Tajikistan: Rights groups urge clemency for journalist in appeal

The coalition of 12 rights groups have urged the international community to follow the case closely.

A court in Tajikistan is this week set to hear the appeal of a journalist recently sentenced to 12 years in prison following a highly contentious trial that rights activists say was based on trumped-up evidence.

Khairullo Mirsaidov's case has drawn an intense level of attention from international activists. A coalition of 12 rights groups demanded in a collective statement that Tajik authorities set aside the conviction, which they say was politically motivated and a reprisal for Mirsaidov’s whistle-blowing activities. They also urged representatives of the diplomatic community to attend the appeal hearings, which are due to begin on August 15.

“Attendance by representatives of the diplomatic community throughout the appeal process will send a clear signal to the Tajik authorities that violations of freedom of expression in the country will not go unnoticed,” Katie Morris, a representative of ARTICLE 19 rights group, said in a statement.

In addition to the prison time, the original sentence handed down by Khujand city court in July also required Mirsaidov’s family to pay damages of around $13,000 after he was found guilty of embezzlement, forging documents and providing false testimony.

Mirsaidov’s troubles began when he published an open letter to President Emomali Rahmon detailing an ongoing confrontation with officials in the northern Sughd region. The original dispute stemmed from claims that the officials were exploiting their sponsorship of the competitive comedy troupe led by Mirsaidov to cream expenses off the top.

On December 5, Mirsaidov was arrested at the behest of the Sughd regional prosecutors’ office and slapped with a number of offenses. Despite him presenting no obvious threat to the public or a flight risk, a court ordered Mirsaidov be kept in custody for two months pending investigations. That preventative pre-trial detention was later extended.

For detractors of the case, the entire episode followed a predictable model.

“The Mirsaidov case follows an established pattern in which whistleblowers, journalists, and others find themselves in the authorities’ crosshairs after uncovering corruption, crime and other violations,” said Marius Fossum, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee regional representative in Central Asia.

The sentence even drew criticism from UN human rights officials, which called it a “clearly targeted measure against journalism and the public’s right to information.”

In developments that may offer a glimmer of hope to Mirsaidov’s supporters, the Tajik government has in recent weeks caved in to international pressure in unrelated cases.

One instance involved the severely ill four-year-old grandson of Muhiddin Kabiri, the exiled leader of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, being denied permission to leave the country for urgent treatment. The travel restriction appeared to be a government reprisal against Kabiri. Online petitions circulated widely before Hamza Tillozoda was granted a passport and allowed to fly out of Dushanbe.

In another, similar episode, the 10-year-old daughter of an exiled opposition activist, Shabnam Khudoydodova, was on August 7 pulled off a plane as she was departing to visit her mother in Poland. The travel prohibition was quickly dubbed a cruel and politically motivated act of reprisal against Khudoydodova. In a signal of a change of stance, however, the young girl was allowed to leave the country some days later.