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The teenager was originally summoned as a witness in the high-profile murder case. (file photo)

A 16-year-old teenager has been convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in Tajikistan in a controversial double murder case even though relatives of the victims don't believe the youth was guilty.

DUSHANBE -- A 16-year-old teenager has been convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in Tajikistan in a controversial double murder case even though relatives of the victims don't believe the youth was guilty.

On April 7, the Supreme Court of Tajikistan found the teenager, whose identity was not allowed to be disclosed due to his age, guilty of the brutal murder, theft, and robbery of 25-year-old Shuhrat Gholibov and 13-year-old Islomiddin Shahidov. The teen was sentenced the same day.

The defendant, his lawyers, and the victims' relatives have insisted that the minor had nothing to do with the murder of the two, who, investigators say, were beaten to death with an ax handle in the Varzob spa area near Dushanbe in July 2019.

The teenager, who was originally summoned by law enforcement as a witness, said at the trial that he had to confess to the crimes after he was beaten and tortured by investigators. He also said he had seen several young men at the site on the day the killings took place and that they might have been involved in the murders.

His parents and the victims' relatives have insisted that it would have been impossible for the teenager to beat the two individuals to death.

The boy's lawyers and the victims' relatives said after the verdict and sentence were pronounced that the court had not even tried to find the real culprits in the case and ignored their requests to conduct a thorough investigation into the killings.

The victims’ relatives and defense lawyers said they will appeal the court's ruling.

Police brutality, which has been endemic in many former Soviet republics for decades, has been a focus of human rights groups for years.

Kyrgyz demonstrators gather in Bishkek on November 25, 2019, to demand the authorities take action after the release of the report.

A joint team from RFE/RL's Radio Azattyk, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP,) and the Kyrgyz news site Kloop has been awarded the 2019 Tom Renner Award from U.S.-based Investigative Reporters and Editors for a series of stories exposing massive outflows of cash from Kyrgyzstan, one of the world's poorest countries.

A joint team from RFE/RL's Radio Azattyk, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP,) and the Kyrgyz news site Kloop has been awarded the 2019 Tom Renner Award from U.S.-based Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) for a series of stories exposing massive outflows of cash from Kyrgyzstan, one of the world's poorest countries.

The IRE said on April 6 that the series, titled Plunder And Patronage In The Heart Of Central Asia, was "the true definition of revealing something that people do not want to be revealed to the point of murder -- and certainly danger for these journalists."

The joint media investigation chronicled how a 37-year-old Uyghur businessman from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, self-confessed money launderer Aierken Saimaiti, moved hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan, much of it via a business network led by Khabibula Abdukadyr, a secretive Chinese-born Uyghur with a Kazakh passport.

"This, to me, is the reason that there is a Renner award -- these crime syndicates that operate in the shadows, particularly in places that the world pays very little attention to. Most people have probably never even heard of this country, and more than $700 million was taken out of it by one guy," IRE judges said in explaining their decision.

Saimaiti was shot dead in Istanbul on November 10, but before his death he gave reporters documents that revealed the massive and systemic plunder of public funds from the Central Asian country.

The team spent months poring over Saimaiti's documents, following his leads, and reporting on the ground to corroborate as much as possible.

Together, the evidence tells the story of how a vast underground cargo empire run by the Abdukadyrs systematically funneled massive bribes to Kyrgyzstan's customs service. It also implicates Raimbek Matraimov, a former top customs official widely seen as so powerful that he was essentially untouchable. Matraimov has denied the allegations.

"This was a tireless and unflinching effort that combined the local expertise of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, with OCCRP's experience in anti-corruption reporting to reveal how staggering amounts of money were stolen from the Kyrgyz people," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said.

"It is an exceptional example of RFE/RL's mission and our commitment to report about public accountability and the rule of law across our coverage area. Despite the threats and attacks on our journalists because of this reporting, they were undeterred," he added.

The investigation also uncovered video footage showing Abdukadyr sitting in the second row at President Sooronbai Jeenbekov's inauguration in November 2017. The video shows Abdukadyr sitting next to the president's brother, Kyrgyz Ambassador to Ukraine Jusupbek Sharipov.

The investigation showed that Saimaiti knew so much because he had been a crucial player in the functioning of the patronage and money-laundering system he revealed.

The exposure of that system shows in unprecedented detail how a small clique enriched itself at the expense of the Kyrgyz people.

"It's a dangerous and often thankless job to write on this topic, but the reporters for RFE/RL and Kloop persevered to tell the last words of a dying source," said Drew Sullivan, co-founder and publisher of OCCRP.

"This is a global award that recognizes that commitment, and we are honored to share in it."

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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