Reporters Without Borders is very concerned to learn that Urinboy Usmonov, a reporter for the BBC World Service’s Uzbek-language service, is being held in a detention centre in the northwestern city of Khujand for allegedly belonging to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a non-violent Islamist movement that is banned throughout Central Asia.
“We call on the Tajik police and judicial authorities to clarify the nature of Usmonov’s detention and to produce evidence of the allegations being made against him,” Reporters Without Borders said. “So far, it is the law enforcement bodies who have behaved illegally in this case.”
Usmonov’s family began looking for him when he went missing on the evening of 13 June. They were surprised to see security service officers escort him to his home the next day. The officers searched the place and announced that he was under arrest. Family members said they were signs that he had been mistreated.
He has been denied the right to see his lawyer, Fayziniso Vokhidova, since his arrest. Vokhidova said a prosecutor told her that Usmonov had declined the use of her services. But such a refusal can only be made in writing, and in the presence of a lawyer. Usmonov has not been allowed to see his family either.
“Usmonov has diabetes,” Reporters Without Borders was told by Khayrullo Ubaydullaev, the head of the BBC’s Uzbek-language service. “As well as a lawyer, it is vital that he has access to his medical treatment.”
The interior ministry claimed that Usmonov joined Hizb-ut-Tahrir in 2009 and that he had “promoted” it in his reports and on online social networks. But in a statement, the BBC said he had covered the trials of Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists at its request and that it had no reason to believe the allegations.
Alisher Sidikov, the head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service and a former colleague of Usmonov, told Reporters Without Borders that Usmonov often covered Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other sensitive subjects, such as border problems and the very controversial Rogun dam project, the source of considerable tension between Tajikistan and neighbouring Uzbekistan.
“Usmonov has nothing in common with an extremist and his stories are never biased,” Sidikov said. “But he is always very critical of the Tajik and Uzbek authorities. He is a very independent person and I cannot imagine him submitting to the discipline of a clandestine movement. He is also the president of the Uzbek section of the Union of Tajik Writers. A clandestine organization would never allow the representative of an official body to become a member. For all these reasons, he is the last person I would suspect of belonging to this organization.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “There is little doubt that Usmonov was arrested because of his journalistic activities. “Using the fight against extremism in order to crack down on dissidents is standard practice in Tajikistan. In the absence of hard evidence, the authorities must free him unconditionally at once.
“As far as we know, nothing was taken from his home. Nonetheless, we warn the police against trying to criminalize the mere possession of Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaflets. Such abuses are common throughout Central Asia and they were used as grounds for making outrageous charges against RFE/RL reporter Alisher Saipov, who was murdered in Kyrgyzstan in 2007. People who have received leaflets should not be confused with the activists who distribute them. Being aware of press releases and statements is an integral part of a journalist’s work.”
Independent media and religious groups have suffered of late as a result of harsher repression by President Rahmon’s autocratic regime. When clashes intensified last autumn in Rasht Valley, many media were accused of “complicity with the terrorists” just for reporting the clashes. A total of 150 Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists were arrested last year. Sharifjon Yokubov, said to be its leader in the northwestern Sughd region, was arrested on 14 June.
Some Reporters Without Borders contacts said Usmonov’s arrest could also be an attempt to intimidate the Uzbek community in Tajikistan, which is increasing being made to pay for a diplomatic dispute between Dushanbe and Tashkent.
(Photo: BBC Uzbek Service)