Tajik authorities have handed down long prison terms to three independent journalists and bloggers in recent days on what media watchdogs say are trumped-up charges.
Four other reporters are awaiting sentencing amid allegations that some of them were tortured in detention. The trials have all been held behind closed doors, preventing public scrutiny.
The convictions against and trial of the journalists are part of a renewed crackdown on dissent in Tajikistan, where the authoritarian government does not tolerate free speech.
All seven journalists and bloggers were arrested between May and July. Observers said the arrests were an attempt by the authorities to control public opinion following the government's deadly crackdown on protests in the restive Gorno-Badakhshan region.
Europe-based opposition activist Farhod Odinaev says the latest clampdown on independent journalists will “further spoil Tajikistan’s reputation as a repressive state that doesn’t tolerate independent media and free speech.”
In the latest conviction, a Dushanbe court on October 17 sentenced blogger Daler Imomali to 10 years in prison. He was found guilty of tax evasion, disseminating false information, and membership in the banned opposition party Group 24, which the authorities consider to be a terrorist group.
The 34-year-old pleaded guilty to tax evasion. But he has denied having any links to Group 24. The opposition party also insists that Imomali has never been a member or contributor.
Imomali’s conviction came weeks after independent blogger Muhammad Sulton, 72, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Abdulloh Ghurbati, 26, another blogger, was given a 7 1/2 year sentence.
Sulton is known for his criticism of Tajikistan’s security and intelligence services. He had also condemned the government’s violent crackdown on anti-government protests in his home region of Gorno-Badakhshan in May.
Besides Sulton, the other journalists and bloggers arrested in recent months were not openly critical of Dushanbe. They reported on local social and economic issues.
One of the bloggers, Zavqibek Saidamini, had previously said that he often received letters from Dushanbe residents about specific issues. In turn, he would present the letters to relevant officials, he said.
The video blogger insisted that “speaking about problems doesn’t mean criticizing the government.”
Courts in Tajikistan operate under the heavy influence of the government, especially in cases linked to politics, security, and the media.
Nuriddin Qarshiboev, the head of Tajikistan’s Association of Independent Media, says the “harsh” sentences handed down to independent reporters in recent weeks are aimed at quashing dissent.
“Authorities try to get the entire information space under control and don’t want to allow any alternative voice in society,” Qarshiboev said.
Some local journalists say the sentences are already having a chilling effect.
“These reporters were not even that prominent or household names,” said a journalist from the northern city of Khujand who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “Hence, their sentencing makes everything even more worrying for us.”
“It makes me think that I must stay away from even the slightest criticism of life in Tajikistan or l will rot in prison,” the journalist added.
The arrests of the seven journalists came in the wake of the government’s crackdown on protests in Gorno-Badakhshan. Authorities said 16 people were killed, although other sources give a much higher death toll.
Among the journalists arrested were Gorno-Badakhshan natives Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, 65, and Khushruz Jumaev, 24.
Journalist and activist Mamadshoeva was charged with calling for the overthrow of the government. She could face the maximum penalty of 25 years in prison if found guilty.
Prosecutors accuse Mamadshoeva of helping to organize the protests in Gorno-Badakhshan. But a day before her arrest on May 18, Mamadshoeva told RFE/RL that she had nothing to do with the demonstrations. Her trial began in August.
Jumaev, known by his pen name Khushom Ghulom, was charged with calling for the seizure of power by force. It is unknown if his trial has begun.
On his YouTube channel, Jumaev mostly covered nonpolitical issues like culture, history, and local languages in his home region.
Not all of the cases against the journalists and bloggers were related to the unrest in Gorno-Badakhshan.
Tajik authorities have a long-standing track record of targeting journalists and media outlets that counter the state’s narratives.
Over the years, many independent publications were shut down for criticizing government policies.
Dushanbe also often blocks or restricts access to foreign-based media outlets that focus on Tajikistan, including RFE/RL’s Tajik Service and all online media run by the opposition in exile.
The Foreign Ministry often also refuses to issue accreditation to RFE/RL reporters.
According to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, Tajik journalists who criticize the government risk physical attacks, intimidation, and imprisonment as the authorities’ “repressive bent” intensifies “steadily.”
“Journalists find it virtually impossible to work on issues that the government considers ‘sensitive,’ without exposing themselves, or friends and family, to danger,” the watchdog said in its 2022 press freedom index.
Allegations Of Torture, Confessions Under Duress
Among the seven journalists and bloggers on trial is Abdusattor Pirmuhammadzoda. The 44-year-old has been charged with publicly calling for extremist activities.
A source close to the investigation told RFE/RL that Pirmuhammadzoda has been physically and psychologically “tortured” in custody.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said the alleged ill-treatment has left Pirmuhammadzoda depressed and bearing physical symptoms, including “bruised hands and fingernails.”
Pirmuhammadzoda’s relatives believe that the police obtained a forced confession from him.
A similar claim was made by the family of Ghurbati, the jailed blogger. They say the police pressured him to make a video statement confessing his guilt.
Meanwhile, the family of Saidamini, the blogger on trial, say they have not seen or heard from him since his arrest three months ago.
Tajik police and court officials did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for comment.