Juridical attack on the independent press
Three judges, two of them members of the Supreme Court of Tajikistan, have conspired to punish three independent newspapers for publishing a sensational story about unlawful conviction practices at the courts.
Supreme Court judges Nur Nurov and Ulugbek Mamadshoev and a judge of the Dushanbe City Court Fakhriddin Dodometov filed separate lawsuits against the newspapers Asia-Plus, Faraj, and Ozodagon for publishing a letter by lawyer Solijon Juraev in which he accuses the very same judges of making biased court decisions and imposing illegal penalties. Juraev is also being sued. They are being collectively charged under articles 142 and 143 of the Civil Procedure Code for libel and humiliation of honor and dignity.
The plaintiffs complain that the letter was published without either verification of facts or balancing it by publishing an opposing opinion. They are demanding moral damages payment in the amount of $1 million 260 000, an impossible sum beyond the ability of the Tajik independent media to pay, hence leading them to permanent closure. Not surprisingly, they are also insisting on suspending the papers until the end of the litigation.
The newspapers contend that they did not violate the law. They say that they sought out the judges, but the Supreme Court was ready to neither deny nor confirm. Ozodagon succeeded in interviewing one of the judges by phone. Meanwhile, Asia-Plus published the second part of the story after an extended interview with the state prosecutors of the scandalous criminal case against a former deputy and his 30 co-workers, relatives, and friends. During this case the Supreme Court sentenced all 31 suspects to 10-25 years in prison, accusing them of fraud, tax evasion, robbery, killing and establishing a gang.
However, now both the lawyer (who went to speak out through the newspapers) and the state prosecutor believe that the judges made a biased decision prompted by the “phone law”, ignoring many important facts that do not fit the indictments. The “phone law”, by the way, is a Soviet era habit when court decisions were not bounded by law but a phone call from “above”.
Silence = profit
The newspapers are ready to fight to the end. Yet, they understand that it will be hard to defend themselves in Tajikistan’s antiquated Soviet-style and deeply corrupted judiciary system. Indeed, some judges do not even try to hide their hatred attitude towards the press and journalists. In fact, now it seems the Supreme Court has found a way to both silence journalists and profit in the process. Indeed, three prominent newspapers were closed down by court decisions in the last two years.
The recent lawsuit comes only a week after the Dushanbe City Court upheld the verdict of the district court in the suit of the state Tajikstandart (Agency on Standardization, Metrology, Certification Trade Inspection under the Government of Tajikistan) against the independent newspaper Paykon. The decision resulted in an approximately $70 000 fine. It is doubtful that the paper can survive after that payment.
This past Thursday, 28 January, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a similar lawsuit against the independent newspaper Millat, asking the court to defend its “dignity” and reputation. The newspaper had accused the Ministry of being the most corrupt of all state institutions, an accusation made upon the findings of a parliamentary investigation. The Ministry has demanded approximately $230 000 to compensate for moral damage caused by the accusation.
Why had official institutions of the Republic of Tajikistan suddenly remembered their “honor”, “dignity”, reputation? I say: either because of the imminent parliamentary elections (28 February) or due to the fact that President Emomali Rahmon often requires members of the government to respond to press accusations. Indeed, on 29 January, Rahmon publicly disclosed his displeasure with the Supreme Court’s behavior. It’s great that he did so, but alas, I doubt it will be enough to save the independent Tajik press from judicial wrath.