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BBC reporter still detained in Tajikistan

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Behrouz Afagh | 11:56 UK time, Wednesday, 29 June 2011

It is now over two weeks that BBC Uzbek reporter, Urunboy Usmonov has been in prison in Tajikistan. He is accused of having links with Hizb ut-Tahrir, an illegal Islamist group widespread in Central Asia.

Urunboy Usmonov

Hamid Ismailov, Editor of BBC Central Asian Service, who's been in Tajikistan this week, making Uruboy's case with Tajik authorities, was allowed to visit him in jail briefly yesterday. He rang just after he came out. "I was shocked to see Urunboy so frail" he said, "he was quiet and withdrawn and his eyes were fixed on the security officers, while I was talking to him".

Hamid tried to reassure Urunboy that everyone in the BBC supports him and that messages of support are coming from all over the world - from fellow journalists, major international media organizations, human rights NGOs, and senior politicians and diplomats, who have been pressing Tajik authorities to release him. "I'm not sure whether Urunboy was hearing me", he said.

On the day the news of Urunboy's arrest came, those of us who know him were telling everyone that we know he is innocent. None of us knew then what exactly he was arrested for and what evidence the security agents had against him. We only knew that they had picked him up and kept him overnight, had brought him home in the morning, battered and beaten, had turned over his house, and had taken him away again along with some "evidence".

Two weeks on, we now know that the evidence against Urunboy is a few books and computer files on Hizb ut-Tahrir, and that he had met a few members of the group to interview them, without telling the security authorities. This is nothing other than routine, common practice for any serious and independent journalist. But Uruboy is in jail for it, frail and frightened.

I have been wondering these last two weeks whether, working in the BBC in London, we are taking too much for granted. And whether independent, impartial journalism means anything in the world of the security officers in Khojand, where Urunboy is based. But all they need to do is to read what Urunboy has been writing and reporting for over 30 years to see that he would simply be unable to belong to any group which would see the world through a narrow dogmatic ideology.

If this sounds too abstract, I would quote a thoughtful comment from one of Urunboy's colleagues in Tajikistan in a report for Persian TV. He showed clips of Urunboy, singing and dancing with a large group of women in his family at his son's wedding. "This does not seem compatible with the forbidding world of Hizb ut-Tahrir", commented the reporter in a "measured" and "dispassionate" BBC tone.

This is the Urunboy we all know. Cheerful, gentle, generous, tolerant, utterly honest and open minded. His small office in Khojand is the best place to visit if you want to meet all kinds of interesting people and find out what's going on over a cup of tea.

His essays and novels, and his reporting for the BBC has recorded the great social and political upheavals in his country with compassion and understanding, informed by his broad and sophisticated view of the world.

This is why from day one we all believed he is innocent, and we will do everything we can to get him released. We hope very much that he will soon be able to return to his family, and to continue writing and reporting.

Behrouz Afagh is head of Middle East and west/central Asia at the BBC World Service.


  • Comment number 1.

    Why didn't correspondent Urunboy Usmonov feel ask permission from the authorities? Is there any truth to the allegation that (perhaps to get inside journalism) Usmonov joined the banned Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2009?
    Lawyer Fayziniso Vohidova, the lawyer for Urunboy Usmonov says she expects the charge of belonging to a banned Islamic organization to be dropped. She thinks Usmonov will only be charged with failing to inform officials that he met with members of the banned Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir & took leaflets & other literature from them. So, again I ask, why did he not request permission form officials?
    Lawyer Fayziniso Vohidova stated that under Tajik law, a journalist is entitled to remain silent in order to protect his sources. Does this apply to requesting permission to visit as well?
    Usmonov's detention on June 13 elicited statements of concern from human rights organizations and from the US Embassy in Dushanbe. Is Urunboy an American or British citizen? What about the UK? Is there no UK embassy? What about David Cameron? Has he voiced concerns?
    Nuriddin Shamsov, who heads the Tajik delegation to the OSCE, said that according to the Tajik Interior Ministry, Usmanov joined Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2009 and has been actively involved in propaganda, distributing extremist materials, recruiting new members through social networks, calling for the overthrow of the government.
    Urunboy was resident in Tajik for ten years; should he not have known better than not request permission?

  • Comment number 2.

    The cited evidence does not much sound like the sort of evidence the authorities would have prior knowledge of. I wonder if there is some other, unrevealed, "evidence" that the authorities acted on, such as phone calls made or websites visited. Did not another BBC journalist recently get listed as a terrorist suspect 'by association' (i.e. by their phone number being known to someone of real terrorist persuasion) ?

  • Comment number 3.

    You call this organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir , "illegal". Illegal where? Tajikistan? I had never heard of this organisation before, so have just read the Wiki entry. Sounds about as extremist as the SNP to me, so surely the focus should be on the regime that bans such an organisation? Is it against the law to think in Tajikistan? A couple of earlier posters say this is a terrorist organisation. Any evidence? Or is the word Islamist just a modern catch-all, which allows the detention and torture of anyone who isn't "western"?

  • Comment number 4.

    Another despot regime...who like to keep the truth locked in. This journalist should be released immediately...immediately ..because the world demands it, as well as the BBC. Journalists are too often soft targets these days; but without them the world would be more dangerous because more truth would be locked in. The truth needs "Out"!

  • Comment number 5.

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