American democracy provides inspiration by example (rather than by military occupation) to people all over the world who are seeking justice and freedom. And it is important to note that democracy circumscribed at home can encourage anti-democratic forces abroad.
In 1999 Ruslan Sharipov, a student from Uzbekistan, came to the United States, participating in an exchange program. Upon returning home, Sharipov and two colleagues formed the Independent Journalists Association of Uzbekistan. He began subject was the dismal human rights record of the Uzbek government of Islam Karimov, whose zeal in persecuting Muslims and torturing political prisoners, and on occasion murdering them, is routinely deplored by human rights groups.
Of course Sharipov's remarkable courage and conscience were his long before he visited the United States. But perhaps his understanding of the importance and power of a free press was broadened during his short stay here. Sharipov also decided to live openly in Uzbekistan as a gay man. Perhaps this decision was influenced by his American experience as well.
Between 2001 and 2003, Sharipov was arrested, interrogated, threatened, dragged into a police car and beaten up, and assaulted by unidentified men who stole his journalist's credentials and his passport. He kept writing. On May 26, 2003, Sharipov was arrested. He was charged with a crime. He delared his innocence, but days before his trial, in custody, he confessed. He asked that his lawyers be dismissed and that his mother, the only outside observer other than his lawyers of the closed court's proceedings, be barred. And he asked President Karimov for forgiveness, retracting his criticism of the government of Uzbekistan.
If this was not enough to make it obvious that Sharipov had been tortured, he appeared at his appeal hearing with a bruised face and broken glasses—the consequence, the police claimed, of an "auto accident" involving the police transport van in which Sharipov alone sustained injuries. A month after Sharipov's conviction, Surat Ikramov, his public defender, was beaten by two masked assailants.
Sharipov has managed to get a letter from prison, addressed to Kofi Annan and to Human Rights Watch. He explains that he was tortured into confessing; he was forced to write his own suicide note and threatened with murder; he was suffocated with a gas mask; unknown substances were sprayed down his throat. He was threatened with rape and with infection with the HIV virus. These last details gain a particular sinister significance when one considers the nature of the charges against Sharipov. He was convicted not of writing critically about his repressive government. He was convicted of engaging in homosexual acts, which is a crime in Uzbekistan under Stalin-era law, and of having sex with minors, an unsubstantiated charge Sharipov denies.
This month the U.S. Congress will decide whether to approve the Bush administration's request for more than $50 million in foreign aid to Uzbekistan. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones testified before a House subcommittee that Sharipov's case is a clear example of Uzbekistan's dismal human rights record while at the same time making a point: Uzbekistan is an important ally in the Bush administration's Central Asian strategy. Military aid to Uzbekistan since Sept. 11, 2001, has risen 1,800 percent.
Pressure from Washington recently brought about the release of four imprisoned journalists in Uzbekistan. Sharipov was supposed to be among them; he wasn't. Karimov's henchmen decided to silence a dissenter using anti-homosexuality laws (which violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Uzbekistan is a signatory) and a trumped-up pedophilia charge. Did they gamble that such charges would make Sharipov's case untouchable for the vocal homophobes in Congress and on the American right?
When America falters in its commitment to protecting and expanding the rights of all its citizens, when American leaders deplore the overturning of sodomy laws and flirt openly with a constitutional amendment, the first ever, designed to restrict the rights of gay and lesbian citizens, it is not a purely domestic affair. The world is listening. The world is taking note.
Another unavoidable question is this: Will the strategy of Karimov's henchmen succeed? Will Ruslan Sharipov serve out the remaining three years of his sentence, in what one would imagine are extremely perilous conditions, a victim of geopolitical gamesmanship and, perhaps, of homophobia played out in an international arena? Or will the United States use its immense persuasive power to set a remarkable young journalist free?
*The author is a playwright and a member of the Freedom to Write Committee of PEN American Center.