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Harsh Jail Time for Uzbek AIDS Activist

in UZBEKISTAN, 25/03/2010

Dictatorship says brochure on same-sex relations an “assault on minors”

The ruling dictatorship in Uzbekistan has jailed Maxim Popov, a 28-year-old psychologist and AIDS activist in the capital of Tashkent, for seven years for promoting homosexuality and thus corrupting minors through his HIV-prevention work. Popov’s jail sentence was also based on other charges stemming from his activism.

With 28 million people, Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous nation.

Popov was the founder of Izis, a Uzbek AIDS-fighting organization of young medical professionals and activists funded by UNICEF (the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund), the UK Department for International Development, Population Services International, a 40-year-old non-governmental organization, and other international groups.

Agence France-Press reported in a dispatch: “Authorities have long been suspicious that foreign aid organizations have been trying to spread homosexuality and drug use, said an activist who also requested anonymity. ‘I think they made Popov a scapegoat,’ he said.”

Popov was the author of “HIV and AIDS Today,” a brochure that discussed same-sex relations and the use of condoms in detail, sensitive topics in this culturally conservative, largely Muslim country, where public discussions of sexuality are prohibited and all media are tightly controlled by the dictatorship. All copies of Popov’s brochure, whose publication was funded by the Global AIDS Fund, were seized by authorities and burned, say accounts on a number of websites focused on Central Asia.

Popov’s charges revolved around the government’s contention that the book constituted an “assault on minors without violence” because of its candid comments about same-sex relations.

According to a copy of the Popov verdict obtained by Eurasia.net, he was also convicted of distributing copies of “HIV and Men who have Sex with Men in Asia and the Pacific,” a publication of UNAIDS. “The content of this book, according to experts, is categorically mismatched with the mentality, moral foundations of society, religion, customs, and traditions of the people of Uzbekistan,” the verdict stated.

Consensual homosexuality between two men is a crime in Uzbekistan punishable by three years in prison. Criminal charges of homosexuality have been used in the past to silence critical journalists and human rights defenders.

In January of this year, the popular young journalist, poet, and radio broadcaster Khairullo Khamidov was arrested and jailed for belonging to a “banned social or religious group.” Khamidov’s broadcasts on a private radio station regularly dealt with such forbidden issues as homosexuality, prostitution, and corruption, mostly through his poems.

A short-lived newspaper that Khamidov founded and ran, Odamlar Orasida (Among the People), which achieved a circulation of 24,000 in only five months of publication, discussed the same issues, including homosexuality, and was closed in 2007 by authorities, according to a report earlier this year on the website of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty.

There is an obscure reference in the RFE/ RL report to the charges against Khamidov being related to his “personal life,” and some comments by Uzbeks on various other websites suggest that the “banned group” referred to by authorities in the charges against Khamidov was the homosexual community.

Because homosexuality is illegal, Uzbek police not only regularly harass gays but also subject them to extortion by detaining them and threatening them with prosecution, according to an article in China Daily.

AIDS activist Popov was arrested, tried, and jailed last year, but news of his prosecution and incarceration only began filtering out to the West since February 24, so tightly controlled is information by the dictatorship that Islam Karimov established in 1989 as ruler of the Uzbek Communist Party in the then-Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan.

The following year, as the Soviet Union was spiraling toward its 1991 dissolution, Karimov made himself the country’s president, and has been maintained in that post in subsequent sham elections where only candidates who support him are permitted to run for the nation’s parliament.

According to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based international group, the government blocks access to most of the independent websites that deal with Uzbek affairs.

Homophobic hate crimes are often perpetrated against those rare Uzbeks who dare to raise the issue of homosexuality in public. On February 17, three young men were convicted of murdering the prominent theater director Mark Vail, who was Jewish and of Russian origin, and whose family had moved to Uzbekistan in the 19th century. According to a dispatch from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), homophobia may have been the real motivation for the murder.

Vail, 55, who founded the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent in the mid-1970s and built it into a hub of Russian-language, Western-oriented culture there, died after being stabbed and brutally beaten last September 7 by the assailants near his apartment in the Uzbek capital. His attackers did not take any money or belongings.

One of Vail’s most successful recent productions was the play “White White Black Stork” about love between two religious school boys, based on a novel by the Uzbek dissident writer Abdulla Kadyri, who was executed during the Stalin era. Vail also staged another homoerotic play, “Taking Care of Pomegranate.”

The JTA dispatch reported that according to a leader in Tashkent’s Jewish population of 30,000, “many in the Jewish community there believed Vail’s murder was related to ‘White White Black Stork’ and its homosexual content.”

The homophobia-laden charges against AIDS activist Popov also included accusations of fiscal impropriety. But, according to a Facebook page set up by Popov’s friends, “The charges of fiscal impropriety come in the wake of years of harassment of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] by the Uzbek government via such measures as restricting or blocking access to foreign funds in bank accounts, repeated tax audits, and threatening visits from secret police or others urging NGO heads to close their organizations to avoid trouble.”

The UN says that Uzbekistan has one of the fastest-growing HIV infection rates in the world, according to the Associated Press.

A report about the Popov case posted on the Russian-based Central Asian news website Ferghana.ru, written in wobbly English and relying on one of its Uzbek readers, stated, “The attention to HIV/ AIDS problem in the republic is illustrated by the story of another reader: at one of the seminars, dedicated to this pressing issue, the representative of respected organization refused to put the condom on banana, arguing that the mentality of the nation must have been considered first. ‘It is sad to admit that all the official ministries think the same way. Perhaps, there are some best minds, but they have no voting power. There is no sex in Uzbekistan!’, says this reader.”

According to Eurasia.net, Izis, the AIDS group founded by Popov, has shut down since his jailing. The “Amnesty for Maxim Popov” Facebook page reports, “Popov kept Izis open even when the government blocked all access to funds, operating without pay and in collaboration with local community councils and volunteers. The climate in Uzbekistan makes it impossible for people within the country to speak out. Those of us who have worked with Maxim Popov know him to be a witty, humble, curious, enthusiastic, and effective educator and psychologist.”

The US news media have given no serious coverage to the Popov case. A Google search revealed only one sentence mentioning Popov in the New York Times, which appeared at the tail end of an Associated Press dispatch on the paper’s website; it inaccurately stated, “In late February, Uzbek activist Maxim Popov, who distributed brochures saying condoms and disposable syringes can help prevent HIV, was convicted of corrupting minors by promoting homosexuality, prostitution, and drug use.” In fact, Popov’s conviction dates from last year; it is only the case’s public reporting in the West that occurred in late February.

After 9/11, Uzbekistan became an important staging ground for US attacks against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. As a result, the American government has soft-pedaled its criticisms of the country’s authoritarian regime and abhorrent human rights record. Popov and Izis have received funding from the US Agency for International Development, but a phone call to Robert O. Blake, the assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, seeking comment on the Popov case went unreturned as of press time.

The “Amnesty for Maxim Popov” Facebook page is at facebook.com/group.php?gid=171801985748&ref=search&sid=528134066.2236888131..1&v=info. Protests against the jailing of Maxim Popov can be sent to: President Islam Abduganievich Karimov, Office of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Rezidentsia prezidenta / The Presidential Palace 700000 g. Tashkent RESPUBLIKA UZBEKISTAN, or via fax at +998-71-139-53-25, or email at presidents_office@press-service.uz.

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com.

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