With dozens of satisfied clients, Tura Sunnatov seemed like one of the more successful defense lawyers in Tajikistan. In less than two years, he had secured the release of 10 inmates and helped reduce the prison sentences of 16 others.
But prosecutors say there was a troubling aspect to each of those cases that was unknown even to his clients. They allege that Sunnatov didn’t actually take any of the legal steps he was describing and instead simply forged documents, letters, and signatures, as well as the seals of judges and courts, including the Tajik Supreme Court.
In return, the 38-year-old Dushanbe resident and former prison inmate would charge hundreds of dollars -- a considerable sum in a country with an average monthly income that hovers between $100 and $150, but one that many families were happy to pay to get their relatives out of prison.
Unsuspecting clients presented the forged documents to prison facilities, where “negligent” officials accepted them as genuine court rulings, according to the Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office.
Prosecutors say the forged documents -- with fake stamps and signatures -- were used to free 10 inmates from prison facilities across the country during 2015 and 2016. Dozens more were transferred from “corrective labor facilities” to ordinary prisons that offer better conditions, they say.
Authorities are now trying, with Sunnatov's cooperation, to round up former inmates who were released prematurely. Dozens of convicts have been relocated back to corrective labor camps, prosecutors add, and dozens more have been informed that their jail terms haven’t been reduced after all.
Bahriddin Isozoda, a senior investigator in the Prosecutor-General’s Office, says that Sunnatov will face trial on forgery and fraud charges that each carry maximum sentences of five years in jail.
Sunnatov has already served three years in prison for a forgery conviction in 2008, but the details of his first trial remain unclear.
Isozoda says that two other Dushanbe-based defense lawyers and a prison official have been taken into custody for “assisting” Sunnatov in crime.
In a filing that documents Sunnatov’s alleged crimes, a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, prosecutors say “incredible forgery” by the suspect and “negligence of law-enforcement officials” were major factors in the unprecedented case.
According to the document, the suspects didn’t require much equipment to carry out the crimes -- or even need to leave their homes.
“All they used were a computer, a scanner, and ordinary papers,” it says.
In one case, Sunnatov was said to have secured the release of a female inmate who was serving an eight-year prison sentence in return for $2,500. Another case allegedly saw a male inmate's eight-year sentence reduced by half. In both cases, Sunnatov is thought to have forged signatures and seals from Supreme Court judges.
A source close to the investigation told RFE/RL that some of the judges whose signatures were forged are expected to attend Sunnatov’s trial in Dushanbe.
Officials did not disclose a court date.
The source, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media, said some of the officials were stunned by how their signatures had been forged by the suspect.
Sunnatov was arrested in December after a client complained to authorities following an unsuccessful case.