Claiming that Ozodagon, Farazh, and Asia-Plus published biased and defamatory articles about them in late January, judges Nur Nurov and Ulughbek Mamadshoyev of Tajikistan’s Supreme Court and Judge Fakhriddin Dodometov of Dushanbe City Court are asking for 5.5 million Somoni (about US$1.2 million) in damages, the independent regional news Web site CentrAsia reported. According to the reports, the judges have also asked the court to order the newspapers’ publication to cease until their demands are fulfilled. The first court hearing is scheduled for February 23.
Umed Babakhanov, Asia-Plus’ chief editor, told CPJ the lawsuit stems from an article about a Dushanbe press conference held by a local lawyer on a recent conviction of 31 people in a corruption case. Lawyer Solekhdzhon Dzhurayev said Judge Nurov violated his defendants’ rights and that the verdict was unfair. According to Babakhanov, Dzhurayev also told journalists that Tajikistan’s judicial system was corrupt, and as examples brought up allegedly unfair verdicts that judges Mamadshoyev and Dodometov had issued in other cases.
Nuriddin Karshiboyev, head of the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan, told CPJ the case is part of an official campaign to silence critical media ahead of the February 28 parliamentary elections. Karshiboyev said two other independent newspapers, Millat and Paikon, face similar lawsuits and potentially bankrupting fines from the Agriculture Ministry and the state agency on standardization.
“The fact that the plaintiffs in this case are powerful judges sends a chilling message to the independent press,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator
Karshiboyev told CPJ that the papers will also face criminal prosecution if they are unable to fulfill the court order and pay the damages. The average monthly salary in Tajikistan is not more than US$100, he said.