Daler Imomali, an independent journalist who covers social issues and citizens’ complaints on YouTube, has been serving a 10-year prison sentence in Tajikistan since October 2022 on multiple charges, including membership in banned organizations. Tajikistan police arrested Imomali, whose legal name is Daler Imomalievich Bobiev, in June.
Imomali, a former radio presenter, runs a YouTube channel with about 150,000 followers. The channel frequently covers controversial topics, such as alleged unlawful housing demolitions and mismanagement by local authorities, according to a CPJ review of its content.
On June 15, 2022, police detained Imomali in Tajikistan’s northern Ayni district. On June 18, a court in the capital, Dushanbe, ordered him 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, according to a report by Radio Ozodi, the Tajik service of U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The tax offense carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison under Article 259, Part 2, of the Tajik criminal code; making a false accusation also carries up to five years under Article 346, Part 2; and participating in banned organizations can carry up to eight years under Article 307(3), Part 2.
The court ordered the case against Imomali to be classified as secret, according to Radio Ozodi.
Investigators accuse Imomali of membership in the Group 24 political organization, Radio Ozodi reported. Group 24, which has been banned as extremist in Tajikistan, describes itself as seeking a peaceful revolution, democracy, and human rights in the country by means of popular demonstrations.
In an open letter addressed to Tajik President Imomali Rahmon following Imomali’s conviction and published by independent outlet ASIA-Plus, Imomali described the charges against him as full of “lies, slander and contradictions.”
He denied ever being a member of Group 24 or any other group or party and said that this charge was based entirely on a short messaging app conversation he had with an activist who authorities accuse of membership in that organization. Imomali said he had no knowledge of any link between the activist and Group 24, and in a Facebook post and an interview with Current Time TV, the activist denied membership in any organization.
In the same letter, Imomali said authorities simply “pulled out of thin air” the figure of 900,000 somoni (US$90,000) that he allegedly owed in taxes for his YouTube work, in order to charge him under a higher-penalty section of Article 259. Imomali said his real earnings from YouTube were just US$8,600 and that he had agreed with authorities that he would pay taxes on these earnings the day before his arrest. Imomali’s lawyer Abdurahmon Sharipov was previously quoted by Radio Ozodi as saying that Imomali did not know he was required to pay taxes on his modest YouTube earnings.
Imomali described the false accusation charge as “full of duplicity,” saying that it related to a video of his criticizing a local official one year previously and that the dispute had been settled verbally at the time after Imomali deleted the video.
The same day police detained Imomali, they also arrested his camera operator, Abdullo Ghurbati. On October 4, a court sentenced Ghurbati to seven and a half years in prison on charges that included participation in banned organizations, which the journalist denied.
A 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.
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.
Imomali and Ghurbati 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.
Imomali’s trial began on October 7 and was conducted behind closed doors in the Interior Ministry’s Temporary Detention Center in Dushanbe, Radio Ozodi reported.
On October 17, a district court judge presiding over the trial sentenced Imomali to 10 years in prison on the extremism, tax, and false denunciation charges. The judge also ordered him to pay a 12,800 somoni (US$1,270) fine.
In his open letter to President Rahmon, Imomali wrote that he did not recognize the verdict, saying that the trial had been “full of contradictions” and the court had not taken into consideration evidence offered by the defense.
The journalist added that he had been made to record a false confession under psychological pressure, including pressure against his wife and mother. He questioned why the media had not been permitted to attend his trial and said he had not been allowed to see his family for almost three months following his arrest.
In a closed hearing on November 30, Dushanbe city court rejected Imomali’s appeal, ASIA-Plus reported. The outlet quoted Imomali’s lawyer as saying that he intended to file an appeal in a higher court.
Imomali is being held in the Penitentiary Service’s Temporary Detention Center No. 1 in Dushanbe, according to his open letter. Imomali’s mother was quoted as saying by Radio Ozodi in August that the journalist was suffering from breathing problems in detention, but CPJ was unable to confirm his current state of health.
CPJ called and messaged Imomali’s lawyers for comment but did not receive any replies; reports stated that they had signed non-disclosure agreements with authorities.
CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry of Tajikistan and the prosecutor general’s office for comment but did not receive any replies.