New York, August 25, 2005—A judge in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, convicted the editor of a shuttered opposition newspaper on theft charges today, sentencing him to two years of "corrective" labor, fining him, and garnishing part of his wages. The Committee to Protect Journalists denounced the verdict, calling the charges politically motivated.
Mukhtor Bokizoda told CPJ he would appeal today's verdict, which comes several weeks after the government shut down the weekly Nerui Sukhan (Power of the Word). Bokizoda is also chairman of the Foundation for the Memory and Protection of Journalists, a press freedom group.
The court ordered that Bokizoda pay a fine of 1,500 Tajik somoni (US$500). Under the "corrective" labor requirement, Bokizoda said he expects to be assigned a job and forfeit 20 percent of his monthly salary.
The charges against Bokizoda date to late February when tax authorities accused him of stealing electricity for the foundation's printing house, which printed Nerui Sukhan, the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT) reported.
"This is a fabricated criminal case, which authorities started against Bokizoda in order to prevent him from reopening Nerui Sukhan," Nuriddin Karshiboyev, head of NANSMIT, told CPJ today. "This is a case that should have been opened under the administrative, not the criminal, code of Tajikistan."
Tajik authorities have shut down Nerui Sukhan four times since its founding in 2003, using politicized tax and regulatory inspections. The weekly has reported on government corruption and provided audiences with a valuable alternative to the obedient state media. Some observers see the latest actions against Bokizoda as an attempt to eliminate the paper from the market ahead of 2006 presidential elections.
Tax police shut down the printing house in January for alleged license violations, effectively preventing Nerui Sukhan from publishing. Bokizoda said he presented paperwork in February to restart the printing operation, but authorities did not respond. He said he resumed publishing Nerui Sukhan on July 7 only to see it shuttered again a week later.
"We condemn the politicized criminal prosecution of our colleague Mukhtar Bokizoda, who was targeted because of his journalism," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. "We call on Tajik courts to exercise their independence and overturn Bokizoda's criminal conviction on appeal. We also urge authorities to stop harassing Bokizoda and permit Nerui Sukhan to resume publishing."