Tajik journalist faces 16 years in jail

New York, September 29, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the ongoing imprisonment of journalist Makhmadyusuf Ismoilov and is dismayed by prosecutors’ call for a hefty prison term on defamation and other charges.

Ismoilov, a regional reporter for the Dushanbe-based independent weekly Nuri Zindagi, was arrested last November on separate counts of defamation, insult, and incitement to hatred over an article titled, “Asht is being destroyed. Who is responsible for it?” In the article, published in the August 2010 issue of Nuri Zindagi, Ismoilov criticized government and law enforcement officials in the Asht district in the northern Sogd region of Tajikistan, and cited corruption, abuse of office, and mismanagement of funds, CPJ research showed.

If convicted, Ismoilov will be the first journalist imprisoned in Tajikistan on defamation and insult charges in the last decade, CPJ research found.

At a hearing today, prosecutors asked the court to convict Ismoilov and sentence him to 16 years in jail, the independent regional news website Fergana News reported. Mukhabbat Dzhurayeva, Ismoilov’s lawyer, told the court that investigators had failed to prove the journalist’s guilt, and asked them to drop the charges and release him, Fergana News reported. Ismoilov has denied any wrongdoing. The next court hearing is scheduled for October 3.

“The Tajik authorities are using the threat of prison to intimidate journalists and shield officials from public scrutiny,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “Instead of demanding a preposterous 16-year sentence for Makhmadyusuf Ismoilov, the prosecution should drop all charges against him immediately.”

Ismoilov’s trial began in June, and 12 officials were named as plaintiffs in the case, news reports said. At the second court hearing, several witnesses who had initially testified against the journalist changed their statements to his defense, Radio Ozodi, the Tajik service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported.

Ismoilov has consistently criticized regional authorities, law enforcement agencies, and the judiciary for alleged mismanagement, poor social and economic policies, and abuse of power, Nuriddin Karshiboyev, head of the Dushanbe-based National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan told CPJ. Earlier this month, local and international press freedom advocates wrote an open letter to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, calling on him to ensure a fair trial for Ismoilov, the radio station reported.