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Tajik Journalist Could Die In Prison If Not Amnestied, Rights Group Says

Hikmatullo Saifullozoda “is being held in the most appalling conditions.”
Hikmatullo Saifullozoda “is being held in the most appalling conditions.”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is calling on Tajikistan to add an ailing 70-year-old journalist who has been imprisoned for six years on politically motivated charges to a list of thousands of prisoners due to be freed under a mass presidential amnesty.

Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, a member of the banned Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), “is being held in the most appalling conditions” and has “many health problems,” the Paris-based media freedom watchdog said in a statement on September 9.

According to the group, Saifullozoda contracted a serious form of COVID-19 and underwent a heart operation in June in the infirmary of the prison where he is being held.

Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said the journalist “is in danger of dying in prison.”

“Detained for purely political reasons, he risks spending another 10 years behind bars, where he is the victim of mistreatment. His release could save his life. Furthermore, he poses no danger to society or to the authorities in Tajikistan.”

Saifullozoda, the editor of the IRPT's Najot (Salvation) newspaper, was arrested in 2015 and sentenced the following year to 16 years in prison after a court found him guilty of involvement in a purported insurrection against Rahmon's government.

More than 16,000 prisoners are expected to be freed under the amnesty law adopted by parliament earlier this month and signed by President Emomali Rahmon to mark the 30th anniversary of Tajikistan’s independence on September 9.

Saifullozoda “will probably not be among those who are released,” RSF said, adding that his sentence “will probably be reduced by only four years, although he should benefit from the priority release reserved for persons over the age of 55 who are seriously ill.”

The IRPT, long an influential party with representatives in the Tajik government and parliament, was labeled an extremist and terrorist group and banned in September 2015 -- moves the party and human rights groups say were unjustified and politically motivated.

Dozens of IRPT officials and supporters have been prosecuted and many of them imprisoned, drawing further criticism of Rahmon's government from rights groups.

As a result of “increasingly repressive policies,” Tajikistan has fallen 46 places in RSF's World Press Freedom Index since 2015 and is now ranked 162nd out of 180 countries.