March 30, 2010
HARSH PRISON TIME FOR UZBEK AIDS ACTIVIST
i wrote the following report for GAY CITY NEWS, New York City's largest newspaper:
With 28 million people, Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous nation.
Popov was the founder of Izis, a Uzbek AIDS-fighting organization of young medical professionals and activists funded by UNICEF (the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund), the UK Department for International Development, Population Services International, a 40-year-old non-governmental organization, and other international groups.
Agence France-Press reported in a dispatch: “Authorities have long been suspicious that foreign aid organizations have been trying to spread homosexuality and drug use, said an activist who also requested anonymity. ‘I think they made Popov a scapegoat,’ he said.”
Popov was the author of “HIV and AIDS Today,” a brochure that discussed same-sex relations and the use of condoms in detail, sensitive topics in this culturally conservative, largely Muslim country, where public discussions of sexuality are prohibited and all media are tightly controlled by the dictatorship. All copies of Popov’s brochure, whose publication was funded by the Global AIDS Fund, were seized by authorities and burned, say accounts on a number of websites focused on Central Asia.
Popov’s charges revolved around the government’s contention that the book constituted an “assault on minors without violence” because of its candid comments about same-sex relations.
According to a copy of the Popov verdict obtained by Eurasia.net, he was also convicted of distributing copies of “HIV and Men who have Sex with Men in Asia and the Pacific,” a publication of UNAIDS. “The content of this book, according to experts, is categorically mismatched with the mentality, moral foundations of society, religion, customs, and traditions of the people of Uzbekistan,” the verdict stated.
Consensual homosexuality between two men is a crime in Uzbekistan punishable by three years in prison. Criminal charges of homosexuality have been used in the past to silence critical journalists and human rights defenders.
In January of this year, the popular young journalist, poet, and radio broadcaster Khairullo Khamidov was arrested and jailed for belonging to a “banned social or religious group.” Khamidov’s broadcasts on a private radio station regularly dealt with such forbidden issues as homosexuality, prostitution, and corruption, mostly through his poems.
A short-lived newspaper that Khamidov founded and ran, Odamlar Orasida (Among the People), which achieved a circulation of 24,000 in only five months of publication, discussed the same issues, including homosexuality, and was closed in 2007 by authorities, according to a report earlier this year on the website of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty.
There is an obscure reference in the RFE/ RL report to the charges against Khamidov being related to his “personal life,” and some comments by Uzbeks on various other websites suggest that the “banned group” referred to by authorities in the charges against Khamidov was the homosexual community.
Because homosexuality is illegal, Uzbek police not only regularly harass gays but also subject them to extortion by detaining them and threatening them with prosecution, according to an article in China Daily.
AIDS activist Popov was arrested, tried, and jailed last year, but news of his prosecution and incarceration only began filtering out to the West since February 24, so tightly controlled is information by the dictatorship that Islam Karimov established in 1989 as ruler of the Uzbek Communist Party in the then-Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan.
The following year, as the Soviet Union was spiraling toward its 1991 dissolution, Karimov made himself the country’s president, and has been maintained in that post in subsequent sham elections where only candidates who support him are permitted to run for the nation’s parliament.
According to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based international group, the government blocks access to most of the independent websites that deal with Uzbek affairs.
Homophobic hate crimes are often perpetrated against those rare Uzbeks who dare to raise the issue of homosexuality in public. On February 17, three young men were convicted of murdering the prominent theater director Mark Vail, who was Jewish and of Russian origin, and whose family had moved to Uzbekistan in the 19th century. According to a dispatch from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), homophobia may have been the real motivation for the murder.
Vail, 55, who founded the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent in the mid-1970s and built it into a hub of Russian-language, Western-oriented culture there, died after being stabbed and brutally beaten last September 7 by the assailants near his apartment in the Uzbek capital. His attackers did not take any money or belongings.
One of Vail’s most successful recent productions was the play “White White Black Stork” about love between two religious school boys, based on a novel by the Uzbek dissident writer Abdulla Kadyri, who was executed during the Stalin era. Vail also staged another homoerotic play, “Taking Care of Pomegranate.”
The JTA dispatch reported that according to a leader in Tashkent’s Jewish population of 30,000, “many in the Jewish community there believed Vail’s murder was related to ‘White White Black Stork’ and its homosexual content.”
