The closed-door trial of rights defender and independent journalist Ruslan Sharipov began on July 23 in Tashkent. On August 8, new developments in the case gave rise to serious concern that Sharipov had been tortured. He waived his right to counsel, declared his intention to plead guilty on all charges, and asked that the only outside observer to the proceedings—his mother—be dismissed from the courtroom.
Sharipov further offered to publicly beg for the forgiveness of President Karimov, the Minister of the Interior, and local police, and retracted all Internet news articles critical of the government that he had written from 2001 to 2003.
A member of Sharipov’s newly-dismissed defense team who met with his client after the hearing told Human Rights Watch that Sharipov said he had been forced to reject counsel and profess his guilt, out of fear for his own safety and that of his lawyers and mother.
“We urge the government of Uzbekistan to stop the politically motivated trial of Ruslan Sharipov; drop the charges under Article 120; and release him pending an impartial, independent review of the remaining charges against him,” Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. “Human Rights Watch condemns his arrest as an effort to suppress free speech in Uzbekistan and as flagrant discrimination and persecution based on sexual orientation.”
Twenty-five-year-old Sharipov was arrested by Tashkent police on May 26 on charges of homosexual conduct. Police accused him under Article 120 of the Uzbek Criminal Code, which punishes “besakalbazlyk” – defined as “consensual satisfaction of the sexual needs of one man with another man” – with up to three years in prison. Article 120 derives from a provision banning male homosexual conduct that was introduced into the Soviet Union’s laws under Joseph Stalin. Most successor states to the Soviet Union have repealed this provision. Only Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are known to retain it.
“Ruslan Sharipov has been a forthright critic of Uzbek government policies for years, and has faced steady threats and harassment as a result,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “He is now being tried behind closed doors, on what appear to be politically motivated and discriminatory charges. He should be freed, and Article 120 of the Criminal Code should be repealed.”
After taking him into custody in May, police added additional charges to the accusations against Sharipov, including the charge of involving minors in “antisocial behavior” (Criminal Code Article 127) and having sexual relations with minors (Article 128). Until his statement on August 8, Sharipov had denied these charges and declared that they were fabricated in an attempt to silence him and put a stop to his human rights activities.
“These additional charges appear to be an attempt to play on prejudices about gay men and to discourage the international community from speaking out in defense of Sharipov,” said Andersen. “But this is not the time to be silent.”
Human Rights Watch fears that Sharipov’s declaration of guilt and the decision of such a well-known rights defender to waive his own rights and distance himself from his own work are indications that he has been tortured and that these statements were coerced.
“Rather than proving Sharipov’s guilt, this latest development suggests the authorities’ manipulation and coercion of a vulnerable detainee,” said Andersen.
During the first days of his detention, arresting officers threatened Sharipov with physical violence, including rape with a bottle.
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that Sharipov faces continued threat of physical and psychological abuse while in custody.
To read Human Rights Watch’s letter to President Karimov regarding the Sharipov case, please see http://www.hrw.org/press/2003/08/uzbek081203-ltr.htm