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Uzbekistan: One More Dissident Out of the Way

Evidence suggests flawed trial and political motives as journalist is jailed on gay sex charges.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

The trial of independent journalist Ruslan Sharipov ended this week, predictably enough with a win for the government. Defence lawyers and human activists say Sharipov’s conviction was based on a suspiciously swift change of plea.

On August 13, Sharipov, 25, was given a five-and-a-half-year sentence on three charges including committing homosexual acts, a crime in Uzbekistan since the days of Stalin, and having sexual relations with minors.

The trial, which began on July 23, was concluded quickly after Sharipov dismissed his lawyer on August 8 and changed his plea to guilty on one count – homosexual acts.

The case raised serious questions about the targeting of human rights activists in Uzbekistan and the use of criminal charges to smear and convict opponents of the regime.

Sharipov’s lawyers said that things had been going relatively well for the defence when he suddenly changed his plea, told them to stop representing him and asked for his mother to be kept out of the courtroom.

“We were already ready to celebrate victory, the charges were falling apart before our eyes, and the court and prosecutor looked confused. And then suddenly Ruslan admitted his guilt, and refused to be defended,” said lawyer Surat Ikramov.

As the trial came to its conclusion, a letter addressed to President Islam Karimov was read out in court, in which Sharipov apologised for articles he had written criticising the Uzbek government.

Defence lawyers told IWPR that they believed Sharipov - who is openly gay - was coerced by physical torture and psychological pressure into admitting to homosexual acts. Ikramov was able to talk to Sharipov, but because three policemen were present the defendant would say only that he had acted out of fear for his own safety and that of his mother, brothers and lawyers.

Uzbek courts routinely convict solely on the basis of statements signed by the defendant. Human rights organisations say this raises fundamental questions about court proceedings, since the routine use of torture to extract confessions in pre-trial detention has been widely documented.

“The legal system of Uzbekistan has once again carried out the orders of the interior ministry, and passed sentence on the basis that ‘he confessed to the crime himself’,” said a statement by the Initiative Group of Human Rights Activists of Uzbekistan.

Ikramov said police clearly decided to force a quick confession after it became obvious that the grave charge of corrupting underage boys was going to collapse.

When he was arrested on May 26, Sharipov was charged with having sex with three 15-year-old boys from Kokand. But a forensic examination conducted during the investigation did not produce incriminating evidence of sexual contact.

Sharipov said in a letter that he had helped the boys - who were underage prostitutes in desperate straits - by giving them somewhere to stay. During the trial, the boys were brought as witnesses, and their testimony proved fatally confused and contradictory under cross-examination from the defence.

At this point only five out of 11 witnesses had taken the stand, but Sharipov’s confession spared prosecutors the possibility that their case would be further demolished. With the robust defence team out of the way, the trial moved briskly to a conviction.

In the former Soviet Union, homosexual acts remain a crime only in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – three countries whose governments are regularly criticised for their poor human rights records. As well as tough penalties for a conviction, the accusation of homosexuality carries considerable social stigma in these conservative Muslim societies.

By choosing these charges, Uzbek authorities will have been aware of the damage they would do to Sharipov’s credibility. As his lawyers say, it is clear that he was targeted for his reporting and human rights activism.

After starting work as a reporter in 2000, Sharipov was employed by the non-government Uzbek Human Rights Society for a time before starting a union of independent journalists and a human rights group.

What set him apart from others doing similar work – and perhaps marked him down – was the fact that he could write in English and made use of the internet, which made criticism of the Uzbek authorities more widely available.

Sharipov wrote about corruption in the police, and reported on the persecution of gay people in Uzbekistan. It is ironic that one topic appears to have provided the reason for his arrest, and the other the pretext. Sharipov has said that before his arrest, he received warnings that he would “soon be dealt with”.

Police were clearly unconcerned at the implications of arresting a prominent figure in the human rights world, just three weeks after Uzbekistan’s record had been roundly criticised at a meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Tashkent.

The interior ministry took the unprecedented step of inviting human rights activists and journalists to visit the day Sharipov was arrested. They allowed him to be photographed against his will, and they commented on the charges with no regard for the confidentiality rules of a police investigation.

This visit was arranged not by police officers who handle sexual crimes, but by the interior ministry’s department for fighting terrorism. This office specialises in dealing with political opponents and Islamic dissidents.

“Yes, the charge of sodomy is a bad one, but it is in the criminal code,” said department chief Ilya Pyagai. “We have to react, and ignore the fact that he is a journalist.”

And at the end of the trial, Pyagai’s subordinate at the Tashkent city counter-terrorism office, Oleg Bichenov, still had an eye on the case. “No one put any mental or physical pressure on Ruslan Sharipov. He himself voluntarily confessed his guilt on all charges.”

Bichenov added that Sharipov “is not the sort of figure to use force against, like a dangerous criminal or terrorist”, inadvertently suggesting that his office did not rule out torture for other suspects.

Sharipov’s sentencing has drawn protests from journalists in Uzbekistan and abroad, as well as international human rights groups.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR project director in Uzbekistan.

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