May 13 marks ten years since the government of Uzbekistan massacred hundreds of civilians that had gathered in a square in a provincial town in what appeared a spontaneous act of defiance against a brutal and corrupt regime.
In the aftermath of the massacre, the Uzbek government characterised the bulk of the protesters as ‘Islamic extremists’, a designation that has since become synonymous with anyone that does not fit in with the state's narrow vision of an ideal citizen.
While the subject of this post, Akram Rustamov, was not among those in the town of Andijan that day, his story offers a compelling insight into the climate of fear and paranoia created by the government — even thousands of kilometres beyond its borders — in the name of counter-terrorism.
I met 25-year-old Akram Rustamov by chance when I was researching a story on the hardships Central Asian migrants face in Moscow, where millions work the most menial jobs.
He was facing serious charges at home in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek prosecutors accuse Akram of recruiting for the “Islamic Movement of Turkestan” (some regional experts believe the group is an invention of the Uzbek secret police), of calling for jihad at home, and of seeking militant training in Syria.
Uzbekistan has used trumped-up terrorism charges for years to jail critics and thousands of others, mostly peaceful Muslims, rights groups say. The regime of Islam Karimov uses the arrests and closed trials to perpetuate fear and legitimize its authoritarian rule both at home and abroad. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is the latest excuse.
Activist Bahrom Hamroev at Memorial, a leading Russian human rights organization calls the charges against Akram “fabricated and falsified.”
Akram asked me to film his story. He was desperate to prove his innocence.
Spending time with Uzbeks in Moscow, I quickly came to see that many live in fear of something far worse than the nationalist Russian gangs or shady employers I had set out to document.
When one of Akram’s friends – a bulky, confident guy I will call Ahmed – heard us discussing theories that the Karimov regime was behind bombings in Tashkent in 1999, he panicked. If anyone found out, he said, he would be locked up immediately. Ahmed and another friend facing charges similar to Akram’s are so afraid that they have stopped going to work, fearing abduction by Uzbek security services operating in Moscow.
Ten days after I filmed Akram, he phoned me and told me that he was going back to Uzbekistan. I pleaded for him not to, but he said he didn’t have a choice. He had received threatening phone calls from the Uzbek National Security Service (SNB), he said, and on April 24 he left.
Upon Akram's arrival in Uzbekistan, family and friends say, the SNB immediately detained him. No one has been permitted to visit him. His friends and family fear he is being tortured and that they may never see him again.
Hamroev at Memorial says he believes Akram was promised freedom, promised that his name would be cleared. There’s no way he would have left of his own volition otherwise, Hamroev says. He also believes Akram was given a choice, of a sort: come home or your situation will be far worse.