Dissing The Tajik President Online Can Send You Straight To Jail

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VAHDAT, Tajikistan — Shahboz Sharifbek has never had a political agenda or supported any political, religious, or social group. He doesn’t stand out from the crowd for any reason.

Too poor to attend college, Sharifbek’s life revolved around finding odd jobs in his home village on the outskirts of the capital, Dushanbe, to provide for his impoverished family that includes his younger brother and their 82-year-old grandmother, who raised Shahboz and his brother when they were orphaned as kids.

But the 23-year-old was recently sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly making a “public call via social media for extremism activity,” a charge based on a video he posted online in October that criticized the authorities, including President Emomali Rahmon.

In the video recorded at his home in the village of Odili in the Vahdat district, Sharifbek accuses local officials of forcibly taking his brother from their home to enlist in the army and beating his grandmother in the process.

Sharifbek’s case has stunned many Tajiks as a glaring example of the government’s complete lack of tolerance of any dissent and its retaliation against anyone who dares to voice discontent with officials or their actions.

Tajikistan has over the years jailed dozens of independent journalists, activists, and political opponents while also shutting down media outlets critical of the government or its policies.

But the jailing of Sharifbek means that the clampdown is being extended to ordinary citizens, in what many Tajiks see as a warning to others to keep silent.

‘Acting Like Kidnappers’

In his nearly 13-minute smartphone video, Sharifbek angrily claims that local officials seized his brother from their home illegally “without providing a summons” and “treated him like an animal.” Sharifbek adds that officials had “beaten up, dragged,” and “threatened” his elderly grandmother and aunt in the process.

“If you want to recruit someone to the army, then do it according to the law — send him a summons, call him to the enlistment office,” Sharifbek says in the video.

“Instead they beat up an elderly grandmother, her daughter, and shoved my brother into a van and took him away, acting like kidnappers,” Sharifbek said, showing the two women, who seemed to be in distress.

RFE/RL cannot independently confirm Sharifbek’s claims. But Tajik officials are known to routinely round up conscript-age men from their homes and the streets during military call-up season and put pressure on families.

In the video, Sharifbek also directs his anger at the country’s long-serving president, saying Rahmon often “condemns Afghanistan for violating women’s rights but doesn’t see what’s going on in his own country.”

He goes on to accuse local officials of exploiting their positions to enrich themselves and grab property while ordinary people struggle in poverty.

Sharifbek warns that officials’ mistreatment of people, violation of their civic rights, and poverty “can push young people toward extremism and terrorism.”

Sharifbek accuses Tajik bloggers of not writing about the people’s difficult plight or the authorities’ wrongdoings.

Without providing any evidence, he then blames the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) — which has been banned in Tajikistan — for trying to recruit “impoverished young men” for potentially organizing “terrorist” activities. The IRPT didn’t comment on the charges but has previously rejected such claims and has no history of violence.

Sharifbek pleads with Rahmon to order a probe into what he called the beating of his grandmother and aunt.

The footage was viewed more than 1 million times shortly after it was first posted on October 15. Sharifbek was detained the following day, and the post has since been removed.

Sharifbek used strong language in his video toward both Vahdat officials and the IRPT, but his statements do not contain a call for extremist activities.

A Warning To Others

Several Tajik lawyers told RFE/RL that Sharifbek’s video does not constitute the criminal offense he was charged and convicted of. They described the case as a government warning to others not to use social media to criticize the government.

“There is no element of extremism in Sharifbek’s action. Launching a criminal case against him is a message [from the authorities] to other Tajik citizens that they should not speak up about truth and justice and refrain from complaining about the wrongdoing of officials,” lawyer Shuhrat Qudratov said.

“It makes it clear that if a citizen tries to defend his own rights he will face extremism charges,” he added.

Sharifbek’s grandmother, Safargul Ghafurova, and aunt, Shodigul Ghafurova, confirmed to RFE/RL that Sharifbek was serving his sentence in a prison in the northern Sughd region, while his younger brother is serving in the army.

The family said they sent numerous letters to Rahmon and other officials asking them to release Sharifbek and order a probe into the “recruitment” incident, but their request was denied. They said they couldn’t afford a lawyer to defend Sharifbek during his trial.

Source: RFERL