(Berlin) – Tajik authorities have detained a prominent independent journalist, apparently for his writing, Human Rights Watch said today. Daler Sharipov, who has been detained since January 28, 2020 for “inciting religious discord,” faces up to five years in prison if convicted. He has often criticized the government and reported on sensitive topics.
Tajik authorities should take immediate steps to free Sharipov and in the meantime ensure that he is not mistreated in custody.
“Daler Sharipov is among a very small number of independent journalists in Tajikistan who continue to express their views freely,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tajik authorities should immediately drop these fabricated charges and release him.”
Human Rights Watch estimates that since mid-2015, as part of a major human rights crackdown, the Tajikistan government has imprisoned more than 150 people on politically motivated charges. Many received lengthy prison terms, including life in prison, merely for peacefully exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression.
On January 30, 2020, the Ismoili Somoni District Court in Dushanbe opened a criminal case against Sharipov on charges of incitement of religious discord, under art. 189 of the Tajik Criminal Code, and placed him in pretrial detention. His lawyers managed to see Sharipov on the same day. They also had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, undermining their ability to provide adequate legal representation. On January 31, the Dushanbe City Court rejected the lawyers’ request to release Sharipov during the investigation.
Sharipov has in recent years published articles in various media outlets, including in the independent newspaper Ozodagon. His articles covered such topics as human rights violations and religious freedom. In 2019, Ozodagon closed after repeated harassment by the authorities.
The General Prosecutor’s Office on February 1, 2020 released a statement about Sharipov, saying that “in the period 2013-2019 he published more than 200 articles and notes of extremist content aimed at inciting religious hatred” and in June 2019, he illegally produced 100 copies of a dissertation in an underground printing house. The prosecutor’s office said that a religious expert allegedly found that the dissertation “was developed in the context of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.”
The independent news agency Asia-Plus reported that Sharipov’s dissertation quotes the Quran and explains that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, saying that Islam itself is against terrorism, extremism, and radicalism. He also urges journalists, scientists, and intellectuals not to use the phrases “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic radicalism” and urges the authorities to protect the rights of believers.
Since 2006, the Tajikistan government has banned the Muslim Brotherhood movement and designated it an extremist and terrorist organization. Since the beginning of 2020, the authorities have detained more than 100 alleged members of the movement, including two foreigners, a municipal official, and more than 20 university professors. At the beginning of February, Fergana.news reported that 30 Brotherhood suspects had been released after 10 to 20 days in custody.
In 2012, Sharipov founded the movement “Kadam da kadam” (Step by Step) to unify youth and oppose localism and corruption. Since then, the State Committee for National Security, Tajikistan’s principal intelligence agency, has summoned him multiple times. In November 2012, a group of unidentified men beat him. He spent three days in the hospital. No one was charged for the attack.
There are serious concerns that Sharipov might be at risk of torture in pretrial detention. Human Rights Watch has in recent years documented numerous cases of torture and other ill-treatment in Tajik detention centers and prisons, including the beatings of Buzurgmehr Yorov, a human rights lawyer, and Mahmadali Hayit, a political activist and deputy head of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Zayd Saidov, a political opposition figure, was denied needed medical care.
On February 3, 2020, eight Tajik nongovernmental organizations and 37 journalists, lawyers, and bloggers signed a petition urging the Tajik authorities to place Sharipov under noncustodial restraint, and to ensure that the investigation met international free expression standards. Harlem Desir, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, also wrote to Tajik authorities calling for Sharipov’s release.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee noted in its concluding observations about Tajikistan in August 2019 the “harassment of independent journalists and media workers for critically reporting on State policies and on other matters of public interest, including through […] prosecutions on allegedly trumped-up charges.” The committee recommended that Tajikistan “ensure the effective protection of independent journalists and media workers against any form of intimidation and refrain from using civil and criminal provisions, including the provisions on extremism, as well as other regulations, as a tool to suppress critical reporting on matters of public interest.”
In December 2017, Tajik authorities detained another respected independent journalist, Khayrullo Mirsaidov, and sentenced him in July 2018 to 12 years in prison on bogus charges of “embezzlement,” “forgery,” and “providing false testimony.” There was an international outcry about Mirsaidov’s case. In August 2018, the Sughd Regional Court upheld his conviction but released him, ordering him to pay a fine and do community service.
“Tajikistan’s broad definition of ‘extremism’ allows authorities to use this vague offense to silence critical voices in the country,” Williamson said. “The government should stop this practice and ensure that independent journalists are able to continue their work without risk of reprisal.”