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A one-man gay rights movement: Ruslan Sharipov, an openly gay journalist and dissident in Muslim Uzbekistan, gains international attention after his conviction under a Soviet-era sodomy law.

Before he was thrown in prison, Ruslan Sharipov was infamous for taking risks. In his native Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim country that places strict limits on freedom of speech, the openly gay journalist and political activist wrote many articles criticizing the government, "Most independent journalists in Uzbekistan try to skim the boundary of what's acceptable while staying mindful of where that boundary is," say Alex Lupis, program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization that monitors media freedom around the globe. "Ruslan was vocal and direct in his criticism in a way that was all but unheard-of."

The combination of political dissent and open homosexuality proved too much for authorities in this highly conservative former Soviet republic. He was arrested in May 2003; in August amid reports that he had beer beaten and tortured, the 26 year-old Sharipov was convicted under an Uzbek criminal code that bans homosexual conduct and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison. The arrest and conviction drew international criticism, and a campaign is currently under way to convince the Uzbek government to release Sharipov.

"Even as a child, Ruslan had a great flair for organization," says his brother Aleksey, a graduate student in psychology now living in the United States. "Growing up, he was a natural leader, always in the center of things," Ruslan Sharipov and his two brothers were born and raised in the ancient city of Bukhara, 200 miles from his country's southeastern border with Afghanistan. His mother and father both placed great value on education, and Sharipov studied English at Bukhara University, where he single-handedly founded, wrote, and distributed a controversial student newspaper.

Such activities take courage in Uzbekistan. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly independent nation has attracted international opposition to the authoritarian policies of its Muslim president, Islam Karimov, a former Communist Party official who came to power following a highly contested 1991 election--and, moreover, to the alleged brutality of its police and security forces. Most political dissidents fled the country by the mid 1990s. Many of those who remained were arrested, and some perished in the country's overflowing prisons.

To alleviate the overcrowding, the Uzbek government issues an amnesty each December to a large number of prisoners serving out short sentences for noncapital offenses. But Sharipov's prison sentence exceeded the eligibility limit for amnesty. "By not granting Ruslan amnesty, the Uzbek government passed up an ideal opportunity to release one of its most controversial political prisoners," says Acacia Shields, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "This speaks volumes about the Uzbek government's fear and intolerance of dissent."

John Aravosis, a longtime gay activist who cofounded the infamous Stop Dr. Laura Web site and who has joined the call for Sharipov's release, says the Sharipov case is entangled with the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, where the Bush administration is wooing Muslim allies in its self-styled "war on terrorism." "Since September 11, U.S. aid to Uzbekistan has tripled," Aravosis says. "Cases like Ruslan's demonstrate that once again, the United States is supporting yet another dictatorship in the name of freedom and democracy."

Sharipov may have been singled out in part because of his personal magnetism, says "Anna," a fellow Uzbek journalist who asked that her name be changed to protect her identity. "Ruslan is a very charismatic person capable of attracting large numbers of followers," she says. "As such, he was a threat to the regime."

Equally threatening, she and others say, is Sharipov's ability to write in English, a skill he honed while studying journalism at the University of Georgia in the United States in 1998 on a prestigious fellowship for students from the former Soviet Union. On returning home in the summer of 1999, he began to publish English-language articles via the Internet, circumventing government restrictions on print media. "Ruslan was targeted in part because he was one of a few Uzbek journalists able to communicate to a mass audience abroad," Lupis says.

Marcus Longmuir, who worked as a counselor for international students at the University of Georgia during Sharipov's time there, was not surprised to see his former protege making waves back home. "Ruslan was a very strong-willed individual, an idealist," he says. "It makes perfect sense that he became such a dynamic journalist." At the University of Georgia, Sharipov became a campus leader known for his fondness of pizza and the Gap, where he shopped religiously. And he decided to come out. "When Ruslan studied in the United States, he saw how gay people could live," says Aleksey.

In Uzbekistan, however, living as an openly gay man is as daring as publicly criticizing the government. "There is no organized gay community in Uzbekistan, no visible presence. Overridingly, there's just silence," says Scott Long, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Sharipov tried to break that silence. Shortly before his arrest he "had received international funding for a project to protect the rights of gays and lesbians and other vulnerable populations. His arrest not only ended that project, it sent a strong message to other members of sexual minority groups to keep quiet. The arrest also had an adverse effect, on Sharipov's professional image at home. "By charging Ruslan [with sodomy], the government hoped to carry out persecution of a political activist under the radar screen and discredit him by associating him with a marginalized social group," Long says. Anna agrees. "Very few people will defend someone incriminated for homosexual conduct," she says.

Sharipov has maintained a high profile while behind bars. He managed to smuggle a letter out of prison detailing his torture at the hands of guards, which was then published on Web sites around the world. In late November the World Association of Newspapers announced that this spring Sharipov would receive the 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom for his "courageous resistance to attacks, torture, and constant harassment under President Islam Karimov's repressive regime."

Meanwhile, human rights organizations from around the globe are lobbying for Sharipov's release. His friends have engaged in letter-writing campaigns and put together a Web site, www.freeruslansharipov.org, to provide updates on his status. But Anna remains doubtful about efforts to free him. "Based on the fate of other independent journalists in Uzbekistan, it is difficult to believe that Ruslan will be released," she says, noting that his life may be in jeopardy. "It will take a very high degree of international pressure for him to emerge alive."

Robertson-Terror is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Human Rights
Author:Robertson-Textor, Marisa
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Mar 2, 2004
Words:1093
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