A Tajik newspaper publisher is being held in a Moscow detention center pending extradition to Tajikistan, where he faces charges of sedition and slandering the president. RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar reports that Russia, which enjoys warm relations with the Central Asian republic, will play a key role in deciding whether the journalist is sent to Dushanbe, where his fate is likely to be grim.
Prague, 10 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Supporters of a well-known Tajik journalist being detained in Moscow say he may face torture and possible death if Russia agrees to extradite him to Dushanbe, where he faces charges of insulting the country's president.
Dodojon Atoulloh is the 46-year-old publisher of the newspaper "Charogi Ruz" (Daylight), which since 1993 has been published in Moscow and distributed throughout Central Asia. He was stopped by Russian police on 5 July in a Moscow airport en route to Uzbekistan. Since then, he has been held in a city detention center pending a ruling by the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office on his extradition.
Atoulloh -- whose articles also appear regularly in a number of prominent Russian newspapers -- is considered one of the few vocal opponents of Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov, who has been criticized for cracking down on press freedoms in the Central Asian republic. More than 60 journalists have been reported killed in Tajikistan since Rakhmonov came to power in 1992. In an interview published on 8 July in "The Moscow Times" newspaper, Atoulloh said, "If they hand me over [to the Tajik authorities] it would be like handing me to the butcher."
Atoulloh was detained by Russian transit police during a layover from Germany, where he has been living since earlier this year. His detention was reportedly based on charges by Tajik law enforcement officials that he used the mass media to publicly slander the president and incite national enmity.
Akram Murtazayev is the managing editor of the Moscow newspaper "Novaya gazeta," which has published a number of Atoulloh's articles. He says Atoulloh's investigation of drug trafficking and government corruption in Tajikistan has made him "enemy number one" of the Rakhmonov regime:
"It's perfectly obvious that the person who is ruling the country (Rakhmonov) is not qualified to do so. This is clear just by looking at the events going on now in the republic. Drug trafficking is growing. Terrorists of every stripe are being armed in the territories, and are conducting aggressive attacks on neighboring states that pose a direct threat to stability in the region."
Tajikistan, which borders opium-rich Afghanistan, has played an increasing role in Central Asia's drug-smuggling trade since a five-year civil war (1992 to 1997) left its economy in ruins. Russian soldiers are now stationed in Tajikistan with an official mandate to fight drugs and weapons trafficking from Afghanistan. Unofficially, they also provide Rakhmonov the territorial security his own impoverished military cannot provide.
Tajikistan is considered Russia's closest ally in Central Asia. Both countries are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and both are signatories of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, which includes an agreement to create a rapid-reaction force to fight what is seen as a growing threat of militant Islamism in the region. Russia's 201st motorized infantry division has been stationed in Tajikistan since 1993. Rakhmonov met with Russian President Vladimir Putin three months ago to discuss the creation of an additional Russian military base in northern Tajikistan, a move that drew protests from neighboring Uzbekistan.
Russia, with its large military presence in Tajikistan, enjoys an assured sphere of influence in Central Asia. Murtazayev says the close relations between the two countries may explain why Moscow -- which is under increasing international pressure to improve its own record on press freedoms -- was willing to aid the Tajik government by detaining Atoulloh last week:
"[In spite of all the bad things going on in Tajikistan], Russia supports Rakhmonov all the same. On some level, it seems, this is a profitable and comfortable arrangement for Russia."
Tajikistan's poor track record on press freedom has fuelled fears that if extradited, Atoulloh will face an unfair trial, and possible torture or even death.
Human Rights Watch, which monitors press and civic rights in Tajikistan, on 6 July issued a letter to Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov, whose office is responsible for the extradition case. Elizabeth Andersen, the organization's executive director, wrote, "Tajik law enforcement agencies routinely deny detainees such basic rights as access to counsel of choice and are notorious for their brutal treatment of detainees, which often rises to the level of torture."
Andersen cited a United Nations convention prohibiting extradition in cases when a detainee may be tortured. She urged Atoulloh's release pending an impartial review of the charges against him. The Russian Union of Journalists filed a similar complaint.
Atoulloh's lawyer, Andrei Rakhmilovich, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service today that he has not been able to visit his client or secure a guarantee from Russian prosecutors that Atoulloh would not be extradited:
"Since Russia has no detailed, exact law on the procedure for considering questions of extradition, everything, actually, is in the hands of the prosecutor-general. Unfortunately, in Russia today there is no judicial procedure on extradition as there is in every democratic country in the world. And so our possibilities are extremely limited."
Alexei Simonov of Russia's Glasnost Defense Fund said yesterday that human rights activist and Duma deputy Sergei Kovalyov had discussed Atoulloh's case with prosecutor Ustinov, but with no apparent success. Liberal Yabloko faction leader Grigory Yavlinsky, has also been enlisted to help fight the Tajik journalist's extradition. That -- and the extensive press coverage the case has received in Moscow, where Atoulloh is a popular figure in journalistic circles -- may be the last chance he has to avoid extradition, and a possibly dire fate.
(The Tajik Service's Saidkasim Kiyampur contributed to this report.)