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Kyrgyzstan: Gays Face Blackmail Menace
Bishkek's gay community claims that it is being targeted by corrupt police officers eager to make extra money through blackmail and intimidation.
There has been a rise in claims that police are tracing individuals who place lonely hearts adverts on the internet or the Bishkek newspaper Blits Info, and then threaten to expose their sexuality if a bribe is not paid.
After placing such adverts, many gay men say they've been lured to apartments where police officers have interrogated, beaten and tortured them.
One 26-year-old man, who gave his name only as Almaz, told IWPR how he'd fallen victim to the police ruse. After placing an advert, he was contacted by someone and agreed to meet him - but panicked when his car pulled up. " When I saw the stern-looking man inside the car, I knew he was a policeman, and that I was in trouble," he said.
A second man appeared and handcuffed Almaz, who was then driven to another district of the capital, where two more men were waiting. "They demanded around 50 US dollars to stop my family and colleagues finding out that I am gay," he said miserably.
Many people targeted in such a manner feel they have little choice but to hand over the money to protect their social and professional standing. Even though same-sex relationships are not illegal, there is a strong stigma attached to them.
Bishkek lawyer Galina Kaisarova said that as Kyrgyzstan is a small country, those with successful careers tend to be well known - and therefore have everything to lose if they are suddenly "outed" as homosexual. "If a person's reputation is ruined, their lives will lose meaning and their career will probably be over," she said.
Evidence collected by Bishkek's gay rights non-governmental organisation Oasis indicates that the lowest ranking policemen are usually to blame for such extortion - poorly paid patrol and duty officers out of uniform or police academy students.
Oasis chief Vladimir Tyupin told IWPR that while the safety and well-being of the gay community was their main priority, the organisation had some sympathy for the police officers. "I'm sorry for them, as they cannot live on [their monthly] wage and are forced to do such things in order to support their families," he said.
He fears that unless such corrupt practices are stopped, thousands could be at risk of intimidation. Through the course of its work, the NGO has been contacted by more than 2,500 homosexuals, the majority of whom are not openly gay. "Imagine the potential scale of this discrimination and official interference in citizens' private lives," he warned.
While homosexuality was technically illegal under old Soviet legislation, Kyrgyzstan's 1998 constitution - the first since it gained independence in 1991 - makes no such distinction.
However, a lack of understanding about same-sex relationships and poor sexual health information has led to a culture of secrecy within the gay community and a high level of prejudice among the population at large.
Bishkek resident Ruslan claims that after he was arrested in a personal ad sting operation, one police officer told him, "'All you gays spread AIDS. I'm scared to go to restaurants because you're everywhere, and who knows what infections I might catch from the plates."
This situation has not escaped the notice of international organisations working in the former Soviet republic. The United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, which is halfway through a two-year HIV/AIDS awareness programme, has been working to clear up many common myths about homosexuality.
Internal affairs ministry employees took part in a UNDP-organised event on June 18, where representatives from Oasis and a number of local NGOs gave lectures on HIV prevention and the importance of observing gay rights while carrying out law enforcement duties.
For the police officials in attendance, the event - the first of its kind held in Kyrgyzstan - was something of a revelation. However, a vocal minority seemed unwilling or unable to listen. "You faggots are sick people! What's the point in talking to you?" shouted one senior official while an Oasis worker was speaking.
But at the end of the event, the issues raised were treated with much more respect and understanding. One police official, who did not want to give his name, told IWPR, "It's good that this seminar was held, because we now understand that [the homosexual community] are citizens, just like we are."
While Bishkek city police chiefs who attended the UNDP gathering admitted that there have been problems in the past, they denied that their employees are systematically blackmailing the gay community.
Lieutenant Colonel Baish Ibraev, an interior ministry official, told IWPR, "In all likelihood, there have been cases of [extortion]. Most officers work conscientiously, but there are others who abuse their position [and] are hostile to sexual minorities."
Leila Saralaeva and Asel Sagynbaeva are IWPR contributors in Bishkek.
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