Stung by the outpouring of criticism over the sentencing of a journalist to 12 years in prison, prosecutors in Tajikistan have now warned criticism of the verdict might also constitute a criminal act.
Khujand city court on July 11 found Khairullo Mirsaidov guilty on three counts — embezzlement, forging documents and providing false testimony — closing a trial that rights advocates argued was initiated in reprisal for the journalist’s whistle-blowing activities.
The severity of the sentence stunned even the largely passive diplomatic community in Dushanbe into issuing a note of “grave concern.”
“We believe this sentence is extremely harsh, incomparable with the crime he was accused of. This sentencing will have a negative impact on the freedom of media and expression,” the embassies of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United States and the EU Delegation said in a rare collective statement. “We strongly urge the relevant authorities … to re-consider this verdict.”
In an especially striking detail, the missions implied the sentence could have a diplomatic fallout by casting “a shadow on our cooperation.”
Groups like Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee went even further in their condemnation, calling the trial a “mockery of justice” and demanding more international efforts to force Dushanbe into respecting fundamental human rights.
“Tajikistan’s human rights situation has been spiraling downward at a rapid pace and the time has come for Washington, Brussels, and all actors to examine the possibility of enacting targeted punitive measures,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
HRW and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee went further than the embassies’ note by criticizing the “deeply flawed investigation” and moves by prosecutors to limit Mirsaidov’s access to case evidence.
The General Prosecutor’s Office has taken exception to this assault on its practices, claiming that some public pronouncements have unfairly linked Mirsaidov’s conviction to his “journalistic activities” and suggested that his case was politically motivated.
“It should be noted that there was no information in the the materials of the criminal case about Mirsaidov’s journalistic or political activities,” the prosecutor said in a July 13 statement.
Prosecutors also added that the verdict had yet to enter legal force and Mirsaidov would have the opportunity to appeal. They warned, however, that critical reporting of the verdict could itself constitute a criminal offense.
“Discussion and criticism of the verdict by mass media can be regarded as obstruction of justice and is in violation of journalistic ethics,” the prosecutor’s office said.
Mirsaidov’s trouble began in November, when he published an open letter to President Emomali Rahmon detailing an ongoing confrontation with officials in the northern Sughd region.
The original dispute stemmed from claims that the officials were exploiting their sponsorship of a competitive comedy troupe led by Mirsaidov to cream expenses off the top.
On December 5, Mirsaidov was arrested at the behest of the Sughd regional prosecutors’ office and slapped with a number of offenses. Despite him presenting no obvious threat to the public or a flight risk, a court ordered Mirsaidov be kept in custody for two months pending investigations. That preventative pre-trial detention was later extended.