Dispatch from Baku Azerbaijan spring yet to blossom

GUEST BLOG: By a friend and colleague of imprisoned BBC reporter Urunboy Usmonov

The BBC reporter in Tajikistan, Urunboy Usmonov, has turned down a government offer of freedom in exchange for accepting that he has links with a radical Islamic group, Hezb-i Tahrir.

Mr Usmonov was arrested in June and found guilty of associating with the illegal group: a charge that he flatly denies. The case has attracted a huge amount of attention in Tajikistan and the wider Central Asian region, where it is seen as a watershed in press freedom.

Urunboy turns 60 on 2 November. At an age when men in Tajikistan settle into old age, waited upon by respectful children and grandchildren, Urunboy is embarking on the fight of his life.

This quiet, understated, man refuses to accept the tempting compromise the government is holding out – to walk free, in exchange for tacitly admitting that he committed a crime. “I am absolutely innocent,” he says “I cannot take the amnesty and I have submitted an appeal to the High Court to clear my name.”

On the face of it, this is a brave decision, perhaps without precedent in Tajikistan. Most convicts seize gratefully at the ‘amnesty’, which is a well-established solution to awkward cases that are causing official embarrassment. By flying in the face of this convention, Urunboy risks ending up in jail, perhaps for many years.

Dig deeper, and Urunboy’s stand is even braver than it appears. When he was detained in June, he was beaten up, burnt with cigarettes and his mind mangled with what he calls psychological torture. A friend described him as physically shattered, with lasting headaches and blurred hearing. This comes against a background of frail physical health. Urunboy suffers from diabetes and a weak heart – he had been on the way to the doctor when he was arrested.

What is it about Urunboy, then, that gives him this courage and clarity of purpose?

Urunboy’s most outstanding quality is his kindness. When I think of him memories flood in of kindness lightly given. The bottles of warm milk waiting for the baby as Urunboy met us after a long journey; the recording cable he miraculously had made in the bazaar (a huge effort, never revealed) to help us out of a jam. The warmth of his family in their village of Ispisar, far away in the north of Tajikistan.

Urunboy’s kindness goes hand in hand with another special quality – his intellectual inner life. He is an old-school journalist, an immense reader and writer of literature and explorer into the human condition. For Urunboy human life itself is the story; the story he has been telling since the old days as lead reporter on Leninskaya Pravda 30 years ago. To think of Urunboy as a partisan, for or against an Islamic group or a government would be to miss the point.

Kindness and a deep intellectual landscape make for another quality of Urunboy’s. He is principled in a country where many people have given up trying to sift the moral experience of their lives. When Urunboy says he needs to clear his name at the High Court not only for himself, but for the sake of Tajik journalism, these are not hollow words; they are an expression of sincere belief that journalism in Tajikistan is something worth fighting for.

Nothing about Urunboy fits the conventions expected in our times. He is not a human rights campaigner. He is not young. He does not speak English; nor blog; nor tweet, nor run social-media networks. He is not even slightly interested in instigating mass demonstrations or bringing down governments. Urunboy is someone who dissolves the stereotypes; a man not of the moment, but of substance.