An independent journalist charged with sodomy in Uzbekistan went on trial behind closed doors Wednesday in a case highlighting concerns about media freedom and about pressure against gay men and lesbians in the tightly controlled Central Asian country. The arrest and trial of Ruslan Sharipov, who is openly gay, has been criticized by international human rights and press groups. He has been
imprisoned since his May 26 arrest and faces additional charges of having sex with minors and managing prostitutes. In an open letter from jail to President Bush, Sharipov said the added charges were fabricated and that he was being threatened with torture to confess. Uzbekistan's human rights record has attracted more international attention since the country allowed U.S. troops to use a military base there.
Sharipov on Wednesday demanded an open trial, but Judge Ganisher Makhmudov said he wanted to protect the privacy of alleged victims in the case who are minors. Matilda Bogner, a researcher for the international group Human Rights Watch, said that by barring access to independent observers, authorities were trying "to stop the case from being publicized and scrutinized." The Uzbek government tolerates no dissent and tightly controls the news media, and politically motivated prosecution of journalists is common.
Sharipov, who leads an independent group that focuses on media freedom, has repeatedly been detained, beaten, and questioned by police about his journalism and human rights activities. Nazima Kamolova, one of his lawyers, said in an interview that the charges were "directly linked to his journalistic activities." But Sharipov's case has also brought to light the lesser-publicized issue of
the rights of sexual minorities. Of the 15 former Soviet republics, only Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and
Turkmenistan have maintained Soviet-era laws against sex between adult men, according to the International Lesbian and Gay Association. Uzbekistan's law is in violation of the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Uzbekistan joined in 1995, Kamolova said. The U.N. Human Rights Committee in 1994 affirmed that the covenant protects the individual's sexual orientation and has also called on countries to do away with laws that punish adult consensual gay sex.
Gays face regular police harassment in Uzbekistan, and establishments where they meet are forced to close or are heavily monitored by police, said a few gay men who spoke on condition that their full names wouldn't be revealed. Average citizens despise and ridicule them or, at best, simply ignore them,
the men said. "There is an unbridgeable gap between me and society," said Oleg, who gave only his first name. Publicly, homosexuality is never spoken about; in private it's mostly a source of squeamish jokes. Marat Khodjimukhamedov, deputy head of the Ijtimoi Fikr opinion center, said
almost 99% of people polled during a survey last year said they viewed sexual minorities negatively. "People will not throw stones at a person if they know he is gay, but they will avoid his company," Khodjimukhamedov said. "It's a publicly condemned thing." On the street, Oleg said police routinely pick up gays, threaten them with prosecution, and extort anywhere from US$10 to US$100 in bribes, depending on their victim's social status. "Cops like bribes, and homosexuals are easy to blackmail and rob," said a gay Western aid worker living in Tashkent. He said Uzbek authorities' attitude to
gays came down to a simple calculus: "Ignore it or exploit it."