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How Russia and Uzbekistan cooperate on the kidnap trail to Central Asia

People leave Uzbekistan seeking safety and work in Russia. But what they find is prosecution and abduction.

The detainee of the FSB of the Russian Federation in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is a supporter of the international terrorist organization “Islamic State” banned on the territory of the Russian Federation. Still image from video, provided by the DSP FSB. Photo: RIA News. All rights reserved.In the last six years, the number of people charged with extremism offences in Russia has risen more than three-fold. Many of them have migrated from Uzbekistan, seeking safety in Russia from poverty and political persecution.

The Russian judicial system, however, has no intention of offering them protection. On the contrary, it fabricates terrorist and religious extremism charges against them and hands them back to the Uzbek security services, in circumvention of all international agreements.

A flight from death

The story of Tatyana and Bakhodir Karimov doesn’t just illustrate the indifference of the Russian judicial system, but demonstrates the complicity between the Russian and Uzbek Special Services.

Tanya and Bakhodir met in 2010 in Samara, in southwest Russia, where Bakhodir arrived six months before he met his future wife. Migrating was not his own idea: “I grew up in an educated family: there were five doctors among my brothers and sisters,” he tells me. “I was the eighth child. The authorities have been harassing my family since 1996. My brothers were unwilling to take part in the cotton harvest. It’s no secret that there is forced labour in Uzbekistan.”

Bakhodir’s brothers consistently opposed the forced labour system and refused to allow their medical subordinates to work in the cotton fields. In 1999, the regime of Islam Karimov started widespread repressions against opponents of the government. Members of Bakhodir’s family were placed on a blacklist.

Chronicles of a family tragedy: photographs of Tanya and Bahodir Karimov. Photo courtesy of the author.“I was arrested along with my two brothers on 25 March 1999, I was 15 at the time. They were set up on a charge of undermining the constitutional system, the usual story in Uzbekistan. They were tortured to force them to sign confessions. I was beaten half to death and dumped in front of our door. They thought I would die so they let me go.”

Bakhodir’s brothers were tried without access to lawyers – the people their family found to defend them were too intimidated to work on the case. A month later, yet another brother was sent to prison, for trying to get a fair investigation.

“I was constantly summoned for questioning and badly beaten,” Bakhodir tells me. “Their methods were medieval. You’d be undressed, thrown in a cellar, beaten, hung up from the ceiling. They would often break into our house at night, and they would say: ‘Why don’t you just kill yourself, and save us the trouble?’”

“Sometimes I really dreamed about dying. This lasted for six years, until my mother made me leave the country. In 2005 I moved to Ekaterinburg, and from there to Samara.”

An unwelcome wedding

Bakhodir and Tanya lived together quietly until December 2013. The only problem was that they couldn’t get officially married; Bakhodir needed a certificate from Uzbekistan to prove that he wasn’t already married. “My brother got hold of a certificate with great trouble, so we could finally marry. But then the authorities remembered I exist.”

Tanya and Bakhodir were married in early October 2013, but on 31 October, less than a month later, a criminal charge was filed against him in Uzbekistan. The crime, of “undermining the constitutional system of Uzbekistan”, was supposed to have taken place in 2009, when Bakhodir was in Russia, but it took four years to find a witness to it. “One day we were travelling by train together. This is how it’s done: they put a person’s name through the databases, and then they select witnesses among the people sitting next to them in the plane, train or bus. I don’t know how they lean on the other passengers, but they are definitely forced into giving evidence.”

Bakhodir and Tatyana Karimov. Source: Refugee.ru. Tanya remembers how they were on their way to Uzbekistan, to celebrate New Year and meet her husband’s family, but his mother rang to warn them not to come. They soon discovered that Bakhodir was facing extradition. Remembering what had happened to his brothers, the couple began to look for lawyers and called on the human rights campaigners at “CivicAssistance”.

In March 2014, the Karimovs approached the Samara Federal Migration Service, asking them to offer Bakhodir asylum in Russia. “We went to speak to them together,” says Tanya, “and told them about the persecution he had faced back home. The person in the office checked my husband’s ID documents and assured us that there were no charges against him, so there were no grounds for an asylum request. But he was lying – my husband had already been on the wanted list for four months.”

On 10 June, Bakhodir was arrested right in the migration service offices, where he had come to extend his work permit. An investigator told him to his face that a security team was already on the way from Uzbekistan to arrest him.

A Russian court ruled that Bakhodir should be detained and he spent seven months and ten days in pre-trial detention. In the end, the extradition was dropped after a check on him failed to unearth any irregularities. The Karimovs believe he was just lucky.

