Stockholm, June 23, 2022 – Tajik authorities should release journalists Daler Imomali and Avazmad Ghurbatov immediately, drop any charges filed against them, and refrain from prosecuting journalists in retaliation for their reporting, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.
On June 15, police arrested Imomali in Tajikistan’s northern Ayni district, and arrested Ghurbatov in Dushanbe, the capital, according to multiple news reports by the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, and a Facebook post published by Imomali during his detention.
Imomali works as presenter and Ghurbatov as camera operator for Imomali’s YouTube channel, which has about 150,000 followers and covers social issues and citizens’ complaints about alleged government abuses.
On June 18, the Shohmansur District Court in Dushanbe ordered Imomali to be held in detention for two months pending investigation into allegations of failing to pay taxes on his YouTube earnings, making a false accusation of a crime, and participating in banned organizations; it ordered Ghurbatov, who works under the name Abdullo Ghurbati, to be held for the same period while authorities investigate allegations that he assaulted a police officer, according to those reports.
The same court ordered the cases against the pair to be classified as secret, those reports said. CPJ called and messaged the journalists’ lawyer for comment, but did not receive any response; those reports said he had signed a nondisclosure agreement with authorities.
Both journalists are being held at the Interior Ministry’s temporary detention facility in Dushanbe, reports stated, which added that their family members have not been allowed to visit them.
A letter by local journalists and media rights advocates denounced Imomali and Gurbatov’s arrest and linked it to Imomali’s reporting earlier this month alleging that a police officer struck him during an interrogation and forced him to delete two YouTube videos about demolitions of local residents’ homes by Shohmansur authorities.
Abdumalik Kadirov, secretary-general of the independent advocacy group Media Alliance of Tajikistan and one of the letter’s signatories, told CPJ by phone that he believed the allegations were retaliation both for that incident and the pair’s bold journalism and readiness to confront local authorities.
“The detention of journalists Daler Imomali and Avazmad Ghurbatov are more worrying signs of a renewed crackdown on Tajikistan’s beleaguered press,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Tajik authorities should immediately free Imomali and Ghurbatov, ensure that they are not prosecuted in retaliation for their work, and launch a transparent investigation into Imomali’s claims of police brutality.”
Imomali’s lawyer was quoted in media reports saying that the journalist’s earnings from YouTube were small and that he did not know he was required to pay taxes on them; he added that the journalist denied making a false accusation.
The tax offense carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison, making a false accusation carries up to five years, and participating in banned organizations can carry up to eight years, according to the Tajik criminal code.
Nuriddin Karshiboev, head of the independent local trade group National Alliance of Independent Media of Tajikistan, who has been in contact with the journalists’ lawyer, told CPJ by phone that the false accusation allegation related to a video Imomali published more than a year ago containing accusations against the deputy head of Shohmansur district.
Imomali deleted the video soon after publication and the official agreed at the time not to file charges, Karshiboev said.
CPJ was unable to establish whether Imomali denied participating in banned groups; he has previously repeatedly denied collaborating with any group or party, Radio Ozodi reported.
Authorities first arrested Imomali on June 15, and later that day, the Shohmansur district prosecutor’s office summoned Ghurbatov for questioning about Imomali’s case; authorities allege that Ghurbatov assaulted a police officer on his way out of that meeting, according to media reports.
Those reports said that Ghurbatov denied the charge, through his lawyer, saying that a police officer simply blocked the journalist’s path as he was leaving the prosecutor’s office and took him back inside, accusing him of hitting an officer. If convicted, he could face up to two years in prison, according to the criminal code.
When extending Ghurbatov’s detention to two months, the court cited unspecified “information” prosecutors said they had about the journalist, Radio Ozodi reported.
Kadirov told CPJ that Imomali and Ghurbatov are unusual among Tajik bloggers for their focus on human rights and criticism of local authorities, and that their channel had rapidly gained popularity in recent months.
CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry of Tajikistan and the national prosecutor’s office for comment, but did not receive any replies.