Richard Smith reports on the case of Ruslan Sharipov, the gay human rights campaigner imprisoned for criticising the Uzbekistan regime ? and the British ambassador the US had removed from his post after he spoke out against the dictator who’s America’s new ally in their “war against terror”
You could say that Ruslan Sharipov is lucky. At least he hasn’t been boiled to death. That’s one of the Uzbekistani security services favourite ways of dealing with people they don’t like. And they really don’t like Ruslan Sharipov. This journalist and human rights activist has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Uzbeki regime. There’s quite a lot to complain about over there. The former Soviet republic in central Asia is one of the most repressive states in the world. It’s a one-man show run by this spectacularly grubby little dictator, Islam Karimov. His politics are usually described as “Neo-fascist”. At least by those who are being honest. He’s turned the place into a police state. Uzbekistan is a secular Muslim country that doesn’t allow freedom of worship ? or of speech, or of assembly or of the press. Torture is routinely used as an investigation technique. Critics of the regime are imprisoned, locked up in mental institutions or just “disappear”. There are elections. But only parties and candidates Karimov approves of can stand. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe thinks they’re so obviously fraudulent that they don’t even bother sending election monitors anymore. Here’s the delightful Mr Karimov on the delicate art of politics: “I’m prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic. If my child chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head.”
In 2001 Ruslan Sharipov published a series of articles denouncing state repression of Muslims and began investigating the deaths of a number of political and religious activists. Sharipov also started a human rights group ? they’re banned in Uzbekistan ? which took on police corruption and human rights abuses. He’s currently serving four years in prison for his trouble. He’s not alone. Over 7,ooo of his fellow citizens are in jail because of their political or religious beliefs.
The authorities found it pretty easy to put Ruslan away. He’s gay and he’s out and homosexuality is still illegal over there. So they arrested him for that – along with some other charges that were more made-up than a drag queen’s face about how he was running this ring of teenage rent boys.
His life trajectory since those first articles appeared would have given Franz Kafka nightmares. He started getting little visits from the National Security Services. They “advised” him he should stop criticising the police and the president. His house was broken into repeatedly and he was beaten up three times within the space of twelve months. In August 2001, they accused of him belonging to a terrorist group and took him in for “questioning”. On May 26th last year, they arrested him under Article 120 of the Uzbeki Criminal Code ? “the satisfaction of a sexual urge by a man with a man”. The next day he was charged with inappropriate behaviour (ie sex) with minors and of managing prostitutes ? which he denied.
He never stood a chance. The Uzbekistani legal system has a conviction rate of close to 100%. Things started to go from bad to worse. Thinking that the oxygen of publicity might generate enough international outrage to save him, Ruslan asked for an open trial. The judge ordered it to be conducted in secret. His mother and his lawyer began getting threats. His supporters were harassed by the police with abusive phone calls and late-night visits. But the case against him started to collapse. The alleged “victims” became hysterical during cross-examination and there was no evidence to support the allegations. Even a heavily intimidated jury would find it hard to wave this one through…
But on August 8th proceedings took a dramatic turn. Ruslan Sharipov announced in court that he was changing his plea to guilty. He said he wanted to dismiss his legal team and asked that his mother, the key witness, be removed from the courtroom. Then he offered to ask for forgiveness from President Karimov and to retract all the articles he’d written that were critical of his regime. On August 13th, Ruslan was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison.
It was only later, when he managed to smuggle a letter out of prison, that people discovered what had prompted this “change of heart”. His interrogators had got him to plead guilty by torturing him and threatening him with rape and murder. “They put a gas mask on my head and sprayed an unknown substance into my throat, after which I could hardly breathe,” Sharipov wrote. “They also injected an unknown substance into my veins and warned me that if I did not follow their instructions they would give me an injection of the Aids virus.” Sharipov was told that if he didn’t “confess” his brother, mother and lawyer would also be tortured. “I was clearly told that if I would write any further appeals or complaints, I would commit suicide, that is I would ‘kill myself’.” This was no empty threat. Several prominent critics of the regime have “committed suicide” when they were in custody or prison.
Sharipov’s lawyer, Surat Ikramov, fought to arrange an appeal hearing. One night as he was driving home his car was hijacked by four masked men. They beat him so badly that two ribs were broken and he lost consciousness. Ikramov had organised a peaceful protest outside parliament the following day. Police placed all known protestors under house-arrest.
At the appeal hearing in September, Sharipov arrived with serious facial injuries and broken glasses. The police said the van taking him to court had crashed – but only he’d been injured. The charges of “inappropriate behaviour” were dropped and the sentence reduced by one year. Fearing for his safety, Ruslav requested that he serve his time in Tashkent Prison, and not a penal colony. His interrogators had told him there were men in the latter who’d happily finish him off.
