Last edited: December 07, 2004

Finding Asylum

After he was arrested for sodomy and tortured in Uzbekistan, bisexual reporter Ruslan Sharipov escaped to the United States

The Advocate, December 21, 2004

By Patrick Letellier

In May 2003 Ruslan Sharipov was arrested by the government of Uzbekistan for “engaging in homosexual acts” and having sex with minors. The 26-year-old bisexual journalist was sentenced to four years in prison, where he was tortured into giving officials a confession.

In reality, Sharipov—a reporter for a Russian news agency—was being punished for writing about human rights abuses committed by Uzbekistan’s government. In November 2003, while still in prison, he won the World Association of Newspapers’ prestigious Golden Pen of Freedom Award for his human rights work.

Last summer, just before being transferred to a remote city to serve out the remainder of his sentence, Sharipov fled Uzbekistan for Moscow. He applied for political asylum in the United States and arrived here in late October. He recently spoke to The Advocate about his harrowing journey.

Were you out as a bisexual man in Uzbekistan?
I wasn’t advertising it. But people knew because for several years, besides general human rights work, I was defending sexual minorities. After I saw how the police torture and use [laws against homosexuality in] the criminal code to blackmail people, I decided I had to defend sexual minorities. Nobody was doing that kind of work in Uzbekistan. Everybody is afraid and says, “We can’t talk about that.”

Were you afraid of what might happen to you?
Of course. If you do human rights work or media work in Uzbekistan, there is a special department that watches you 24 hours a day. I had no personal life. They knew every place I went, everything I did. Many times government officials gave me warnings that I would be imprisoned or killed.

Why didn’t you stop?
I thought the government was lying. I was in close contact with a lot of international human rights organizations, and I immediately let them know about any threats. But on May 26, 2003, I was walking with my friends in the center of Tashkent, the capital, and two people came and arrested me. They weren’t able to find anything to charge me with, so they made false charges: homosexual violations and sex with minors.

You were tortured in prison. Can you tell me about that?
Yes. They used a gas mask. They put it on my head and closed it so that I could not breathe. They sprayed unknown substances into my throat. Simultaneously they put electric shocks on different parts of my body. So while you can’t breathe, you’re getting electric shocks. Once I lost consciousness. And they injected unknown substances into my veins. They told me it was HIV and other infections. They also made me write a suicide note. I couldn’t understand if it was for real or just to frighten me. That was the worst thing.

You were still in prison when you won the Golden Pen Award. So how did you find out?
Some prisoners had radios, and news of the award was played on the radio. The news spread all over the prison colony. I was so happy. The award and the big publicity were very helpful. Thanks to this campaign, the torture stopped and my conditions were better. Uzbekistan officials were afraid of the international attention.

What happened to your family?
The government threatened my mother and brother numerous times. Frightened them. After I was arrested, they had to leave the country. My mother told me that they had to leave. She said, “I don’t want to leave you alone here.” I said, “It’s safer for you to leave.” They came to California, where my older brother has lived for five years.

What is it like to be in the United States now?
I feel free again. When I came here I understood that after all that time of fear, finally I can rest. Many people take freedom and human rights for granted living here.

What’s next for you?
I don’t know for sure yet. I am horribly tired from all that has happened, and I’m so happy that I can just go to bed without fear. I am weak, my health is not good now, but I hope soon it will begin to get better. It will take time.

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