Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbekistan: LGBT Rights Neglected

State oppression is combined with indifference from local human rights groups.
By IWPR Central Asia
  • Uzbekistan's flag at NYC gay parade. (Photo: RFE/RL/Fergana.ru)
    Uzbekistan's flag at NYC gay parade. (Photo: RFE/RL/Fergana.ru)

LGBTI activists in Uzbekistan say that, despite high hopes for reform ever since Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed the presidency in 2016, they continue to face routine violence and discrimination.

The previous head of state Islam Karimov, who ruled the country for 27 years, did not address the issue of LGBTI rights. In a rare comment on this issue before his death in 2016, he said that these people “had some deviation in their heads”.

When Mirziyoyev came to power, international rights organisations including HRW as well as diaspora LGBTI groups called on him to address discrimination against the community. So far, he has also made no public statements on LGBTI rights.

Observers say that not only does violence against LGBT people often meet with public approval in Uzbekistan, but local human rights activists show little solidarity with those discriminated against for their sexual orientation.

Following the collapse of the USSR, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were the only Central Asian states not to decriminalise homosexuality.

Although the constitution of Uzbekistan mandates that the government must “create a humane democratic law-governed state that seeks to provide a decent life to all the citizens of the republic,” LGBTI people remain isolated and discriminated against.

In their 2019 index, a gay travel website Spartacus ranked Uzbekistan 159 out of 197 countries for their level of tolerance towards sexual minorities. Acts of violence are not only rarely investigated, but often meet with public approval.

In September 2019, 25-year-old Shokir Shavkatov was murdered by unknown assailants in Tashkent after he came out as gay on his Instagram account.

A local gay man said that the LGBTI community had been shocked not only by the murder, but the public reaction. He described numerous comments on social approving the actions of the perpetrators and calling for other LGBTI people to be killed.

IWPR asked the prosecutor general’s office and the ombudsman for human rights for a comment on the Shavkatov murder. Neither of them responded.

In 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee received an official reply from Uzbekistan regarding its criticism of the treatment of LGBTI people, denying any discrimination and noting that they had no record of any formal complaint about discrimination or abuse from LGBTI people.

“The attitude to LGBT people in Uzbekistan is similar to the situation in Chechnya, where the head of the country, Ramzan Kadyrov, says that there are no gays in Chechnya in response to all the claims of human rights activists about the murders of gays,” said a Tashkent-based lawyer who asked to remain anonymous.

He told IWPR that LGBTI people rarely sought help from human rights activists, who he said tended to be conservative, middle aged people who viewed homosexual relations as unacceptable. There are no dedicated LGBTI rights organisations inside Uzbekistan.  

“Uzbek society has a negative attitude towards gays. Therefore, we have to live a double life,” said another gay man who asked to remain anonymous. “Some get married for show, even have kids.”

He explained that gay men were frequent targets for intimidation and extortion but knew that they could expect no help from the authorities if they made a formal complaint.

“Law enforcement officers blackmail the victims and extort money,” he continued. “Otherwise, they threat to open a criminal case or tell the truth to the family. So, gays don’t complain about the police if they face blackmail and extortion.”

It was not unknown for police officers to pose as gay men on dating websites so as to lure victims into a meeting.

“Then they blackmail, threaten to disclose their identities in public. Sometimes, they don’t stop at extortion. They beat and humiliate the young people,” said Abbosali Abbosov, a LGBTI activist from Samarkand, now living in the United States.

Yelena Urlaeva, chair of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, also said that public sympathy was with perpetrators of violence against LGBTI people rather than the victims of abuse.

 “It’s worth mentioning that they represent a modern Uzbek society penetrated with strong homophobia,” she continued. “Tens of videos of the mob punishment of people suspected of homosexuality have been posted on the internet in the last few years. Young men are being beaten and humiliated, and then these videos are posted on social media. The actions of such ‘people’s punishers’ rarely lead to criminal cases,” Urlaeva concluded.

“This inaction just encourages the vicious circle of discrimination,” added the LGBTI lawyer who had asked to remain anonymous. “Besides, it runs contrary to Uzbekistan’s obligations in terms of national law and numerous international agreements it is a party to.  Such obligations demand all people, including LGBTI, be protected from violence and discrimination.”

According to Akmal Saidov, director of the National Human Rights Centre, Uzbekistan had received 212 recommendations from the UN on how to improve their human rights situation, almost all of which they had accepted.

However, officials had argued that the 11 recommendations that referred to the rights of the rights of the LGBTI community were inconsistent with the law of Uzbekistan.

For instance, Article 120 of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan includes “pederasty” as a crime. The authorities said they would not remove it because “homosexual relations are one of the reasons of distribution of HIV/AIDS in the country” and contradicted Uzbek social tradition.

According to the most recent figures from the Central Asian Gender and Sexuality Advocacy Network, a coalition of activists working across the region, about 500 men charged with article 120 were in prison in 2013.

Most recently, in the summer 2019, criminal proceedings were brought against two young gay men arrested in a Tashkent apartment.

LGTBI activist and journalist Luiza Atabaeva said that Uzbek society was still not ready to accept those who do not fit in with mainstream notions of gender and sexuality.

“We have lived according to Islamic canons for a long time and created the image of the traditional family and polygamy,” she said. “Then the Soviet culture emerged. Now we live in the age of uyat [shame]. Moreover, the economic situation of society doesn’t allow us to think of sexual freedom. Who cares about discrimination against LGBTI in Uzbekistan when people cannot meet their basic needs? Lack of food, electricity, gas, good education, jobs, etc”.

Umid Gafurov, a well-known blogger, also said that there was a distinct lack of solidarity with the community.

“Human rights activists do not protect their rights,” he said. “They mainly protect political prisoners, persons with disabilities and women, but they don’t care about the LGBTI.”

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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