Usmanov case represents critical moment for Tajikistan

GUEST BLOG: by a journalist who has just come back from Tajikistan.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Amnesty International.

On Monday 13th June the BBC reporter, Urunboy Usmanov, left his office in Khujand, northern Tajikistan, as usual. When he did not arrive home, his family was uneasy. It was absolutely out of character for Urunboy to change his plans. Quiet, sensible, a father and grandfather, Urunboy is almost 60. He is a pillar of his small community. It was only on the Tuesday night, a day later, that security agents brought him home battered around the head and bloody.

They turned over the house; swearing; searching for who knows what. Urunboy managed to say ‘It’s because of my work,’ before they took him away. The next day he was charged with membership of Hezb-i Tahrir, an illegal Islamist group widespread in Central Asia. This account is by a friend and colleague who worked with Urunboy over many years.

Last time I saw Urunboy everything was as usual. He was in his office; a couple of rooms called Fourth Estate. A computer or two; cups of tea. Bread from the baker downstairs. And Urunboy of course rushed out and bought hot dumplings for everyone. Friends drifted in. A Democratic Party lawyer; some young men writing their first pieces as journalists. At Fourth Estate, everyone felt comfortable.

We talked about the way things were going in Tajikistan. About the mass migration of the young, heading to work on building sites in faraway Russia. About the electricity shortages that were pulling life downwards – can’t charge your phone; can’t get online – let alone the impact on business and schools. Urunboy was worried by how bored kids seemed to feel no social contract with the state, but to drift instead towards sects like Hezb-i Tahrir – a group that rejects not only national borders but the very idea of countries.

We all talked about how in some areas, the symbols of piety were bedding into normal life. ‘It used to be old men who went to the mosque,’ said a student who’d dropped by. ‘Now it’s all the young.’ Others talked about how girls were covering up more and more – a new shop stocking Arabic-style clothes had hejab flying off the shelves.

Urunboy felt, and noted, these social shifts with compassion and understanding the way he had been doing for more than 30 years. For the last decade, Urunboy has been with the BBC but that is only the latest layer of his career.

When he started out, Tajikistan had been part of the Soviet Union and Leonid Brezhnev was in the Kremlin. In those days, Urunboy worked at northern Tajikistan’s daily newspaper Leninabadskaya Pravda. He was one of the very first pioneering reporters to start exploring ideas of democracy. One would-be contributor recalled him as a fierce rejecter of rubbish, who advised him to throw his story in the bin, because one had to ‘finish at least three novels by Dostoyevsky in the original before you can write a story’.

Urunboy’s own reporting was richly informed by a broad, complex view of humanity. His latest novel, ‘Seed of Nothing’, explores themes of tolerance and love in the landscape of his own village, Ispisar.

It is quite astonishing, therefore, that Urunboy has been charged with belonging to Hezb-i Tahrir. Urunboy is of course a Muslim – all Tajiks are Muslims. But he is simply unable to see life through the single lens that membership of such groups entails. If it was not so dreadful, the idea would be ludicrous.

Why then has this thing happened? It would tempting here to make a caricature of Tajikistan: to take the template of other Central Asian countries, like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and say that an authoritarian regime is just stamping on freedom of speech. But that, I think, might be to miss the nuances of the matter and perhaps, even, its profound importance.

Tajikistan does not fit a simple model. It has currents pulling towards repression; violence and corruption – and counter-currents that tug the other way. It may well be that a crass police mistake or a sudden move against the press prompted Urunboy’s arrest.

But there are also strong liberal sentiments in Tajikistan. The Tajik press has been headlining Urunboy’s story – even running hourly updates in some cases. He has an outspoken lawyer to defend him; and supporters who are not afraid to say what they think.

This counterpoint of repression and liberalism is mirrored by Tajikistan’s international setting. President Rahmon’s huge new partner is China. Beijing has given him hundreds of millions of dollars in credit, made manifest in the vast gold and marble palaces sprouting up all over the capital, Dushanbe.

At the same time, liberal institutions, like the UN and the ICRC, have presence and some leverage, mainly because Tajikistan went through a civil war in the 1990s when Mr Rahmon came to power. The United States is active too. Tajikistan lies north of Afghanistan and is a link in the Northern Distribution Network that supplies ISAF troops. The Tajik leadership sees benefits in all this and values its standing in the foreign community highly.

The case of Urunboy Usmanov represents a critical moment in Tajikistan. His trial will tell us as much about which way the country might tip and what the future may hold for other journalists. If Urunboy is found guilty, there’ll be a terrible hole in the heart of the Fourth Estate office, and far beyond. It will show us that the government has drawn swords with the press, and will probably come at it again.

If he is found innocent, or the judge finds a tactful way out, like a suspended sentence, it will give courage to justice and free speech across the country. Urunboy will come home to his family. But it is hard to imagine he will come to the office in quite the same way again.