Tajikistan releases BBC reporter on bail

July 14, 2011 - 8:59 AM

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) — A BBC reporter jailed last month in Tajikistan on charges of belonging to a banned Islamic group was granted bail Thursday and released from custody, the country's top prosecutor said.

Urunboi Usmonov still faces prosecution and will have to sign a statement declaring he will not leave the country, General Prosecutor Sherkhon Salimzoda told reporters.

Usmonov, 59, was arrested in June on charges of belonging to the radical Islamic movement Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which has been banned in the Central Asian country since 2001. Usmonov has worked for the BBC Central Asian service for the past 10 years.

The case drew widespread international criticism, including from the United States and the European Union.

The BBC expressed hope in a statement earlier this week that Usmonov would be cleared and say his association with Hizb-ut-Tahrir was exclusively related to his professional duties.

"We believe that meetings and interviews with people representing all shades of opinion are part of the work of any BBC journalist," the statement said.

The broadcaster also voiced it distress over Usmonov's physical wellbeing, saying BBC colleagues who visited him in jail found him "frail and frightened."

Usmonov's family reported he went missing on June 13, then returned home a day later accompanied by security service officials. Family members said he appeared to have been beaten up.

Tajik authorities have shown signs of concern over the diplomatic fallout around the case.

Sukhrob Sharipov, head of a think-tank affiliated with the presidential administration, said Usmonov's arrest seriously damage to the country's international reputation.

"They need to think before committing to a particular action," Sharipov said.

Officials say President Emomali Rakhmon has taken personal interest in Usmonov's case.

Tajikistan is taking increasingly strict measures to stamp out all signs of radical Islam. But government critics say heavy-handed efforts to arrest members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other similar radical organizations has only served to drive the groups further underground.

Some 150 Hizb-ut-Tahrir members were jailed in Tajikistan last year and another 40 members have faced the same fate so far this year.