After a closed-door trial, Tajik journalist Avazmad Ghurbatov, who worked under the name Abdullo Ghurbati, was sentenced to to seven-and-a-half years in prison. The 26-year-old journalist maintained his innocence against charges he had publicly insulted a government official, assaulted a police officer, and participated in the activities of an extremist group.
Ghurbati was detained in June alongside Daler Bobiev, who works under the name Daler Imomali. Ghurbati, a freelance video journalist, worked with Imomali to produce a YouTube Channel for nearly 150,000 subscribers.
Gulnoza Said, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a press release condemning Ghurbati’s sentencing that it “appears to be a product of Tajik authorities’ discomfort with the growing popularity of the courageous brand of public-interest citizen journalism practiced by Ghurbati and his colleague Daler Imomali.”
Imomali was first arrested on June 15, with authorities claiming to be investigating charges of fraud, falsely reporting a crime, and involvement in the activities of a banned organization. The Shohmansur district prosecutor’s office reportedly summoned Ghurbatov and later alleged that after the meeting Ghurbatov assaulted a police officer. He was then arrested.
In July, Tajik authorities expanded their charges against Ghurbatov, to include the insult charge and the allegation of participation in an extremist group’s activities. The latter charge carried the heaviest sentencing potential.
In late September, Ghurbati’s wife reportedly addressed a letter directly to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon pleading that her husband had nothing to do with the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), a formerly legal political party banned since 2015.
According to RFE/RL’s reporting, the Tajik authorities alleged that Ghurbatov had business relations with Idibek Latipov, a Tajik businessman living in Egypt since 2007. Latipov reportedly paid Ghurbati to put together a YouTube video advertising Latipov’s company while Latipov was on the Tajik National Bank’s registry of individuals involved in “terrorist or extremist activities.” It’s not clear whether the bank’s registry is public, and Ghurbati denied knowing Latipov was on any such list. Latipov, for his part, told RFE/RL his inclusion on the registry was “groundless.”
A bevy of rights advocates condemned the charges against Ghurbati as “trumped up” and the sentence as “unfair.”
Half a dozen journalists or activists from Tajikistan are presently detained and facing charges. These include the just-sentenced Ghurbati and Imomali, whose trial is expected to begin soon; GBAO journalists Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva and Khushruz Jumayev, who were detained in May; and Zavqibek Saidamini and Abdusattor Pirmuhammadzoda, who were detained in July after calling for the release of Ghurbati and Imomali.
It’s a worrying crackdown on media in a country where few free and independent media outlets exist.
In 2020, Ghurbati was physically assaulted twice. At the time, he was working for Asia Plus and trying to report on the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, the severity of which the Tajik government downplayed in the early months. Ghurbati was subject to an online smear campaign and attacked. His attackers were never identified.