Avazmad Ghurbatov (Abdullo Ghurbati)

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Journalist and documentary filmmaker Abdullo Ghurbati is serving a prison sentence of seven and a half years in Tajikistan after being convicted in October 2022 on charges of membership in a banned political party and assaulting and insulting a police officer. Police in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, arrested Ghurbati in June 2022.

Ghurbati, whose legal name is Avazmad Ghurbatov, is a freelance video journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker who has worked for outlets including Asia-Plus. He also works as a camera operator for the YouTube channel of independent journalist Daler Imomali, which has about 150,000 followers and covers social issues and citizens’ complaints about alleged government abuses.

On June 15, 2022, police detained Imomali on multiple charges, including participating in banned organizations. Later that day, they summoned Ghurbati for interrogation over Imomali’s case and arrested him, accusing him of striking and insulting a police officer as he left that meeting, according to a statement released November 3 by the prosecutor general’s office. 

On July 19, the head of the Interior Ministry’s Department for Combating Organized Crime announced that prosecutors were also investigating Ghurbati for “membership” in the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, according to Radio Ozodi, the Tajik service of U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 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

Ghurbati denied all of the accusations, according to Radio Ozodi

In its November 3 statement, the prosecutor general’s office justified the extremism charge by saying Ghurbati had repeatedly “discredited” the policies of the Tajik government in posts on his Facebook account, including a May 12 post in which Ghurbati said it was not strange that youth fled military drafting in a country “without laws, without government, without leadership.” The agency also accused him of subscribing to a YouTube channel linked to the banned opposition National Alliance of Tajikistan. 

letter by local journalists and media rights advocates denounced Imomali and Ghurbati’s arrests, linking them to Imomali’s reporting shortly before his arrest alleging that a police officer had struck him during an interrogation and forced him to delete two YouTube videos about demolitions of local residents’ homes by the authorities. Reports also linked the arrests to the pair’s coverage of a construction company owned by a top official related by marriage to the president.

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 in retaliation both for the incident involving the police officer as well as the pair’s bold journalism and readiness to confront local authorities. Kadirov said that Imomali and Ghurbati 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 the months prior to their arrest.

Ghurbati and Imomali are among are among seven journalists in Tajikistan sentenced to lengthy prison terms in retaliation for their work between October 2022 and May 2023. Zavqibek Saidamini and Abdusattor Pirmuhammadzoda, two independent journalists who collaborated with Imomali and were prominent in calling for his and Ghurbati’s release, were also sentenced to seven years in prison on allegations of participation in banned groups, which they denied. 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.

Ghurbati’s trial began on September 21, 2022, and was conducted behind closed doors in the Interior Ministry’s Temporary Detention Center in Dushanbe, news reports said.

On October 4, a district court judge presiding over the trial convicted Ghurbati of membership in a banned group and insulting and assaulting a state representative, and sentenced him to seven and a half years in prison. Ghurbati pleaded not guilty, according to media reports

The Dushanbe city court upheld Ghurbati’s conviction on December 16. On July 14, 2023, a second appeals court rejected Ghurbati’s appeal. Ghurbati’s wife told Radio Ozodi on October 11 that the Supreme Court of Tajikistan also rejected the journalist’s appeal, without specifying a date. She said that Ghurbati plans to file a complaint with the U.N. Human Rights Council. 

In a statement in July 2023, experts with the U.N. Human Rights Council expressed concern about the convictions of Ghurbati 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 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, Ghurbati was being held at Correctional Facility No. 4 in Dushanbe, a source familiar with the journalist’s case told CPJ on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal. 

According to information provided by the Tajik government to the U.N. Human Rights Committee in April, Ghurbati has allegedly received the necessary treatment in detention for acute respiratory tract infection, chronic bronchitis, and a skin fungal disease. But the U.N. letter expressed continued concerns about his health. A friend of the journalist told CPJ on condition of anonymity in October 2023 that Ghurbati was fine, but that relatives feared how the cold prison conditions in winter would affect his health. 

CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry of Tajikistan and the prosecutor general’s office for comment but did not receive any replies.