Tajik newspaper reporter Mahmadyusuf Ismoilov has been held in solitary confinement for nearly a year and faces 16 more years in prison. His case shows how the country's authorities deal with criticism.
Ismoilov is a reporter for "Nuri Zindagi," a village newspaper with a circulation of 2,000, at best.
The charges against Ismoilov include extortion, criminal libel and insulting public officials, and inciting regional hatred. The verdict, initially expected in early October, has been postponed by a court in Tajikistan's northern Sughd Province.
In the meantime, Ismoilov's lawyer has come under pressure, too. A criminal case has been launched against Muhabbat Juraeva, charging her with abuse of office. She rejects the accusation.
So, what did Ismoilov do to justify being kept behind bars since November 2010 and to prompt prosecutors to ask for a 16-year prison sentence -- punishment normally saved for crimes such as murder and rape?
The charges of libel, insult, and inciting hatred are connected to Ismoilov's reports, in which he criticized alleged corruption among local authorities and a lack of transparency in the distribution of land in his native Asht district, among other topics.
He has been accused of extortion for allegedly receiving four planks of wood – worth less than $50 -- from a relative who works for the local government.
Several witnesses have confirmed that the wood, which the local administration was no longer using, was, indeed, donated to the reporter. The relative has since retracted his statement but the charges haven't been dropped.
The prosecutors have engaged the state committee on language to examine the tone of the reports to back their accusations. According to the committee's findings, there are some words that could be categorized as "insulting."
For instance, Ismoilov likened the hasty construction of the district prosecutors' headquarters to Soviet-era projects of national importance. And he called a high-ranking local official a "commander of the construction battalion."
But, even if there are two or three insulting words in his articles, "would you send a journalist behind bars for 16 years?" asks Dodkhudo Saimiddinov, the head of the language committee. "In our country, murderers get 15 years."
The charges against Ismoilov have outraged his colleagues both in Tajikistan and outside the country, who say his case is aimed at sending a threatening message to all journalists in Tajikistan.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has called for Ismoilov's immediate release.
"If journalists who criticize government officials face criminal charges, lengthy investigative detention, and punitive prison sentences, Tajikistan risks stifling public discourse," the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, said in a statement
Like Ismoilov, another Sughd journalist, Urunboy Usmonov, a BBC reporter charged with having associations with the banned group Hizb ut-Tahrir, is awaiting his verdict. Usmonov denies the charge.
"Unlike journalists in the capital and big cities, reporters in small provincial towns are alone and defenseless," says Juma Mirzo, Ismoilov's former colleague.
A harsh verdict in the Ismoilov case would have an "enormous chilling effect" on all journalists in Tajikistan, the OSCE says.
It would once again show that criticism of the authorities is not tolerated in Tajikistan. Not on any level. It's as simple as that.
-- Farangis Najibullah