Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

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

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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