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U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and his and Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, meet in Geneva on June 16.

During their summit in Geneva on June 16, U.S. President Joe Biden raised the issue of Kremlin pressure against RFE/RL's Russian-language services in Russia with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The United States has accused Russia of attempting to drive RFE/RL out of the country by listing it as a "foreign agent" media organization and imposing fines against it for failing to comply with requirements that all its materials be prominently labeled.

"I also raised the ability of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to operate and the importance of a free press and freedom of speech," Biden said at his press conference in Geneva when listing some of the issues the two leaders discussed.

The same day, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) agreed to hear an appeal by RFE/RL against the Russian government over the "foreign agent" label and the labelling requirements.

At his own separate news conference following the summit talks, Putin said that Biden "raised the question of the work of Liberty and, uh, their Free Europes in Russia."

He repeated the Kremlin's assertion that the labeling of RFE/RL's Russian-language outlets -- including Current Time, a network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA -- as "foreign agents" was a response to a 2017 decision by the United States to compel Russian state-controlled network RT, sometimes known as Russia Today, to register under a 1938 law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

"It should be noted that Russia Today fulfills all the demands of the [U.S.] regulators and the law -- they registered as required and so on," Putin said. "Unfortunately, the American media don't completely comply with the requirements of Russian law."

FARA does not require that every news story be prominently labeled as the product of a "foreign agent" media organization. The U.S. decision to compel RT to register came after a January 2017 U.S. intelligence finding that RT and Russia's Sputnik news agency spread disinformation as part of a Kremlin effort to undermine faith in the U.S. democracy and influence the 2016 presidential election in favor of Republican candidate and eventual winner Donald Trump.

Moscow has denied any such effort.

In Geneva, Putin expressed the "hope" that "we will manage to settle this" diplomatically.

'Patriotic Russians'

In a statement following the Geneva summit, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly rejected the "foreign agent" label.

"RFE/RL journalists are not 'foreign agents,'" Fly said. "They are patriotic Russians who are only trying to serve their fellow citizens by giving them objective news and information. The Kremlin's ongoing attacks against our journalists and other independent media outlets only serve to deprive the Russian people of their right to access uncensored information."

Russia's so-called "foreign agent" legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as "foreign agents," and to submit to audits.

Later modifications targeted foreign-funded media. In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL's Russian Service on the list, along with six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services and Current Time. The Russian Service of VOA was also added to the list.

At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on its "foreign agents" list and to impose restrictions on them. Several RFE/RL contributors were placed on the list in December 2020.

The Russian state media monitor Roskomnadzor last year adopted rules requiring listed media to mark all written materials with a lengthy notice in large text, all radio materials with an audio statement, and all video materials with a 15-second text declaration.

RFE/RL rejects the "foreign agent" designation and has refused to comply with the rules, so the agency has prepared hundreds of complaints against RFE/RL's projects. The total fines levied could run to more than $3 million.

'Coercion And Intimidation'

RFE/RL has called the fines "a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation," while the U.S. State Department has described them as "intolerable." Human Rights Watch has described the foreign agent legislation as "restrictive" and intended "to demonize independent groups."

In April, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that "Russia's actions against RFE/RL and other media organizations labeled as so-called 'foreign agents' reflect significant intolerance and oppressive restrictions."

"Should the Russian government continue to move to forcibly shut down RFE/RL, we will respond," Price said, without elaborating.

While RT distributes its programs freely in the United States on cable television, RFE/RL and VOA have no access to cable television in Russia.

RFE/RL once had distribution agreements with nearly 100 radio channels inside Russia, but had lost them all by 2012 following a campaign of pressure by the authorities.

RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Each week, nearly 7 million people access RFE/RL's news portals in Russia.

Just before the pandemic, Tajik Prosecutor-General Yusuf Rahmon claimed Dushanbe had registered more than 1,000 extremism and terrorism-related crimes in one year. He also said authorities had opened criminal cases against hundreds of Tajik nationals on suspicion of terrorism. Critics, however, accuse the government of exaggerating the threat. (file photo)

A closed-door trial has begun in Tajikistan of 18 suspected members of the banned Salafiya movement, with almost no information made public about the defendants or the charges they face.

The trial comes just two months after the country's Supreme Court handed down prison sentences to nearly 120 people whom it had convicted of being members of another outlawed Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Tajik authorities often warn about what they describe as "serious threats" posed by religious extremist groups seeking to overthrow the secular government in Dushanbe and destabilize the Muslim-majority Central Asian country.

