(Berlin) – Tajik authorities should set aside the verdict against and free independent journalist Amindzhon Gulmurodzoda, convicted of forgery, Human Rights Watch said today. Gulmurodzoda, editor of the news site faraj.tj.com, was sentenced to two years imprisonment on August 18, 2015 and taken into custody. Tajikistan’s security services alleged that Gulmurodzoda had submitted a falsified birth certificate with an incorrect birthdate in order to apply for a passport when he was a child.

“The verdict is sending a chill throughout Tajikistan’s journalistic community as yet another example of the crackdown on free speech and independent voices,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Bringing dubious charges against a critical journalist for actions allegedly carried out as a child is a thin smokescreen for a blatant and politically motivated assault on free speech.”

Amindzhon Gulmurodzoda.

© 2015 courtesy of RFERL

The Ismoil Somoni district court in Dushanbe convicted Gulmurodzoda, 33, an employee of the Center for Investigative Journalism and a former correspondent of Radioi Ozodi, the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe, on forgery charges. Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security’s (SCNS) Division of Counterterrorism Control began the investigation against Gulmurodzoda in April 2015. Prosecutors accused Gulmurodzoda and his late father, Paivandi Gulmurod, the former dean of the Faculty of Journalism at Tajikistan’s State University, of obtaining falsified documents in 1989, when Gulmurodzoda would have been five or six years old. They further claimed that Gulmurodzoda’s passport, which he had obtained in 1998 to work and study at the university, 17 years before the criminal charges were laid, was a forgery.

Gulmurodzoda denied the charges and maintains that he acquired the documents legally.

“Something is seriously wrong when a journalist well-known for his independent reporting is locked up for two years for alleged actions he is accused of committing while a young child,” said Williamson. “Journalists like Gulmurodzoda should be writing and reporting stories, not languishing behind bars. Tajik authorities should immediately set aside Gulmurodzoda’s conviction and free him.”

Gulmurodzoda’s conviction comes amid increasing pressure on independent journalists and media in Tajikistan. On July 20, authorities announced a new rule barring media outlets from reporting “official news” without citing Khovar, the state-run news agency. The Tajik presidential press service said all government agencies must send their reports and press releases to the Khovar agency, while other media outlets working in Tajikistan can now use official information only by citing Khovar. The authorities’ move was condemned by Nuriddin Karshiboev, head of Tajikistan’s National Association of Independent Media, who said in July that the new regulation violates the constitution’s guarantee to equal access to official information.

Other news outlets known for reporting critical views told Human Rights Watch they have been subjected to increasing pressure over the past year, with security service officers frequently visiting and interrogating their staff and demanding they be notified about stories in advance of publication.

Under the pretext of protecting national security, Tajikistan’s state telecommunications agency regularly orders the blocking of websites that carry information potentially critical of the government, including Facebook, Gmail, Radio Ozodi, the website of Radio Free Europe’s Tajik service, and various opposition websites. In 2014, the Tajik authorities issued a court decision requiring independent news outlet Asia Plus to retract an article that was critical of praise for President Emomali Rahmon; the outlet was fined US $6,100 (30,000 somoni).

Gulmurodzoda’s sentencing also follows the imprisonment of Maksud Ibragimov, a peaceful opposition activist forcibly returned from Russia and sentenced to 17 years in July 2015 on politically motivated charges of extremism. In January, authorities jailed human rights lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov for nine years on spurious charges. Sobir Valiev, an opposition activist in Moldova, is facing possible extradition back to Tajikistan and is at risk of imprisonment and torture.

“The Tajik government should stop silencing independent voices and release Gulmurodzoda and all others imprisoned on fabricated charges,” Williamson said.