[UPDATE -- Good news: Urinboy Usmonov will be released on bail today, Dushanbe's Asia-Plus news agency reported one hour ago. But it sounds like he still faces the charges outlined below.]
A month after his arrest on dubious and politicized charges, BBC reporter Urinboy Usmonov is still languishing in a Tajik prison.
Usmonov, a correspondent for the BBC’s Uzbek-language service, was arrested on June 13 and charged with being a member of the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an accusation frequently leveled against government critics in Tajikistan. Though those charges were later dropped, the authorities seem unwilling to free him: Usmonov is now being held for not informing Tajikistan’s security services about his meetings with Hizb-ut-Tahrir members.
"The Tajik government is now prosecuting Urinboy Usmonov for not being a government informer," the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog, said in a July 13 statement. "This action essentially criminalizes journalism. We call on the Tajik prosecutor to drop the charges against Usmonov and release him immediately."
The BBC marked the one-month anniversary by reiterating calls for Usmonov’s immediate release and highlighting concerns over his health and fragile mental state.
Here’s some rare – if tentative – positive news for a detained journalist in Tajikistan. Authorities appear ready to drop the most serious charges against BBC reporter Urinboy Usmonov – membership in a banned Islamic extremist group. But he still faces accusations that could test Tajik law and further erode media freedoms.
Usmonov was nabbed on June 13 and later charged with belonging to Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The arrest, concerns he may have been beaten in custody, and authorities’ apparent unwillingness to allow Usmonov access to counsel prompted an international outcry and demands for his immediate release. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog, said the “trumped-up charges” were designed to silence a government critic.
The BBC’s Russian Service reports that Usmonov, 59, still faces charges of contacting members of the radical group – which has never been linked to violence and is legal in some western countries, such as the UK – and reporting their statements without alerting authorities. Yet his lawyer says Tajik law guarantees the right for journalists to protect their sources, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Wherever Kamchybek Tashiev goes, mischief seems to follow.
The prominent deputy from the nationalist Ata-Jurt party is widely considered a contender in presidential elections this fall. Now, a criminal suit that he calls politically motivated may test Tashiev’s presidential mettle. Will his crowds of supporters be deterred? Or does their loyalty have little to do with his public image?
Tashiev is charged with "premeditated infliction of significant damage to a person's health,” after allegedly beating up a deputy from his own party. Bakhadyr Suleimanov says he spent several days in a Bishkek hospital with a concussion after Tashiev attacked him late on March 31.
The head of Kyrgyzstan’s boxing federation, Tashiev denies he ever laid a finger on his party-mate. He also insists the charges, including hooliganism, are part of a government conspiracy "to prevent my participation in the presidential elections" scheduled for the fall, he told RFE/RL. Even so, Tashiev has gallantly waived his parliamentary immunity so the investigation can proceed.
Concerns are growing about the fate of a BBC journalist detained in northern Tajikistan. Urinboy Usmonov, who has worked with the BBC Central Asian Service for ten years, was arrested on June 13, accused of being a member of a banned Islamic movement. Media rights activists say he has not had access to a lawyer and believe he has been beaten in custody. Usmonov, 59, is diabetic and suffers from high blood pressure.
Authorities told the AP that Usmonov is suspected of membership in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamic movement banned throughout Central Asia, but which operates legally in some western countries and has never been tied to violence.
Journalists who know Usmonov say he has reported on Hizb-ut-Tahrir, but that he is a secular man. If he had copies of banned material, they said, it was simply so he could do his job.
Passions often flare during a sports match, but referee favoritism has just gone to a whole new level.
Riots broke out on June 14 in Tajikistan’s southern town of Kulyab after referees called a disputed, last-second play in favor of one of the teams. This wasn’t just any team, however. It was Istiqlol Dushanbe, whose striker and owner is Rustam Emomali, President Emomali Rakhmon’s 23-year-old heir apparent. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades to disperse rock-throwing fans of the local team, which, thanks to the disputed call, lost 1-0. RFE/RL reported:
Witnesses said the fans were angry because they believe the referees called the game to Istiqlol's advantage. Fans who left the stadium attacked the Istiqlol team bus, players' cars, and even firefighters and ambulances near the stadium.
They then turned on Emomali. (Don’t worry, he’s fine.)
Private Tajik news agencies reported that police arrested 20 for hooliganism; 10 were injured. The state news agency reported the Istiqlol win, but failed to mention the violence. (A shaky video of the aftermath can be viewed here on YouTube.)
