Independent journalist Zavqibek Saidamini has been serving a seven-year prison sentence in Tajikistan since November 2022 on charges of participating in two opposition political organizations banned as extremist in the country. Police detained Saidamini, whose legal name is Zavqibek Saidaminovich Sohibov, in the capital, Dushanbe, in July 2022.
Saidamini worked as an editor and presenter at the state broadcaster Tajikistan Television until 2019, when he quit as he felt unable to report freely, Abdumalik Kadirov, secretary-general of the independent advocacy group Media Alliance of Tajikistan, told CPJ by messaging app. Since then, he has published commentary and reporting on his two YouTube channels, which have a total of about 15,000 subscribers and, prior to his arrest, covered topics including border conflicts with Kyrgyzstan, religion, and allegations of unlawful military drafting practices.
Saidamini 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 Radio Ozodi, the Tajik service of U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and CPJ’s review of his output.
On the evening of July 8, plainclothes law enforcement officers in Dushanbe detained Saidamini and took him to the Interior Ministry’s Department for Combating Organized Crime in the nearby town of Vahdat, according to Radio Ozodi.
Saidamini’s whereabouts were unknown for a week following his detention, according to news reports, until a spokesperson for Tajikistan’s prosecutor general’s office confirmed on July 15 that the journalist was in detention and under investigation for participation in the political organizations Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and Group 24, both banned as extremist by Tajikistan’s Supreme Court.
The Islamic Renaissance 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. Group 24 describes itself as seeking a peaceful revolution, democracy, and human rights in the country by means of popular demonstrations.
Saidamini has repeatedly denied belonging to any parties or groups, according to Radio Ozodi. Both groups denied collaboration with Saidamini according to a report by Radio Ozodi and a statement by Group 24.
Participation in organizations banned as extremist is punishable by five to eight years in prison under Article 307(3), Part 2, of the criminal code of Tajikistan.
The day after police detained arrested Saidamini, they also detained Abdusattor Pirmuhammadzoda, an independent journalist and blogger who collaborated with Saidamini, Imomali, and Ghurbati. Pirmuhammadzoda, who like Saidamini had also been vocal in calling for Imomali and Ghurbati’s release, was later charged with participating in banned organizations, according to reports.
Saidamini and Pirmuhammadzoda 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.
On November 3, a district court judge found Saidamini guilty of participating in the two banned organizations and sentenced him to seven years in prison.
The journalist denied the charges, according to news reports. In an appeals filing cited by independent outlet ASIA-Plus, Saidamini described the investigation and trial as “one-sided” and “full of contradictions,” saying the judge did not take into consideration evidence offered by the defense or the testimony of some witnesses.
Saidamini remains in detention in the Temporary Detention Center, a source close to the journalist’s family told CPJ. CPJ was unable to confirm his current health status.
CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry of Tajikistan and the prosecutor general’s office for comment but did not receive any reply.