Independent journalist Abdusattor Pirmuhammadzoda has been detained in Tajikistan since July 2022 on charges of participation in banned organizations and making “public calls for extremist activities or justifying extremism.”
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 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 Tajikistan’s capital, 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.
On July 19, Shodi Hafizzoda, the head of the DCOC, announced an investigation into Pirmuhammadzoda 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.
Membership in banned groups is punishable by between five and eight years in prison under Article 307(3), Part 2, of the criminal code of Tajikistan, while calling for extremist activities or justifying extremism online or in the media carries a sentence of between three and 10 years, depending on the severity, under the criminal code.
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, 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 six journalists arrested in Tajikistan between May and July 2022 and tried for major criminal offenses. In October, 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.
Pirmuhammadzoda remains in detention awaiting trial in the Interior Ministry’s Temporary Detention Center in Dushanbe, Abdukarim Pirmuhammadzoda told CPJ in mid-November 2022.
CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry of Tajikistan and the prosecutor general’s office for comment but did not receive any replies.