DUSHANBE -- A Tajik court has begun hearing a lawsuit against three independent publications, in a case international rights activists say is part of a crackdown on press freedom ahead of upcoming elections, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports.
Three judges, including two from the Supreme Court, brought the libel action against the weeklies "Asia-Plus," "Farazh," and "Ozodagon" for their coverage of a press conference on corruption and bias in the judicial system.
In mid-January, the journalists reported on the press conference in which a lawyer said the judges -- Fakhriddin Dodometov, Nur Nurov, and Ulughbek Mamadshoev -- had sentenced a group of 33 businessmen from the northern city of Isfara to long prison terms despite weak evidence of their crimes.
The judges maintain that the printed allegations against them are false, and sued the papers for 5.5 million somonis ($1.26 million) in damages.
Some 50 journalists, NGO representatives, and other were present outside the courtroom today to show their support for the accused newspapers.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service ahead of today's hearing, the editors of the three newspapers and their lawyer said the judges were merely seeking monetary gain through the claim. They also said the judges should have asked for their responses to be printed before taking legal action -- a step required by Tajik media law.
Nuriddin Karshiboev, the head of the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan, told RFE/RL that the lawsuit was representative of a recent push by officials to shrink press freedoms and encourage journalists to censor themselves.
Earlier this month, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticized the Tajik authorities for "harassing the media" ahead of the February 28 parliamentary elections.
In their statement, RSF also said that "there is clearly an all-out drive to intimidate news media and get them to censor their coverage of state authorities."
Mamadshoev, one of the three judges claiming libel, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that he filed the lawsuit as a private citizen -- not as a representative of the Supreme Court.
Today's session was a preliminary hearing. It comes in the wake of other libel suits brought by officials against Tajik publications.
In late January, a court fined the weekly "Paykon" 300,000 somonis ($69,000) in a libel suit brought by Tajikstandart, a government agency that monitors the quality of imported goods.
The Agriculture Ministry has also brought a libel suit against the "Millat" newspaper, in which it's demanding 1 million somonis ($229,000) in damages.
That case is set for late March.