Tajik lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov, already serving a 23-year prison sentence on charges widely seen as fabricated and politically motivated, now faces additional jail time for reading out an 11th-century poem in court.
As he sat in the dock during a court hearing in October, Yorov read out a stanza from a classic poem by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam.
The passage goes something like this:
With these ignorant few who foolishly
Consider themselves the intelligent ones of the world
Should be donkeys, because they are so deep in donkeyness
That they call "blasphemous" whomever is not a donkey
Eyewitnesses who were present in the Dushanbe courtroom say the reading led to a heated exchange between the defendant and the prosecutor.
Days later, Yorov and his co-defendant and colleague, Nuriddin Mahkamov, were found guilty of the main charges they faced: inciting social unrest and issuing public calls for the overthrow of the government. Both lawyers dismiss the charges, which stemmed from accusations made against them after they defended members of an opposition party.
Yorov's days in court weren't over, however, because he soon learned that his poetry reading had led to fresh charges of contempt of court and insulting a government official.
The charges -- each of which carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison -- are being heard in a closed-door trial that began on December 12.
Yorov has faced a litany of charges since his arrest in September 2015. His arrest, related to the charges he was found guilty of this October, came just after he had begun to represent 13 senior members of the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) accused of attempting to overthrow the government.
The day prior to his arrest, he had gone public with a claim by IRP deputy leader Umarali Husaynov that he had been beaten in custody. This November, he was charged in a separate fraud case whose trial date has not yet been set and for which he faces two years.
Yorov is among a number of attorneys and legal professionals in Tajikistan who have faced charges after representing opposition figures and government critics, leading human-rights groups to conclude that the charges have been trumped up as retribution for their work.
Yorov's co-defendant Nuriddin Mahkamov, who worked for Yorov's Sipar law firm, was sentenced to 21 years in prison. Like Yorov, Mahkamov represented arrested IRP officials.
Another lawyer of the Sipar firm, Dilbar Dodojonova, was arrested in October 2015 on defamation charges. She was later transferred to house arrest, pending trial.
Yorov's brother Jamshed, who is also a lawyer by profession, was arrested in August 2016 and charged with "disclosure of state secrets." He was freed a month later under an amnesty. Jamshed Yorov represented a deputy head of the IRP.
Lawyers Shuhrat Kudratov and Fakhriddin Zokirov ran into legal trouble after they defended tycoon-turned-politician Zayd Saidov, who is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence on charges of fraud, polygamy, and rape. A former government minister, Saidov was arrested after announcing his intention to form a political party in 2013.
Kudratov was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2015 on fraud charges. His sentence was later reduced to three years and eight months. Prior to his arrest, Kudratov was also a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party.
Zokirov was detained by anticorruption police in March 2014 and was held in custody for several months. Following his release, Zokirov announced that he no longer represented Saidov.
Rights groups and other international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, have repeatedly urged Tajik authorities to immediately release imprisoned attorneys.
The U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has said that Washington has "repeatedly raised its concerns about...the spurious targeting of defense lawyers in Tajikistan."
Speaking specifically about the most recent charges brought against Yorov, the U.S. Mission in Vienna said that "the United States calls on the authorities of Tajikistan to see that all lawyers are able to conduct their work without fear of threat or harassment, and that any pursuit of criminal charges against Mr. Yorov is adjudicated in accordance with Tajikistan's international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."
Yorov's case has been likened by observers to that of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing Russian lawyer who implicated several government officials in a high-profile tax-evasion case. Magnitsky died in 2009 while in pretrial detention, during which he was alleged to have been mistreated. His case has led to the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which seeks to punish Russian officials accused of involvement in Magnitsky's death or their role in rights abuses.
Authorities in Tajikistan have insisted that there are no politically motivated criminal cases in the country.