Kyrgyzstan’s Committee on National Security is denying a rumor it appears to have started a few weeks ago. It turns out Kyrgyz citizens aren’t traveling abroad en masse for terrorist training after all. But why is the GKNB -- the successor to the Soviet-era KGB -- toying with the tense country’s emotions like this?
GKNB Deputy Chairman Marat Imankulov now says reports that “over 300 Kyrgyz nationals” have joined international terrorist groups, presumably in Afghanistan and Pakistan, do “not square with reality,” the KyrTAG news agency reported.
“There is no need to talk about mass training of our nationals at militant camps," he said on June 9.
Where did that rumor come from? Six weeks ago, Imankulov’s boss, GKNB Chair Keneshbek Dushebayev said that 400 ethnic Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan (Kyrgyz nationals, that is) were plotting to unleash a wave of terror on the country from foreign training camps. That was an electric claim in Kyrgyzstan where Uzbeks, since last summer’s ethnic violence, are blamed for just about everything. Indeed, Dushebayev has tried repeatedly to link the ethnic violence last summer to Islamic radicals.
Dushebayev is rarely a convincing source, but this latest GKNB disagreement backtracks from a year of dodgy claims – namely, that terrorists are merely a few bullets or bombs from launching a revolutionary assault on the country. Such panic mongering is, though, great for drumming up support.
With a Talib’s eye for detail, the president of Tajikistan is updating his country’s inventory of undesirable people and things. Move over bearded footballers and hijab, scary names have landed in Emomali Rakhmon’s sights.
Speaking to a group of schoolchildren, Rakhmon said parents should choose their children’s names from classical Persian poetry and avoid names derived from such frightening concepts as “war” and “wolves.”
"I pay close attention to surnames and names when I appoint anyone to a leading post in the government," AFP quoted Rakhmon as saying. "Sometimes, reading surnames can make one shudder."
Kyrgyzstan’s leaders just can’t accept the international response to last June’s ethnic violence. Responding to the latest in a series of independent studies that dare say more Kyrgyz killed Uzbeks (though it did clearly point out that Uzbeks killed Kyrgyz, too), on May 26 parliament banned the report’s author, Finnish politician Kimmo Kiljunen, from entering Kyrgyzstan.
Not a single deputy in the 120-seat legislature was brave enough to vote against the proposal, which passed with 95 votes and one abstention.
As Kyrgyzstan approaches presidential elections, the country is becoming a bastion of intolerance. Anyone who challenges the dominant nationalist discourse, which essentially holds that Uzbeks got what they deserved during the ethnic bloodletting -- and, by the way, members of the minority are ungrateful separatist-terrorists -- is accused of conspiring against the nation. The majority, in turn, takes increasingly drastic measures to make sure all they hear is that they are correct.
Say you’re the leader of an impoverished country in a region known for bling envy. Your richer neighbors build themselves palace after palace; in twenty years of power, you’ve only managed to score one. But you’ve got well-heeled foreigner donors paying for your people’s most urgent needs. So how do you spend those extra millions sitting around?
Move over Uncle Washington and Aunt Brussels: The world's tallest flagpole, calculated to cost over $32 million, is being completed this week in Tajikistan’s capital,Dushanbe. At 165 meters, the structure takes the record from Azerbaijan (now three meters short), which took it from Turkmenistan last May.
What does $32ish million -- the figure is the reported cost of the Azeri flagpole, so add three meters and do the math -- buy in Tajikistan?
Some media outlets -- including a few respected ones -- are jumping on an obscure diplomatic cable as proof that Tajikistan knew the location of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideaway in 2009. These blogs and articles seem to be crediting Tajikistan with providing intelligence that helped Washington find bin Laden—a dubious assertion.
While it’s easy to pluck out a detail from one leaked cable, in the grander scheme of things it could be dangerous to praise Tajikistan for contributing something it didn’t. Central Asian officials often exaggerate the threat of terrorism -- to get international funding? -- and then domestically do battle with local Muslims in such a heavy-handed and indiscriminate way that it’s highly likely they are doing more to bolster terrorism than to battle it.
In the cable, released by WikiLeaks this February, a Tajik counterterrorism official from the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), General Abdullo Sadulloevich Nazarov, told an American Embassy official that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan. Speaking of terrorist groups in general -- of which Tajikistan claims to have many, while offering limited proof -- the American official paraphrased Nazarov as saying:
“For instance, in Pakistan Osama Bin Laden wasn't an invisible man, and many knew his whereabouts in North Waziristan, but whenever security forces attempted a raid on his hideouts, the enemy received warning of their approach from sources in the security forces.”