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Tajikistan: Rebel Journalist Offered Pardon

Activists claim an amnesty offered to Dodojon Atovulloev is a sop to soothe international concerns about free speech and civil liberties.
By Nargis Zakirova

The Tajik government last week announced it had offered an amnesty to outspoken opposition journalist Dodojon Atovulloev, who once stood accused of encouraging the violent overthrow of the current political system.


The prosecutor general's office also announced that the criminal file on the writer, who has been publishing his newspaper Charogi Ruz in Germany for the past year, has now been closed.


The conspiracy allegation dated from 1992, when Atovulloev was also charged with fomenting national and religious hatred after taking part in opposition rallies that united Islamic radicals and democrats against the restoration of communism.


Atovulloev was arrested at Moscow's Sheremetevo airport last July at the request of the Tajik authorities. The Russian courts subsequently released him under pressure from international organisations and the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who argued that Dushanbe had supplied "insufficient grounds" for his detention.


In a further twist, deputy prosecutor general Azizmat Imomov told IWPR that the case against the journalist has been closed since last August, following the adoption of a general amnesty in parliament. When asked why this had not been announced for nearly a year, Imomov explained that the prosecutor's office had been "too busy".


Charogi Ruz was strongly critical of the government, which Atovulloev considered to be pro-communist and incompetent. At the end of 1992, he left for Germany where he continued to produce articles on alleged political killings, official corruption and drug trafficking. He was subsequently charged with libelling President Emomali Rakhmonov in 1998.


Tajik civil rights activists and journalists were convinced the prosecutions stemmed solely from his attacks on the authorities in general and Rakhmonov in particular.


Local reaction to Atovulloev's amnesty has been mixed, with some praising the move and others questioning the government's motives.


Political scientist Rashid Gani said it showed the country was moving in the right direction. The government has "chosen the path to build a democratic society, and is trying to create conditions for a free press to develop", he said.


Nuriddin Karshiboev, chair of the National Association for Independent Media, said it was now up to the opposition to make similar conciliatory gestures. "Constructive forces in the Tajik government have met their most inflexible opponents halfway. The other side should now do the same," he said.


But Mukhtor Bokizoda, of the Foundation for the Remembrance and Protection of Journalists, fears Atovulloev will not be free to continue his activities if he returns home. He suspects the journalist may fall foul of the authorities once more.


Others believe the amnesty is nothing more than a gesture. One journalist said he had heard the European Union was about to give Atovulloev a Freedom Passport, which is traditionally granted to victims of persecution in Europe. "They amnestied him in order to save face in the eyes of the international community," he said.


There are other, more sinister, worries. Many fear that by accepting the amnesty and answering the call to return home, Atovulloev could be walking into a trap as many high officials in the army, interior ministry, judiciary and the president's inner circle remain determined to see him punished.


The authorities have dismissed this as paranoia. "Many journalists in the country disapprove of the government. No one will prevent Atovulloev from criticising the leadership as long as he does it in a constructive manner," deputy foreign minister Salokhiddin Nasriddinov told IWPR.


However, many independent writers have learned to their cost what the government's definition of "constructive criticism" can be. They are certain that if Atovulloev returns and attempts to republish Charogi Ruz, the newspaper will soon die. They claim the leadership will never allow Atovulloev's version of the truth to be printed inside Tajikistan, and at best will turn Charogi Ruz into "yet another banal rag".


Maxim Filandrov, an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, adviser in the country, says that after the "symbolic step" of the amnesty, the government needs to "prove that Charogi Ruz can be published and freely distributed in Tajikistan", warning that any other outcome would reflect badly on the country's international image.


Freimut Duve, an OSCE representative on media freedom, has written to the Tajik parliament, urging them to follow this with concrete measures aimed at developing freedom of speech.


Atovulloev himself seems wary of embracing the authorities' offer. He told the BBC Persian service he could not accept an amnesty, as he did not consider himself to be guilty in the first place.


The government would have to give a cast-iron guarantee that he could publish his newspaper freely before he could return, he said. It remains to be seen whether Charogi Ruz can be printed on its own terms, or if the pardon is just a face-saving gesture.


Nargis Zakirova is a journalist with Vechernyi Dushanbe newspaper


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