Enforced Secularism: Independent Journalist Detained On Extremist Charges In Tajikistan

Daler Sharifov, an independent journalist and free speech advocate, was arrested in Dushanbe on January 28. Sharifov, age 32, has been questioned by security forces and released on a number of previous occasions, says his wife Saida Kurbonova. 

This time, he was tricked into an interrogation rather than receiving an official summons, being initially denied access to a lawyer and phone calls to his family. He is held on charges relating to extremism and the publication of “more than 200 articles and commentaries containing extremist content,” reports Agence France-Presse. Local and international groups have reacted with concern, as Tajikistan appears to be cracking down on dissent in advance of the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections in March. 

The National Association of Independent Mass Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT), has called the actions of law enforcement agencies during Sharifov’s detention “unacceptable.” 

The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reports that on February 3, “eight NGOs and dozens of journalists signed a petition [on Monday] demanding his release, reminding that the country’s Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and press and prohibits state censorship and prosecution for criticism.”

Meanwhile, the European Congress of Tajik Journalists and Bloggers (ECTJB) has called the detention of Sharifov “unjust and unlawful,” adding that Sharifov is “known as a brave journalist loyal to his profession and professional ethics.”

Sharifov’s track record indicates that he has long been an advocate for greater peace and cooperation in Tajikistan. Graduating from the Tajik National University in 2012, Sharifov began working as a journalist while he was still a student. He was the presenter of two programmes on the state-owned television channel Safina, which discussed youth problems, and he continued to focus his efforts on youth work in the following years. In 2012, he founded the youth movement ‘Kadam Bakadam’ (Step by Step), which aimed to unite youth throughout the country and prevent regional discrimination, according to NANSMIT.

Because of this work, he was beaten up by unknown perpetrators, who are yet to be caught or identified. 

Sharifov then worked for the independent newspaper Ozodagon, until it was forced to shut down in 2019 after “years of harassment and intimidation,” according to Eurasia Net. At Ozodagon, Sharifov was a brave advocate for peace and unity, writing articles critical of the government and on the failure of the international community to address the horrors of the Syrian War. He has also advocated passionately for peace from a Muslim perspective. According to The Guardian, one article he wrote for the now-defunct website rushnoi.tj was entitled “Mohammed was For Peace and Against Terrorism.” 

Tajikistan has a long and chequered record of repressing religious freedoms in the name of countering extremism.

The ECTJB reports that a book he was writing served as evidence of extremism for the prosecutors. It was titled “Mohammed and Terrorism.” The organisation adds that the book would “contribute to the efforts of Tajik intellectuals to prevent and combat religious radicalism.”  

Recently, the government has stepped up their anti-extremist efforts, with reports emerging that only beardless men are being permitted to apply for passports, according to RFE/RL. According to the OCCRP, UN agencies have recommended that Tajikistan immediately stop the practice of suppressing freedom of speech and expression in the country. Last year, the U.S. Department of State cited Tajikistan for “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom.” 

For now, Daler Sharifov remains in custody. If found guilty, he will be sentenced to five years in prison.