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Uzbekistan28 October 2004

Ruslan Sharipov gets asylum in the United States

Journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Sharipov has obtained political asylum in the United States after fleeing Uzbekistan, where he had been serving a prison sentence for homosexuality, Reporters Without Borders said today.

Sharipov, 26, who has explained his reasons for leaving Uzbekistan in an interview for Reporters Without Borders, was originally given a four-year prison sentence on appeal on 25 September 2003 for homosexuality and having sexual relations with a minor.

In the last of a series of secret hearings, the district court of Khamzincki (in the Tashkent region) sentenced Sharipov on 23 June 2004 to two years of community service in the central city of Bukhara (600 km from the capital). Sharipov fled the country before his transfer to Bukhrara took place.

A former president of the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan (UIJU) and correspondent for the Russian news agency Prima, Sharipov was arrested on 26 May 2003. Under duress, he pleaded guilty in August, asked President Islam Karimov to be forgiven for all his critical articles, and waived his right to legal defence.

Sharipov has never denied his bisexuality but he claims he had never met the adolescents who were alleged to have been his victims. They were detained on 26 May and held for three or four days. Sharipov’s lawyer said they were beaten and threatened by police to get them to testify against Sharipov in court. In fact, the trial had to be adjourned several times because they failed to turn up.

Reporters Without Borders set up a sponsorship system 13 years ago under which it calls on international news media to adopt a journalist in prison. A total of 120 news organisations are currently supporting jailed journalists by regularly asked the relevant authorities to release them and by publicising their cases so that they are not forgotten.

Sharipov had been adopted by the French magazine Têtu.

Interview with journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Sharipov, living in exile in the United States

1. On 13 August 2003, you were sentenced to five and a half years in prison for homosexuality and having sexual relations with minors. Do you think these charges were trumped up by the Karimov regime to trap you and reduce you to silence?

The government cannot stand criticism, and it was always furious about the way I criticised the total control that corrupt officials exercise over the media and the violations of basic human rights and freedoms. The security services and government officials often warned me I would end up in prison or dead because of my activities.

However I never stopped and as a result there were serious attacks and provocations against me and my colleagues. They tried to accuse me of possessing drugs and one of my colleagues was accused of links with an Islamic party. But this was just to frighten us because nobody would seriously believe that I am a drug-user or some kind of religious extremist.

Before being imprisoned I got a last warning. I was asked to leave Uzbekistan as soon as possible. The Karimov regime then concocted a plan to get rid of me by using my sexual orientation as a way to have me convicted on the basis of false evidence.

2. What did you do or write to incur the wrath of the authorities?

The authorities were slowly brought to this by my refusal to stop criticizing officials, together with the unsuccessful efforts of the special security services to find another way to neutralize my activities.

Many of the people I had been criticising over the years, including interior ministry and other government officials, finally decided to get rid of me despite knowing that there would be international protests.

3. What were your prison conditions like?

They were better after 3 October 2003. Before that, I was subjected to cruel torture, both physical and mental.

I was injected with unidentified substances and I was told that I was being infected with the HIV virus. They put bags and a gas mask over my head and made me write a suicide note. Unidentified substances were sprayed into my throat, making me feel I was suffocating, while they continued to torture me with electric shock to the ears and other parts of the body. It was mostly the interior ministry’s anti-terrorism department that did the torturing.

I remember how Radjab Kadirov, who is in charge of all prisons and camps and who is the interior minister’s first assistant, told me that I should end all activity and give up any hope of getting US help. "Look how the United States cooperates with us in the war against terrorism," Kadirov said. "Even our anti-terrorism department which is in charge of your case is financed by them. So don’t expect their help."

4. Could you describe the judicial proceedings pursued against you?

Despite many protests, all court hearings took place behind closed doors. The judge also refused to let US embassy and US State Department representatives be present in court.

5. Why did you make a confession?

The authorities still had a problem. Public defender Surat Ikramov and my lawyer Ravil Gayazov were able to demonstrate to the court that there was no evidence. My defence team was ready to win the case. This is why they put enormous pressure on me, including the use of torture. They also told me that if I did not officially say I did not want my defence team and my mother to be present in court, both my defence team and my relatives would be in danger. My public defender ended up being attacked and beaten and was hospitalised with serious injuries.

6. At the end of the last in a series of hearings behind closed doors, the judicial authorities finally sentenced you on 23 June 2004 to two years’ forced labour and put you under house arrest in Bukhara, 600 km from the capital. Why did you find this sentence intolerable?

This was the official version. In fact, the anti-terrorism department asked me to leave Uzbekistan immediately. I was told that if I did not leave, I would die in Bukhara or I would be returned to prison in Tovaksay.

The Uzbek authorities had demonstrated that they always do what they say they are going to do. They gave me three choices: to die in Bukhara, to go back to prison in Tovaksay or to leave Uzbekistan. I realised that they were not going to allow me to carry on doing my work. After consulting with representatives of international organizations, we decided that my best option was to leave the country.

7. Can you explain to us how you managed to escape?

The people who asked me to leave have a great deal of power and I think this was the reason I was able to cross the Uzbek border into Kazakhstan, from where I took train to Moscow.

8. What has it been like to take this risk and flee, to be in exile and to wait for months before being able to reach the United States?

It was a very dangerous time for me. There are many corrupt clans in Uzbekistan fighting each other. I knew that the corrupt clans of certain senior officials could easily kill or harm me just to undermine a rival clan. The interior ministry would have been blamed if something had happened to me, because they were responsible for my detention.

I ended up very ill with dangerous hepatitis B and D infections. The Russian doctors said the infections had started in Uzbekistan several months earlier. While I was under house arrest, the prison administration had sent me to a government medical unit. They carried out various tests on me using old syringes and old needles. I just hope that there is nothing more they infected me with.

9. What is it like to work as an independent journalist in Uzbekistan? How would you describe the situation of press freedom?

Under President Karimov’s oppressive regime, many journalists and human rights activists have to secretly cooperate with the authorities, seeking permission for any criticism they publish or being very restrained in their criticism. Others play safe by censoring themselves. One rarely sees any journalist or human rights defender criticize specific government officials or police officers.

The case of Rustam Erkabaev, who went to the constitutional court against the president, is a good example of the kind of article I wrote. Nobody wanted to make his case public. Erkabaev was one of the biggest figures in the interior ministry. He was the head of the department that combats corruption and organized crime. But he was fired after he tried to bring a criminal case for gross corruption against Turop Kholtaev, who had key position in the government.

I wrote many articles about the case and when a British TV crew came to Tashkent, I invited them to make a documentary about Erkabaev. 10. Do you think the international community puts enough pressure on president Karimov to respect human rights more?

No, I don’t think so. The situation in Uzbekistan is very serious and the population suffers a great deal as a result of President Karimov’s tyrannical regime.

The government ignores basic human rights and freedoms, thousands of people are imprisoned and tortured for peacefully practising their beliefs, journalists and writers are periodically thrown to jail, and citizens are living in inhuman conditions.

11. Are you optimistic about the future of human rights in your country? Do you think you will be able to go back one day and work freely as a journalist?

I am optimistic by nature and this helped me to continue my work in recent years. However, despite being optimistic, I don’t believe there will be any change until the dictator, Islam Karimov, is no longer in power or until the international community takes more serious steps.

12. What are your plans in the United States?

Unfortunately I still don’t know what I will be doing in the United States.

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