Avazmad Ghurbatov (Abdullo Ghurbati)

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Journalist and documentary filmmaker Avazmad Ghurbatov, who works under the name Abdullo Ghurbati, has been serving a prison sentence of seven and a half years in Tajikistan since October 2022 on multiple charges, including assaulting and insulting a police officer and membership in a banned political party. Police in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, arrested Ghurbati in June 2022.

Ghurbati 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, including by the United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression and the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan

Ghurbati has denied all of the accusations, according to Radio Ozodi. Assaulting a police officer is punishable by up to two years in prison under Article 328, Part 1, of the criminal code of Tajikistan; insulting a police officer by up to one year of correctional labor under Article 330, Part 1; and participation in banned extremist organizations by up to eight years in prison under Article 307(3), Part 2.

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. 

A letter by local journalists and media rights advocates denounced Ghurbati and Imomali’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.

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 that incident 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 six journalists arrested in Tajikistan between May and July 2022 and tried for major criminal offenses. Zavqibek Saidamini and Abdusattor Pirmuhammadzoda, two independent journalists who collaborated with Imomali and were prominent in calling for his and Ghurbati’s release, also faced charges of 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.

Ghurbati’s trial began on September 21 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 on all three counts and sentenced him to seven and a half years in prison. Ghurbati pleaded not guilty and plans to appeal the verdict, according to media reports.

CPJ called and messaged Ghurbati’s lawyer for comment but did not receive any replies.

As of late 2022, Ghurbati was being held at Temporary Detention Center No. 1 in Dushanbe, a source familiar with the journalist’s case told CPJ on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal. CPJ was unable to determine his current health status.

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