Behind closed doors, this week a Tajik court ruled in a controversial libel case. To no one’s surprise the plaintiff – the son of a high-ranking government official – won. That Tajikistan’s rich and powerful use courts to bully the media is nothing new, but, this time, the process has exposed Tajiks’ apparently widespread hatred for their country’s judiciary.
In 2010, Rustam Khukumov was sentenced to almost 10 years in a Russian prison, charged, along with three other Tajik nationals, with possessing nine kilos of heroin.
Khukumov is the son of the powerful head of Tajikistan’s railway boss, Amonullo Khukumov. The senior Khukumov is an ally and relative of the Tajik strongman, President Emomali Rakhmon (Khukumov is father-in-law to Rakhmon’s daughter). Could that have anything to do with why the Khukumov scion was released early, under murky circumstances, only a year into his jail term?
For asking that question, the weekly “Imruz News” now owes Khukumov over $10,500 in “moral damages,” a Dushanbe court ruled on February 25. The paper vows to appeal, which means more embarrassing attention on Khukumov.
To understand the alleged insult, we must return to a bizarre and painful episode in Tajik-Russian relations, which Rakhmon and his distant relative might rather forget: In late 2011, a few months before Russia suddenly decided to let Khukumov go, a Tajik court had sentenced two Russian charter pilots to 8.5 years for smuggling a disassembled airplane engine into Tajikistan. The pilots weren’t even headed to Tajikistan, but made an emergency landing in the southern part of the country that spring. Moscow immediately called the November 8 sentence “politically motivated” and started rounding up Tajik migrants for deportation – a move that threatened to decapitate Tajikistan’s ailing economy.
The standoff raised a lot of questions that have never been answered. Why would Tajikistan risk angering its powerful neighbor over something so trivial? Dushanbe is deeply dependent on Russia as a destination for approximately one million labor migrants, whose remittances equal roughly 50 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. During the confrontation, Russia promised an “asymmetric” response. And Rakhmon personally bore the brunt of popular sentiment for the deteriorating relations: Many wondered why he would pick this fight.
After almost two weeks of heated rhetoric from Moscow, the pilots were released. And the following month, Khukumov was suddenly acquitted.
Of course, that any exchange was tit-for-tat is pure speculation. Russia’s Foreign Ministry denied a swap. Justice had been done, that’s all, and Khukumov found not guilty, it said.
Nevertheless, Khukumov’s ballsy decision to pursue libel charges has brought the episode back into the open, prompting ridicule and some soul searching. Last month, before the verdict, Global Voices published some local bloggers’ reactions, which suggest the Tajik judiciary is not the most popular branch of government.
Blogger “Teocrat” wrote:
Listen up, Rustam! Are you a man anyway? You were in prison, journalists reported about it. What is wrong with it? What kind of ‘moral damages’ are you talking about? And the fact that you, the son of a Tajik public servant, were caught smuggling narcotics to Russia – doesn't it damage the dignity and reputation of the government or the Tajik people?! Maybe we should also take you to court for bringing shame on the country's people?
As for the suit, I think the court will rule in [Khukumov's] favor, because I can see what is going on in the country's judicial system. The suit has been filed by the son of a Tajik official, not an ordinary guy! Even if he is a [former] narcotics smuggler who was put in jail – he is still the ‘boss's son.' Imruz News will have to pay!
Hardly anyone doubts that the court will rule in Khukumov's favor, obliging Imruz News to pay the 50,000 somoni fine. This is what our judicial system is like. It is corrupt throughout. In cases which even indirectly touch upon the interests of political elites, judges rule as they are ordered to. In lower profile cases, rulings are determined by money [offered as bribes]. The judges are easy to sell and buy. This is not a secret to anyone. Therefore, our judges are similar to contracted employees, or even prostitutes – they satisfy all wants of their clients for an appropriate payment.
“Rustam” took the analogy one step further:
Judges in Tajikistan are like elite prostitutes – they only satisfy the desires of VIPs.