DUSHANBE: A comedian and journalist in Tajikistan was handed a 12-year prison sentence on embezzlement charges today, a court official said, in a case that has drawn criticism from international rights groups.
A spokesman for a court in the northern city of Khujand told AFP that Khayrullo Mirsaidov, 40, received a 12-year jail term on charges that included embezzlement and providing false testimony.
Mirsaidov was accused of embezzling state funds worth around USD 13,500 (11,500 euros) while acting as head of a local comedy troupe that represented the ex-Soviet country in Russian comedy tournaments and was partly financed by the state.
He has maintained his innocence.
Rights groups including Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have raised concerns that he is being punished for challenging local authorities over corruption related to the distribution of funds for the troupe.
His lawyer Dilafruz Samadova said that he would appeal the sentence as well as the court's demand to compensate the state for the USD 13,500 authorities accuse him of embezzling.
Courts in the tightly-controlled Central Asian state are not known for granting appeals.
In addition to managing the country's most successful troupe in the Russian comedy discipline KVN (Club of the Funny and Inventive), Mirsaidov is an independent journalist who has written critically of authorities for local and international media outlets.
Tajikistan with nine million people suffered a five-year civil war in the 1990s, and is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index released this year.