Imprisoned BBC reporter faces jail in Tajikistan

New York, June 23, 2011Tajik authorities must drop trumped-up charges against Urinboy Usmonov, a BBC World Service correspondent in Tajikistan, and release him immediately, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On Monday, authorities indicted Usmonov on charges of making “public calls to forcibly change the constitutional system of Tajikistan,” his lawyer, Faiziniso Vokhidova, told the Tajik service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Radio Ozodi). The charges carry up to 15 years in jail.

Police in Khujand, northern Tajikistan, arrested Usmonov on June 13 on charges of belonging to the banned Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and accused him of distributing Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaflets on Web-based social networks, local and international press reports said. Usmonov denied the charges, and said that he met with Hizb-ut-Tahrir members as a journalist, Radio Ozodi reported. Usmonov reported extensively on the arrests and convictions of Hizb-ut-Tahrir members in Tajikistan, according to the BBC.

Vokhidova, who was present for the indictment, told Radio Ozodi that it was the first time she had been allowed to see Usmonov since his arrest. A security service officer was present at a meeting between Vokhidova and Usmanov in which the lawyer was not allowed to discuss details of the case with her client, she said.

“We call on Tajik authorities to immediately drop these charges against Urinboy Usmonov,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Usmonov is being punished for his journalism, nothing more. He must be released without delay.”

The Tajikistan Embassy in the United States has declined to comment on Usmonov’s arrest, citing a lack of information. CPJ repeatedly tried to reach Tajikistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Interior Ministry, and the Committee for National Security to discuss Usmonov’s detention, but the calls went unanswered.

In a statement issued Monday, the BBC World Service denied the allegations and demanded Usmonov’s immediate release. “Usmonov as a BBC journalist is expected to cover all sides of any story and in the course of his work it is only natural that he would meet and interview people representing all shades of opinion,” the statement said.

“It is vital for all journalists to be able to report freely on any organization without fear of harassment and intimidation.”

Usmonov’s wife, Malokhat Abduazimova, told the BBC that during her visit earlier this week she could hardly recognize her husband. “He was so down and thin,” she said. “He barely walked. I noticed that he was struggling to reach out to shake his brother’s hand. I can’t describe it.” Usmonov suffers from diabetes and has a heart condition, the BBC reported.

Since his arrest, Usmonov had been in the custody of Tajikistan’s Committee for National Security, but was transferred on Wednesday to a pretrial detention facility in Khujand, Radio Ozodi reported.

On Wednesday, BBC journalists held a vigil in London for the journalist. The British Embassy in Tajikistan also expressed concerns over Usmonov’s arrest and possible mistreatment, and urged Tajik authorities to respect press freedom, according to the BBC.