Tajikistan continues to hold BBC journalist

New York, July 13, 2011The Committee to Protect Journalists urges Tajik prosecutors in Khujand, northern Tajikistan, to drop politicized extremism charges against BBC reporter Urinboy Usmonov, and calls for his immediate release. The journalist is being charged with failing to report the activities of the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir to Tajik law enforcement agencies, Usmonov’s lawyer, Faiziniso Vokhidova, told the Tajik service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Radio Ozodi).

Authorities arrested Usmonov a month ago. Investigators have since dropped two initial charges. They had originally accused Usmonov of being a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and of making “public calls to forcibly change the constitutional system of Tajikistan,” according to press reports and CPJ interviews.

On Tuesday, General Prosecutor Sherkhon Salimzoda announced that the Tajik national security service, known as the KNB, had completed its investigation against Usmonov and sent the case to the regional prosecutor’s office for review, the BBC reported. Salimzoda also said that he had asked the KNB to send a summary of the case to President Emomali Rahmon, according to the BBC.

“The Tajik government is now prosecuting Urinboy Usmonov for not being a government informer,” CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said. “This action essentially criminalizes journalism. We call on the Tajik prosecutor to drop the charges against Usmonov and release him immediately.”

In a statement issued today, the BBC World Service said the allegations were completely baseless, and said that “meetings and interviews with people representing all shades of opinion are part of the work of any BBC journalist.”

Tajik authorities are claiming as evidence Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature confiscated from Usmonov’s home, according to the BBC, as well as the fact that he had met with the group’s members. The BBC said: “The BBC has commissioned Mr. Usmonov to report on Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activities in Tajikistan, and would expect him to investigate the opinions held and materials produced by members of the organization.”

The BBC also expressed concern over Usmonov’s health; he suffers from diabetes and has a heart condition. Usmonov’s wife, Malokhat Abduazimova, told the BBC last month that during her visit to the KNB she hardly recognized 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.”

Since his arrest, Usmonov had been in the custody of the KNB, but was transferred on June 22 to a pretrial detention facility in Khujand, Radio Ozodi reported.