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Tajikistan: Memories of Journalist Killings Revived

More than six years on from Tajikistan’s bloody conflict, the authorities take new steps to find those behind the murder of journalists.
By Nargis Zokirova

The latest plans to investigate the murders of dozens of journalists during Tajikistan’s five year civil war have sparked fears that prosecutors may charge innocent people in their haste to clear up cases.


This month, the Central Asian republic’s deputy chief prosecutor, Azizmat Imomov, announced the establishment of a special unit dedicated to investigating the killings of journalists during the violence, which lasted from 1992 until a peace deal was signed in 1997.


The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists recorded at least 29 killings of journalists over the five years of conflict, while the Foundation for the Commemoration and Protection of Journalists in Tajikistan, FCPJT, believes the number lies between 73 and 81.


Some were targeted by Islamic guerrillas of the United Tajik Opposition, then fighting the government. Others – many believe the vast majority – were killed off by the Popular Front, a violent paramilitary force which backed the regime and produced many of its current leaders.


Reporters have continued to be murdered since the conflict, though the attrition rate is lower.


So far prosecutors have pursued only 15 or 20 cases, arguing it is impossible to look into all the wartime killings.


Among the most prominent cases were those of Mohyeddin Alempour, who was head of the BBC Persian Service’s office in Dushanbe, and Russian television reporter Viktor Nikulin, murdered in late 1995 and early 1996 respectively.


Both cases were closed in July 2003, with the jailing of two men implicated in the deaths of Alempour and Nikulin.


But these convictions do not appear to represent a trend.


Independent journalists and analysts in Tajikistan have told IWPR that the latest move to create a special investigative commission may not achieve much, partly because it is too late to uncover useful evidence, and also because a thorough investigation could expose senior officials who may have committed abuses during the civil war.


They also voice concerns about due process, because the authorities may take a few shortcuts in its haste to show the international community it is clearing up this stain on its record.


“Some of the murderers are known, and some of them are still holding various official posts,” said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations in Moscow and author of a book on journalists in the Tajik civil war.


“Secondly, the professional standard of the law-enforcement agencies is not high enough for them to investigate crimes committed eight to ten years ago.”


Mukhtor Bokizoda, who heads FCPJT, cites the case of Murodullo Sheralizoda, the chief editor of the Sadoi Mardum newspaper who was gunned down in the courtyard of the Tajik parliament in May 1992, making him the first journalist killed in the civil conflict.


Like many that followed, this killing was never cleared up. “The murder led to a criminal investigation, but it was never completed and the killers were not found,” said Bokizoda. “Although everyone knew who ordered the killing of Sheralizoda and who fired the shots, none of them was arrested.”


Bokizoda doubts that prosecutors will ever be able to gather enough evidence to bring charges in such old cases. “To date they have solved only a few, more recent cases in which there was no such delay – and you can count them on your fingers,” he said. “And even in those cases, I am not sure that those convicted were the real killers.”


In one such questionable case, Bokizoda recounts how the authorities arrested and convicted a former policeman almost immediately after the murder of national TV and radio head Saif Rahimzod in 2000. The man was sentenced to death – but doubts linger about his guilt, because he recanted in court, saying he had confessed to the killing only under torture.


Marat Mamadshoev, the editor of the independent newspaper Asia Plus, is slightly less pessimistic, telling IWPR that given recent improvements in the legal system, he had no reason to believe innocent people would be convicted. At the same time, he believes, “Some investigators might be temped to pin a murder of a reporter on some guerrillas or field commanders who are already dead.”


Panfilov believes that even years after the conflict, someone, somewhere may know the truth about these murders, “Tajikistan is a small country, and much of what happened there during the war is known to many people.”


Nargis Zokirova is an IWPR contributor in Tajikistan.


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