Critics, however, accuse the government of exaggerating the threats in order to crack down on dissent and ordinary members of the opposition.

Security raids against alleged extremist cells, the arrest of suspects, and subsequent trials are often shrouded in secrecy in Tajikistan.

The latest group of Salafiya suspects -- all of them residents of the Bobojon Ghafurov district in northern Tajikistan -- were arrested in a police raid in February.

The Bobojon Ghafurov district court in northern Tajikistan. (file photo)
The Bobojon Ghafurov district court in northern Tajikistan. (file photo)

The defendants deny having links with the Salafi movement or any other religious extremist group, their relatives said ahead of the trial on June 12. They also accused police of torturing the detainees to obtain confessions.

Leading human rights lawyer Oinihol Bobonazarova said the defendants weren't given access to defense lawyers in the first five days of their detention.

"It is a common practice in Tajikistan that suspects are tortured in the early days of pretrial detention to get confessions, and only after that authorities allow the detainees to meet with lawyers," said Bobonazarova, the head of the Perspektiva+ human rights group.

She added that at least one of the defendants has told the court that his confession was obtained under duress.

RFE/RL hasn't been able to get details of the charges against the 18 defendants and their ongoing trial in the northern province of Sughd.

A courthouse in Sughd, a city in northern Tajikistan where the closed-door trial of 18 defendants is taking place. (file photo)
A courthouse in Sughd, a city in northern Tajikistan where the closed-door trial of 18 defendants is taking place. (file photo)

The charges in the previous case -- involving suspected members of a Muslim Brotherhood cell -- included setting up an extremist group, funding terrorist activities, and promoting extremism.

That trial -- which concluded on April 8 -- marked the largest number of defendants in a single extremism-related case in recent years. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging between three and 23 years.

There were university professors, schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers, students, and religious figures among the suspects that were arrested in several raids across the county in early 2020. All of them denied the charges against them.

Fight Against Terrorism, Extremism

Tajikistan has banned 18 groups as terrorist and extremist organizations that include Islamic State, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda.

Among the banned organizations is the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRTP), a major opposition party that boasted about 40,000 members at its peak. The increasingly influential IRTP -- whose members previously served in parliament -- was branded terrorist and banned in 2015.

The party maintains it has no "terrorist" or "extremist" links or agenda.

The secular opposition movement Group 24 was banned as an "extremist" organization in 2014 after calling for anti-government protests.

IRPT and Group 24 accuse the government of authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon of targeting political opponents, journalists, and activists using the fight against extremism and terrorism as a pretext.

Critics also say that many peaceful followers of Islam have been targeted in the government's campaign against terrorism.

But the government insists that the threat of religious extremism is real and that it has been rapidly rising in Tajikistan in recent years.

Just ahead of the pandemic, Prosecutor-General Yusuf Rahmon (no relation to the president) said Tajikistan had recorded 1,029 extremism and terrorism-related crimes in 2019, marking a 30 percent increase from the previous year.

The official also said authorities had opened criminal cases against 395 Tajik nationals with suspected links to foreign terrorist organizations or for allegedly fighting alongside terrorist groups abroad.

Another 214 probes were opened against suspected Salafiya followers, Rahmon said.

He also spoke about terrorism and extremism-related activities in Tajik prisons. Without providing details, Rahmon said 29 extremist cell leaders in prisons "had been brought to justice."

In a separate statement in early 2020, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda announced 161 suspected members of extremist and terrorist movements had been detained in the previous year.

According to the minister, 81 of them belonged to Islamic State (IS), while 54 had links to Salafiaya.

The government says some 2,000 Tajiks have joined IS in Syria and Iraq. Dozens more fight alongside an IS affiliate and other militant groups in Afghanistan.

IS has claimed responsibility for two deadly prison riots in Tajikistan that took place in November 2018 and May 2019 in the Khujand and Vahdat prisons, respectively. Authorities say more than 50 inmates and five prison guards were killed in the riots.

American Cyclists Speak Of Happiness Before Deadly Attack In Tajikistan
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The extremist group also claimed it was behind a terrorist attack that killed four western cyclists in southern Tajikistan in July 2018.

Tajik authorities, however, rejected that claim and blamed IRTP followers. The IRPT has vehemently denied any involvement in the attack, saying the government's claim was "shameless and illogical slander."

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik Service

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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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