The homophobia-laden charges against AIDS activist Popov also included accusations of fiscal impropriety. But, according to a Facebook page set up by Popov’s friends, “The charges of fiscal impropriety come in the wake of years of harassment of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] by the Uzbek government via such measures as restricting or blocking access to foreign funds in bank accounts, repeated tax audits, and threatening visits from secret police or others urging NGO heads to close their organizations to avoid trouble.”
The UN says that Uzbekistan has one of the fastest-growing HIV infection rates in the world, according to the Associated Press.
A report about the Popov case posted on the Russian-based Central Asian news website Ferghana.ru, written in wobbly English and relying on one of its Uzbek readers, stated, “The attention to HIV/ AIDS problem in the republic is illustrated by the story of another reader: at one of the seminars, dedicated to this pressing issue, the representative of respected organization refused to put the condom on banana, arguing that the mentality of the nation must have been considered first. ‘It is sad to admit that all the official ministries think the same way. Perhaps, there are some best minds, but they have no voting power. There is no sex in Uzbekistan!’, says this reader.”
According to Eurasia.net, Izis, the AIDS group founded by Popov, has shut down since his jailing. The “Amnesty for Maxim Popov” Facebook page reports, “Popov kept Izis open even when the government blocked all access to funds, operating without pay and in collaboration with local community councils and volunteers. The climate in Uzbekistan makes it impossible for people within the country to speak out. Those of us who have worked with Maxim Popov know him to be a witty, humble, curious, enthusiastic, and effective educator and psychologist.”
The US news media has given no serious coverage to the Popov case. A Google search revealed only one sentence mentioning Popov in the New York Times, which appeared at the tail end of an Associated Press dispatch on the paper’s website; it inaccurately stated, “In late February, Uzbek activist Maxim Popov, who distributed brochures saying condoms and disposable syringes can help prevent HIV, was convicted of corrupting minors by promoting homosexuality, prostitution, and drug use.” In fact, Popov’s conviction dates from last year; it is only the case’s public reporting in the West that occurred in late February.
After 9/11, Uzbekistan became an important staging ground for US attacks against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. As a result, the American government has soft-pedaled its criticisms of the country’s authoritarian regime and abhorrent human rights record. Popov and Izis have received funding from the US Agency for International Development, but a phone call to Robert O. Blake, the assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, seeking comment on the Popov case went unreturned as of press time.
The “Amnesty for Maxim Popov” Facebook page is at facebook.com/group.php?gid=171801985748&ref=search&sid=528134066.2236888131..1&v=info. Protests against the jailing of Maxim Popov can be sent to: President Islam Abduganievich Karimov, Office of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Rezidentsia prezidenta / The Presidential Palace 700000 g. Tashkent RESPUBLIKA UZBEKISTAN, or via fax at +998-71-139-53-25, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ISLAMIST MOB SHUTTERS GAY ASIAN CONFERNCE IN E. JAVA
I wrote the following article for GAY CITY NEWS, New York City's largest queer weekly:
A large, well-organized mob of Islamist fundamentalists in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, on March 26 attacked an international conference led by ILGA-Asia, a branch of the International Lesbian and Gay Association.
The mob used aggressive threats of violence to force police to ban the meeting and to intimidate two host hotels to expel conference participants.
Speaking by telephone from Surabaya, a city of 3 million that is the capital of East Java, ILGA’s co-secretary-general, Renato Sabbadini, told Gay City News that the mob, which grew from 50 to 150, invaded and occupied the Oval Hotel at around 1p.m, shortly after Friday morning prayer services in the city’s mosques had concluded.
According to Indonesian newspapers, the mob was organized jointly by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) –– which has a long history of attacking Indonesian LGBT people and was described by the Jakarta Post as a “radical” group of “hardline” fundamentalists –– and the Indonesian Council of Ulema, an association of Muslim clerics.
Indonesia, a multi-island nation of some 230 million people, has the world’s largest Muslim population. According to the country’s 2000 census, 86.1 percent of Indonesians are Muslims.
“The mob invaded the lobby of the hotel [named the Oval] and would not leave unless the police and the hotel management would guarantee that our conference would not go forward,” Sabbadini told Gay City News.
“The rule of law was basically suspended during the occupation by the Islamists, and both the police and the hotel management gave in completely to the demands of the mob’s leaders, who threatened to call in reinforcements if their demands were not met,” he added. “The hotel management even went so far as to give a complete list of the conference participants staying in the hotel to the mob.
“Later that evening, mob members conducted a floor-by-floor sweep of the hotel, going to the rooms of conference participants to make sure they had left.”
