmonov appears to have been beaten.
Vohidova told EurasiaNet.org on June 20 that Usmonov has been officially charged with inciting religious and racial hatred, participating in an organized criminal group, and extremism. She explained that authorities can legally keep him in custody for up to 18 months before a trial, while the investigation is underway.
Authorities in Khujand say Usmonov is a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a group that seeks to establish an Islamic state in Central Asia, but which is avowedly non-violent. “For a long time Usmonov maintained contacts with party representatives in Tajikistan and abroad; he actively participated in the preparation and dissemination of printed materials promoting Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s ideas on the forcible seizure of power and changing of the constitutional regime,” said a June 18 statement from the State Security Service, Tajikistan’s KGB-successor agency.
Usmonov’s colleagues and media rights activists insist he was arrested because of his critical voice. For years he has reported on the authorities’ efforts to silence expressions of Islam. Tajikistan has jailed over 500 people for membership in Hizb-ut-Tahrir in the past ten years, according to a count published by the AFP news agency; 40 have already been convicted this year. Media rights activists say Usmonov’s reporting would easily explain any radical literature that might have been found on him.
“There is little doubt that Usmonov was arrested because of his journalistic activities. Using the fight against extremism in order to crack down on dissidents is standard practice in Tajikistan,” said Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based watchdog, in a June 17 statement.
“People who have received leaflets should not be confused with the activists who distribute them. Being aware of press releases and statements is an integral part of a journalist’s work,” RSF added.
American and British diplomats in Dushanbe have also voiced concern.
Usmonov, an ethnic Uzbek, has also reported critically on Dushanbe’s controversial plans to build the world’s tallest hydroelectric dam, Rogun, a move that has aggravated relations with neighboring Uzbekistan and seen the Uzbek minority face increasing pressure inside Tajikistan.
“The law enforcement authorities once again have justified their poor image by holding a citizen in custody without providing him access to legal assistance,” Nuriddin Karshibaev, chairman of the Tajik National Association of Independent Media (NANSMIT), told EurasiaNet.org.
“NANSMIT demands a thorough investigation of Usmonov’s arrest and detention. As for his alleged affiliation to an illicit extremist movement, an inquiry must be conducted according to both national legislation and international practices,” Karshibaev added.
A police colonel in Dushanbe agrees that authorities have made a mistake by not granting Usmonov access to counsel, but underscored that Usmonov’s affiliation with a foreign organization does not make him above the law.
“Usmonov’s professional affiliation to BBC, the famous international news outlet, does not automatically ensure him immunity. The law enforcement authorities have made a serious mistake failing or not willing to provide him with a lawyer. But only an investigation can demonstrate the journalist’s involvement in extremist activities or otherwise prove his innocence,” the colonel told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.
Besides frequent and financially debilitating libel lawsuits brought by government officials against independent media, physical harassment of journalists is common in Tajikistan.
Since November 2010, journalist Makhmadyusuf Ismoilov has been held in detention in Khujand, ostensibly for criticizing law enforcement bodies and exposing corruption. In February, Hikmatulloh Saifullohzoda, editor of the opposition Najot newspaper and the press secretary for the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, was brutally attacked outside his home. He connected the “assassination attempt” with his work.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.