In a second letter smuggled out of prison, Sharipov wrote that now he really did regret making criticisms of the Uzbeki regime: “It would be foolish to say that I did not know what my actions would lead to. In fact, I understood perfectly. But it is an entirely different matter to actually go through this hellish nightmare yourself, in which no one will help you and no one will hear you.”
So who will hear Ruslan Sharipov’s cries? And who will speak up for him? Faced with intimidation, imprisonment, torture, rape, murder and being boiled alive, you can understand why so few of his fellow compatriots are willing to speak out about the sorry state of affairs in this most sorry of states. In October 2002, just months after he’d taken office, Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray delivered a speech at the opening of the offices of Freedom House in Tashkent. Protocol dictates that you’re supposed to be, erm, diplomatic at these things. But Murray was so incensed at what he’d witnessed all around him that he just let rip. “Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy,” he told the assembled meeting of the great, the good and the unspeakable. “The major political parties are banned; parliament is not subject to democratic election and checks and balances on the authority of the executive are lacking. There is worse ? we believe there to be between 7,000 and 10,000 people in detention whom we would consider as political and/or religious prisoners. In many cases they have been falsely convicted of crimes with which there appears to be no credible evidence they had any connection.
“But let us make this point ? no government has the right to use the war against terrorism as an excuse for the persecution of those with a deep personal commitment to the Islamic religion and who pursue their views by peaceful means. Sadly the vast majority of those wrongly imprisoned in Uzbekistan fall into this category.”
The US ambassador, John Herbst was also present. He was livid. When the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, brought up Murray’s speech in a meeting with President Karimov soon after, he was livid too. But then emperor’s never like it when someone points out that they’re naked. Murray was also sending fat dossiers to the UK documenting Uzbeki human rights violations. As the war against Iraq loomed, his communiqu?s became increasingly incensed. He was baffled by Britain’s official silence on Karimov’s crimes. They were every bit as appalling as those in Iraq that were being used to justify the war. But Britain and America weren’t invading Uzbekistan ? thank god ? they were bankrolling it.
When Murray went on holiday last August an official investigator was sent to Tashkent. He claimed he’d unearthed allegations of “ambassadorial indiscretions”: Murray had sex in his office with female visa applicants, supported the visa application of the daughter of a friend, drove a Land Rover down a flight of steps and regularly went out drinking heavily until late in the embassy car.
Murray was called back to London from holiday and threatened with demotion or the sack. Rumours were circulated in diplomatic circles that he was losing his mind. Unsurprisingly, Craig Murray was soon being treated for clinical depression. He’s likened his case to that of the weapons’ inspector Dr David Kelly (“But I have every intention of staying alive.”) One Foreign Office source said the pressure on him was “partly exercised on the orders of No 10? He was told the next time he stepped away from the American line, he would lose his post.”
It’s funny, isn’t it? How in their fight against the “axis of evil” our glorious leaders are more than happy to make some rather evil allies. Karimov has been ever such a big help in the “war on terror”, you see? Uzbekistan is the United State’s new “strategic ally”. Two days before the start of the war against neighbouring Afghanistan, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld met with Karimov in Tashkent and agreed to open its air space to US military aircraft, to share intelligence and to permanently lend the US a military base at Khanabad. America immediately dropped Uzbekistan from its list of “states of concern”. The World Bank announced that Uzbekistan would now get some massive loans and debt relief. In return, Uzbekistan agreed to privatisation schemes and to open up its oil and gas reserves to foreign (ie US) exploitation. US arms sales to Uzbekistan are now worth over $4 million a year (Britain has granted Uzbekistan an “open-ended export licence” for arms sales ? another shining example of New Labour’s unethical foreign policy). In 2002, Uzbekistan got $500 million in US aid. $79m of this was earmarked for “law enforcement and security services”. Or ? if you need it translated from Doublespeak ? for torture. The State Department’s official line is that they “value Uzbekistan as a stable, moderate [sic] force in a turbulent region.” Now where have we heard that one before?
Poor Craig Murray. He was operating under the belief that he was representing a country that had noble ideals about human rights, that championed freedom, justice and democracy, and the freedom to speak out when your country has done something you don’t agree with.
Eventually, last November, the Foreign Office backed down and allowed Murray to resume his post ? after he’d had medical clearance for a stress-related illness. The man who’d dared to speak up for those who can’t speak out had got away with a mighty big bang on the ear.
Meanwhile Ruslan Sharipov is still rotting away in prison, waiting to be boiled.