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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Arrests Tajikistan Publisher

At Tajikistan's request, Russian authorities have arrested the publisher of an opposition Tajik newspaper at Sheremetyevo Airport on charges of insulting the president and sedition.

If extradited, the journalist, Dododjon Atovulloyev, faces the death penalty, his lawyer said Sunday.

Dushanbe drew up the charges against Atovulloyev in April, he said.

Why Russia, where freedom of the press is under international scrutiny, agreed to act on those charges was unclear.

But Atovulloyev, 46, said Sunday that the fate awaiting him back home was all too clear.

"If they hand me over it would be like handing me to the butcher," Atovulloyev said in telephone interview Sunday from a detention center where he has been held since Friday.

"Most important, it will be a lesson to all journalists, critics and democratic forces in Tajikistan," he said.

Atovulloyev appealed to President Vladimir Putin for asylum over the weekend.

Since 1993, Atovulloyev has published in Moscow the newspaper Charogi Ruz, or Daylight, which has accused Rakhmonov and government officials of corruption. He brought the newspaper, once the largest independent paper in Tajikistan with a circulation of 20,000, to Russia after Tajik authorities shut it down a year earlier. The paper is distributed throughout Central Asia.

Atovulloyev arrived in Moscow on Thursday from Hamburg, Germany, where he has been living with his family since May. He had planned to fly to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and then travel on to Tajikistan to visit his mother and meet with local politicians.

After clearing passport control and customs at Sheremetyevo 2, he checked in for the connecting flight to Tashkent at Sheremetyevo 1. At about 11:30 p.m., he was detained by police at customs.

Atovulloyev said he was questioned over the weekend. Investigators told him that his case had been sent to Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov.

His lawyer, Andrei Rakhmilovich, said he expected extradition hearings to begin Monday. Ustinov has one month to reach a decision.

Prosecutors could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Atovulloyev is being held at the Moscow Air Transport Prosecutor's Office on Leningradsky Prospekt, Rakhmilovich said.

He said the Tajik Embassy demanded that his client be handed over Friday, and security officials — both Tajik and Russian — tried to take him into custody.

"There was a danger before the documents were submitted to the prosecutor's office that the Tajik, or perhaps our, security services would grab him," he said. "We don't know if it was the FSB … but a group of Russian people came by at midday Friday to demand that he be handed over."

Atovulloyev and his wife, speaking by telephone from Germany, said they suspected the arrest was linked to a conference, held by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, that the journalist planned to attend in Paris on Monday.

"It scares the Tajik authorities that we organized the Forum for Democratic Forces," Atovulloyev said, referring to the organization of oppositionists from Central Asia that he co-heads. "They are scared because it is very popular.

"Tomorrow I should be speaking at the OSCE meeting in Paris. I have an invitation to be in America on the 18th to meet with congressmen and senators. They found out about it somehow and hurried to detain me."

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov has stamped out opposition in the press over the past decade in what he says is a bid to curtail years of civil war and bloodshed. Over those years, 62 journalists have been killed, according to Atovulloyev. Two people who distributed Atovulloyev's newspaper have also died, one just a few weeks ago, according to the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

The charges filed by the Tajik prosecutor's office against Atovulloyev in April stem from an article titled "Who Will Prevent the New Troubles? Why Tajik Leaders Don't File Tax Returns" that the journalist wrote for Nezavisimaya Gazeta in January, Rakhmilovich said.

Then, in June, Atovulloyev published a long and highly critical article about Makhmadsaid Ubaidulloyev, the second highest ranking official in Tajikistan who is both Dushanbe's mayor and head of the upper house of parliament. He accused Ubaidulloyev of being a drug lord.

According to Russian press reports, Ubaidulloyev was in Moscow last week.

"Sometime during those days he [Atovulloyev] was put on the list … of people under investigation who are then extradited," said Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

"If you're talking about the courts, he will get a minimum of 10 years. But I am afraid that they'll just kill him," said Panfilov, who himself fled Tajikistan in 1993 after being charged with inciting the overthrow of the Soviet regime.

The Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, and Tajikistan gained sovereignty.