Reporters Without Borders is outraged by the case that the state prosecutor in Asht, in the northern province of Sugd, presented in court yesterday against the journalist Makhmadyusuf Ismoilov (Махмадюсуф Исмоилов) and by the 16-year jail term he requested (which would be reduced to 14 years under a recent amnesty law).
The local correspondent of the newspapers Nuri Zindagi and Istiklol, Ismoilov has been held since 23 November 2010.
“Everything about this prosecution smacks of political revenge rather than normal judicial proceedings,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The sentence requested is out of all proportion to the charges against Ismoilov. Such a harsh sentence would be a turning point in Tajikistan’s recent history and would deal a terrible blow to its already fragile freedom of expression.
“Although this journalist has been in provisional detention for more than 10 months, the investigators have still been unable to produce any convincing evidence for the charges against him. We reiterate our call for his immediate release and the withdrawal of all the charges.”
Ismoilov is charged with defamation (under article 135 of the criminal code), insult (article 136), inciting hatred (article 189.2) and embezzlement (article 250). The first three charges were confirmed at a hearing two weeks ago on the basis of an “expert linguistic analysis” of newspaper stories by Ismoilov in which he criticized the prosecutor, the Asht district deputy chief, and other local officials and representatives.
The media were barred from the hearing at which the court received the “expert analysis” (conducted by a government offshoot) of Ismoilov’s articles, which in fact were well within the bounds of responsible free expression.
The embezzlement charge is based on a statement by a relative of Ismoilov that was later retracted. The relative, who works for the local government, allegedly gave Ismoilov some old planks that the local administration was no longer using. According to Nuriddin Karshiboyev, the head of the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT), several witnesses confirm the donation of the planks, which were worth less than 50 dollars.
Ismoilov is being held in solitary confinement and his health is deteriorating. The prosecutor yesterday nonetheless requested that he should be subjected to a “severe regime” while serving his jail sentence.
Reporters Without Borders and NANSMIT addressed an open letter about the Ismoilov case to President Emomali Rakhmon on 7 September, urging him to guarantee due process and respect for the presumption of innocence. In particular, they requested Ismoilov’s conditional release, an additional investigation and the trial’s transfer to a different location. No reply has so far been received.
Reporters Without Borders points out that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to which Tajikistan belongs, promotes strict principles for judicial proceedings against the media: that proceedings should be civil (not criminal), sentences should be proportional to the offence and should not affect the journalists’ ability to work normally, and public figures must tolerate criticism.
The court is expected to issue its verdict at the next hearing, due to be held on 3 October.