Defamation / Reputation, Hate Speech, Political Expression
Awan v. Levant
On Appeal Contracts Expression
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On August 22, 2018, the Sughd Regional Court overturned the twelve-year prison sentence of Mr. Khayrullo Mirsaidov, an independent journalist, for embezzlement and deliberately making false accusations after he publicly complained about regional corruption. In November 2017, Mr. Mirsaidov wrote an open to the President of Tajikistan and other senior authorities in which he accused several officials in the Sughd Region of corruption. Soon after, Mr. Mirsaidov was audited and, in December 2017, he was detained on charges of embezzlement, forgery and deliberately making false accusations. He partially admitted responsibility for some accounting gaps and claimed to have paid off missing funds. Nonetheless, the first instance court sentenced Mr. Mirsaidov to twelve years in prison. Following an international campaign against the imprisonment, the Sughd Regional Court overturned the prison sentence on appeal and imposed a fine on Mr. Mirsaidov.
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Mr. Khayrullo Mirsaidov was a journalist who wrote for Asia Plus, Deutsche Welle, and Fergana News (an independent Central Asian news publication). He also led the Tajik national team of the popular satirical comedy show KVN.
In November 2017, Mr. Mirsaidov wrote an open letter to Tajikistan’s President, the Prosecutor General, and the representative of the Sughd Region asking them to investigate allegations of corruption involving various officials in the Sughd Region. The letter claimed that Olim Zokhidzod, the then head of the Sughd Region’s Youth and Sports Committee, appropriated funds intended for purchasing equipment for the KVN team.
Mr. Mirsaidov had notified the regional authorities of the wrongdoing but, instead of investigating Mr. Zokhidzod, the Prosecutor General for the region and financial administration initiated an audit of the national KVN team’s finances. The authorities alleged that the KVN team was targeted as part of a regular and planned audit.
Following the audit, the authorities concluded that Mr. Mirsaidov never submitted a mandatory financial report about one of the team’s 2016 trips. Mr. Mirsaidov objected and argued that he submitted the report to Mr. Zokhidzod. To prove his innocence, Mr. Mirsaidov requested the prosecutor’s office to organize a sit-down with the Youth and Sports Committee, where all the involved parties could present their claims and evidence. The prosecutor’s office was initially open to the suggestion, but its representatives then refused to communicate with Mr. Mirsaidov for three months. Due to the investigation, the Youth and Sports Committee pulled funding from a KVN event planned for 2018. Due to this, the event was later cancelled all together.
On December 5, 2017, the authorities detained Mr. Mirsaidov, but did not press charges for three days. On December 8, 2017, the prosecutor’s office initiated a criminal case against Mr. Mirsaidov on charges of deliberately making false accusations (Article 346.2 of the Tajik Criminal Code (TCC)), embezzlement of state funds (Article 245.4 of the TCC), forgery (Article 340.1 of the TCC), and incitement of racial, regional, and religious hatred (Article 189.2 of the TCC). Eventually the charge of incitement was dropped due to lack of supporting evidence.
He was held in pre-trial detention for seven months, until his trial concluded in June 2018.
On June 8, 2018, Mr. Mirasidov’s trial began in the northern city of Khujand. The prosecution asked the court to sentence him to 13 years in prison for embezzling 124,000 Somoni (approximately $13,500), forgery, and deliberately making false accusations. The prosecution also demanded for Mr. Mirsaidov to repay to the State the allegedly embezzled funds.
During the trial, Mr. Mirsaidov partially admitted the charges of embezzlement. He accepted that he made accounting mistakes and failed to justify expenses in the amount of 45,000 Somoni (approximately $4,775), a sum much smaller than that identified by the prosecution. However, he rejected the claim that he embezzled any State funds for personal gain and testified that he took out a loan to repay most of the missing money. The head accountant of the Youth and Sports Committee testified that she reviewed Mr. Mirsaidov’s accounts in January 2018 and found that he owed the State 17,600 Somoni (approximately $1,860), but that this debt did not exist in December 2017, when Mr. Mirsaidov was arrested. She also claimed that Mr. Zokhidzod repeatedly asked her to resign without giving any reasons.
On July 11, the court sentenced Mr. Mirsaidov to 12 years in prison after finding him guilty of embezzling 124,000 Somoni and deliberately making false accusations. The presiding judge noted that the imprisonment sentence could have been avoided if Mr. Mirsaidov paid back the embezzled funds.
Mr. Mirsaidov appealed the decision. Additionally, on July 16, 2018, his family paid the amount claimed to be embezzled funds, but publicly declared that the payment was in no way an admission of guilt.
On August 22, 2018, following a closed trial, the Sughd Regional Court overturned Mr. Mirsaidov’s imprisonment. Instead, the Sughd Regional Court imposed on him a fine of 80,000 Somoni (around $8,500). Additionally, the Court ordered Mr. Mirsaidov to pay 20% of his earnings over the next two years to the State budget.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
Despite the appellate court overturning Mr. Mirsaidov’s prison sentence, this case constrained freedom of expression since Mr. Mirsaidov was targeted for prosecution because of his criticism of a public official. The Human Rights Committee and other international/regional human rights bodies have repeatedly held that all public figures may be subject to criticism. Echoing this principle, on July 20, 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders stated that “[t]he conviction of Mirsaidov signals that the authorities are cracking down on reporting of corruption, rather than on corruption itself” and strongly objected “to this kind of criminalization of one of the fundamental rights that people enjoy.” Domestic condemnation of the judgment was similarly harsh. The Media Committee of Tajikistan declared that “the judgment undermined the belief in freedom of speech and the ability to criticize criminal acts.”
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