Amnesty International is urging Tajik authorities to "immediately and unconditionally" release prominent journalist Hairullo Mirsaidov, who has been in pretrial detention for more than a month.
Mirsaidov is "a prisoner of conscience who is being punished solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression," the London-based rights group said in a statement on January 25.
Mirsaidov was charged in December with embezzlement, forgery, false reporting to police, and inciting ethnic and religious hatred, and could be sentenced to 21 years in prison if tried and convicted.
The journalist's father, Khabibullo Mirsaidov, has told RFE/RL that his son denied the charges.
Mirsaidov, 39, is an independent journalist and a former correspondent of the Dushanbe-based Asia-Plus news agency and Germany's Deutsche Welle radio.
He is also the leader of the Tajik national KVN comedy team, a stand-up comedy competition which originated among university students in the Soviet Union and is still popular in many post-Soviet states.
His case has drawn international attention, with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calling on Tajikistan to release Mirsaidov and drop all charges against him.
“In a place where free media and critical voices are nearly non-existent, journalists like Mirsaidov should be recognized for the important work they do, not locked up on bogus charges,” the New York-based media watchdog said in a December statement.
Mirsaidov was initially detained in his native city of Khujand on December 5, weeks after he published an open letter to President Emomali Rahmon, Prosecutor-General Yusuf Rahmon and Sughd region governor Abdurahmon Qodiri asking them to crack down on corrupt local authorities.
Mirsaidov said that local officials who helped him secure budget funds for an improvisational comedy team to travel to Moscow to compete on a program called KVN demanded a $1,000 bribe, which he said he refused to pay.
The Prosecutor's Office for the Soghd region informed Asia-Plus last week that he is accused of embezzling $34,000 of state allocated funds. It also said that the sum may be higher, depending on the outcome of the ongoing investigation.
However, prosecutors have not yet released specific details as to what the charge of inciting hatred relates to.
Reports have said the charge could be related to materials Mirsaidov has posted on the Internet or to comedy sketches by the KVN team.
Representatives of the international KVN movement spoke in Mirsaidov’s defense on January 7, saying the Tajik KVN team’s comedy sketches and jokes have never been intended to incite enmity or discord.