Independent journalist Abdusattor Pirmuhammadzoda is serving a seven-year prison sentence after being convicted in December 2022 on charges of participation in a banned organization. Police detained Pirmuhammadzoda in the capital, Dushanbe, in July 2022.
Pirmuhammadzoda, whose legal name is Abdusattor Pirmahmadovich Kotibov, worked at the state-owned radio station Sadoi Dushanbe (Voice of Dushanbe) until 2019, when he quit after being given the choice between moderating his critical reporting and resigning, his brother, Abdukarim Pirmuhammadzoda, told CPJ by messaging app. Since then, he published his personal views on free speech and alleged government injustices on his YouTube channel, where he had about 39,000 subscribers at the time of his arrest.
Pirmuhammadzoda also collaborated with journalists Daler Imomali and Abdullo Ghurbati, who were arrested on June 15, 2022, on multiple charges, including membership in banned organizations, and was vocal calling for their release on social media, according to a report by Radio Ozodi, the Tajik service of U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and CPJ’s review of his output. One video he published about Imomali’s arrest shortly before his own detention garnered over 360,000 views.
The journalist’s brother told CPJ that police had frequently interrogated Pirmuhammadzoda and pressured him over videos he posted on social media, but that this pressure had increased in the weeks prior to his arrest after he published videos about Imomali and Ghurbati’s detention.
On July 7, 2022, officers with the Tajik Interior Ministry’s Department for Combating Organized Crime (DCOC) in Vahdat, near Dushanbe, summoned Pirmuhammadzoda for questioning, confiscated his cell phone, and searched his home and the home of his father, according to a report by Radio Ozodi.
A source close to the journalist’s family was quoted by the outlet as saying that officers told Pirmuhammadzoda to stop posting on social media and that it was his “last warning.” Police showed Pirmuhammadzoda comments and other social media engagement he had made with videos published by groups banned as extremist in Tajikistan, the source said, adding that Pirmuhammadzoda himself had not done these things and that it was clear that police had tampered with the journalist’s phone while it was in their possession, according to Radio Ozodi.
On July 9, Pirmuhammadzoda responded to another DCOC summons for questioning, according to reports by Radio Ozodi and the journalist’s brother. After that, his whereabouts were unknown until a spokesperson for Tajikistan’s prosecutor general’s office confirmed on July 15 that Pirmuhammadzoda was being held in Vahdat, saying that he had been sentenced on July 9 to 10 days’ detention for disobeying police orders, according to news reports.
Shodi Hafizzoda, the head of the DCOC, announced an investigation into Pirmuhammadzoda on July 19 for making “public calls for extremist activities or justifying extremism,” media reports said. A Dushanbe court ordered the journalist remanded in custody, and on July 27 he was transferred to the Interior Ministry’s Temporary Detention Center in Dushanbe, according to a report by Radio Ozodi.
On September 12, Radio Ozodi reported that investigators had opened a case against Pirmuhammadzoda for alleged membership in a banned group.
On October 21, Radio Ozodi published a letter by Pirmuhammadzoda, saying that police beat, electrocuted, and threatened him into recording a video confessing to plotting a revolution together with an exiled political leader. He described the accusations against him as “false and concocted,” and said they were based on social media engagement that took place after his phone was confiscated by police. The journalist’s brother confirmed to CPJ that the handwriting was that of Pirmuhammadzoda, and said the journalist had confirmed authorship to relatives who visited him.
On July 8, 2022, the day before police detained Pirmuhammadzoda, they also detained Zavqibek Saidamini, an independent journalist who collaborated with Pirmuhammadzoda, Imomali, and Ghurbati. Saidamini, who like Pirmuhammadzoda had also been vocal in calling for Imomali and Ghurbati’s release, was later sentenced to seven years for membership in banned organizations.
Pirmuhammadzoda and Saidamini are among seven journalists in Tajikistan sentenced to lengthy prison terms in retaliation for their work between October 2022 and May 2023. In October 2022, Imomali was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Ghurbati to seven and a half years, on charges including participation in banned groups. Several local journalists told CPJ on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal, that they believe the arrests are designed to create a chilling effect on Tajik media and society amid tensions in Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and ahead of a possible dynastic transition of power in the country.
During a closed-door trial at a detention center in Dushanbe on December 26, 2022, a judge found Pirmuhammadzoda guilty of participation in an opposition political organization banned as extremist and sentenced him to seven years in prison. CPJ was unable to establish which organization the conviction was related to, but Pirmuhammadzoda wrote in his October letter that prosecutors accused him of ties to the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. The party is banned as “extremist and terrorist” in Tajikistan, but the ban has been criticized internationally as politically motivated, and as unjustified by the U.N. special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression and the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan.
In February 2023, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court said an investigation into Pirmuhammadzoda’s allegations of torture found no evidence of the journalist’s claims. Relatives dismissed the investigation, saying it was not independent, the journalist’s brother told CPJ.
In March, authorities transferred Pirmuhammadzoda from Dushanbe, where his family resides, to the northern city of Khujand, which is over 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the capital and accessible via difficult mountain roads. The journalist described conditions at the new prison as “unbearable,” saying he shares a cell with 60 prisoners and the water they are given is unfit for drinking. The journalist’s brother told CPJ the family believes Pirmuhammadzoda’s transfer was in retaliation for being outspoken about his ill-treatment by the government.
Pirmuhammadzoda is not appealing his sentence, as he does not have faith in Tajikistan’s justice system, Abdukarim Pirmuhammadzoda said.
In a July 2023 statement, experts with the U.N. Human Rights Council expressed concern about the convictions of Pirmuhammadzoda and at least five other journalists imprisoned in Tajikistan, citing the “apparent use of anti-terrorism legislation to silence critical voices.” The U.N. experts said the cases appeared to have “grossly violated” fair trial standards, and that they were “appalled” by reports that Pirmuhammadzoda and other journalists were “ill-treated and tortured, including to extract false confessions.” In a May letter to Tajik authorities, the U.N. experts urged the government to provide information on the legal basis for their convictions.
As of October 2023, Pirmuhammadzoda remained in detention in Khujand, his brother said, adding that the journalist does not currently have any issues with his health.
CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry of Tajikistan and the prosecutor general’s office for comment but did not receive any replies.