But that was not enough for the mob’s leaders; one member of the event’s local organizing committee, King Oey, told Gay City News he was repeatedly punched by one of the fomenters in the Oval’s lobby for refusing to turn over ILGA’s list of the 150 conference participants from 14 Asian countries, 60 of whom were Indonesians.
One conference participant, Joel Bedos of France, staff coordinator of the Paris-based IDAHO Committee (which organizes the International Day Against Homophobia observed each May in more than 65 countries), said, “We had to hide in our hotel rooms, where we were confined, because a mob of men outside the hotel screamed threats at us as soon as they saw someone at the hotel’s windows.”
Oey, a member of GAYa Nusantara, Indonesia’s oldest gay group, founded in the 1980s, which helped host the conference, told Gay City News, “East Java is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism, which makes it one of the most hostile parts of Indonesia for LGBT people, and the rise of these extremist groups here are the biggest threat to us now –– more so than the police.”
Although there is no national law making homosexuality illegal in Indonesia, many provinces and cities have local measures against “moral vice” that criminalize homosexuality along with prostitution and drug abuse. (For background, see this reporter’s October 12-18, 2006 article "Indonesian Gays Fight Back.")
Oey told Gay City News the Islamic Defenders Front “will use violence against LGBT people any time they think they can get away with it.”
The Jakarta Post reported that the Front’s secretary-general, Muhammad Chaenruddin, said, “The foreigners were told to leave because Surabaya Muslims believe the conference was against religious values and teachings. We forced them to leave by Sunday, and we also told them not to make a media statement.”
The Jakarta Globe reported, “When the ILGA members planned to hold a news conference after the raid, the Islamic Defenders Front members prevented them, leading to another skirmish.”
The newspaper quoted Arukat Jaswadi, a fundamentalist mob leader, saying, “They are undermining us. It’s clear that we don’t want them to be here for the conference, now they want to hold a press conference.”
By the time Gay City News spoke with Sabbadini late Saturday night Indonesia time, he said that all of the conference participants –– except for five ILGA staffers who remained behind unharmed –– had safely left the hotel and been evacuated to other locations or had returned home.
According to Sabbadini, the ILGA-Asia conference began having problems four days earlier, when local newspapers published sensationalized accounts of the planned meeting.
Oey told Gay City News, “In general, the media here treat homosexuality as hype, and while a few newspapers have somewhat neutral or realistic treatment of homosexuality, for the most part an ingrained homophobic bias persists” in the press.
Following those news reports about the conference, the Islamists began organizing against it. The conference had originally been scheduled for Surabaya’s Mercure Hotel, but after the Islamists contacted its management, the hotel summarily canceled the conference and expelled participants staying there from their rooms.
The Mercure is owned by the giant French-based Accor hotel group, which owns more than 4,000 hotels worldwide, including the Sofitel, Novotel, and Ibis chains.
The conference was hastily switched to the Oval Hotel, where many of the participants moved as well, but by Friday morning the organizers, warned of an impending attack, canceled the public sessions. They succeeded, however, in holding a few workshops in hotel rooms they occupied –– at least until the mob arrived and took over the hotel lobby.
ILGA’s Sabbadini denounced the collusion of both police and management of the two hotels with the anti-gay mob’s leaders.
“By Friday evening, when the occupation of the hotel continued, we saw both the police and the hotel’s managers chatting amiably with the mob leaders, who were being served dinner by white-gloved waiters,” he said.
The Oval Hotel was built last year by an Indonesian company, PT Surya Karang Indah.
Sabbadini told Gay City News, “The police claimed they were powerless to assure the security of the participants in our conference, with the local police passing the buck to the national police, while the national police said it was purely a local matter.”
The conference’s local organizing committee tried to contact Indonesian political leaders to lift the police ban on holding the meeting, but to no avail, he added.
The Jakarta Post did, however, quote Benny Kabur Harman, the justice and human rights commission chairman of the Indonesian House of Representatives, saying on Friday, “[Holding a congress] is a basic human right. Gays and lesbians are citizens whose political and legal rights are guaranteed and protected by the Constitution, which allows freedom of opinion. The state should in no way forbid the congress from being held.”
The website of the Indonesian gay group GAYa Nusantara is gayanusantara.or.id/ . The English-language website of Arus Pelangi (Rainbow Flag), the Indonesian Federation of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Communities is at aruspelangi.or.id/indeks.php. The ILGA website is http://ilga.org/.