On 19 January 2015, Bakhodir was released. There was a car waiting practically outside the detention centre door. “We immediately realised that this was not good,” Tanya tells me. “We called friends to help us, surrounded Bakhodir and sat him in the car in such a way that it was captured on CCTV. The police car trailed us right across town, and we were so scared! I even threw my phone out of the car from fright.”

While he was detained, Bakhodir re-applied for asylum, and was turned down again. He was even refused temporary residence; his temporary registration and work permit weren’t extended – Tanya’s husband had become an illegal immigrant. All this time he was also receiving threats. In the end he stopped going out, even to local shops.

“In 2016 we applied yet again for temporary asylum,” Tanya continues. “I was pregnant at the time. The woman who accepted our application forms at the Migration Service was sure that we wouldn’t be turned down, especially given that we were expecting a child.”

The Karimovs started getting calls from the migration service at the end of December 2016, when Tanya was six months pregnant, and her husband began to be summoned again for “chats”. In January, Tanya went there alone, with a power of attorney: it was too risky for Bakhodir to go.

“Thanks to those people, we lost our child and I nearly died”

“When I turned up at the migration service, two big Slavic-looking men were waiting for me,” Tanya tells me. “A police officer approached me and asked me into an office. I was threatened and accused of harbouring my husband, who was living in Russia illegally. The conversation was conducted in raised voices, and at the end a statement was drawn up. It was terrifying: my head was spinning and I felt sick. They kept me, a pregnant woman, trapped in an airless office for two hours, and I went home in a state of utter terror.”

Tanya can’t talk any further, tears are welling up in her eyes. Bakhodir gives her some water. He tells me that his mother-in-law gave her camomile tea, took her blood pressure and tried to calm her down. “But during the night of 31 January-1 February we called an ambulance. Her blood pressure was very high. The baby couldn’t get enough oxygen and suffocated.”

“My baby died, and I was in a coma for three days. My kidneys packed in. Thanks to those people, we lost our child and I almost died. I just hate them now,” says Tanya.

Russia is a prison

In May, Bakhodir was given refugee status after a private meeting with an official from the UN Refugee Agency. A third country was found that would accept the Karimovs. But here the couple encountered a new legal hitch: Russia won’t allow Uzbek citizens to cross its border without an exit visa, which they can only acquire in their home country. This is a condition of the border agreement between Russia and Uzbekistan.

With help from the human rights specialists, Bakhodir received a laissez-passer travel document and the UN Refugee Agency sent an official request to Russia’s Foreign Ministry to allow him to leave the country. There was no response for five months. “I was in danger all that time,” he says. “People fleeing from Uzbekistan are often abducted in Russia. And at home, they are, at best, given long prison sentences and, at worst, carried out in coffins.”

Russia won’t allow Uzbek citizens to cross its border without an exit visa, which they can only acquire in their home country

The Karimovs have now been able to leave Russia. The couple have emigrated to an EU country and are hoping to make a new start with a clean slate.

“Our family in Uzbekistan are still called ‘enemies of the people’,” Bakhodir tells me. “They lead my mother, who is in her seventies, into the middle of the street, gather all the neighbours and condemn her in public. ‘You’ve brought up enemies of the people,’ they say. Even my sister’s underage children get summoned for questioning. They said that things would be different under Shavkat Mirziyoyev [who became president of Uzbekistan in 2016]. But we’ve heard from friends that nothing has changed. Law enforcement still patrol the streets, hunting for enemies and putting pressure on family members. In Uzbekistan, people are treated worse than cattle. And those who try to stand up for their rights pay dearly for it. It’s better to be an insect than to live there.”

A shameful agreement

Svetlana Gannushkina, who heads Civil Assistance, knows the Karimovs well: she advised the couple on safety issues and helped them fight for the right to leave Russia. She tells me that the visa problem faced by Uzbek nationals in Russia goes back to 2000, when the two countries signed a bilateral agreement about rules for moving from one country to the other. The document stated that the two sides would observe procedures as recognised in the two signatory states. In other words, Russia would permit Uzbek citizens to leave their country under Uzbek rules, and Uzbekistan would permit Russians to leave Russia under Russian rules.

It all sounds quite innocuous, but Russia has in fact become a trap for Uzbeks, as Gannushkina explains: “Russia’s constitution states that ‘Any citizen has the freedom to leave Russia’. In other words, the Russo-Uzbek agreement places no restrictions on the movement of Russian citizens. But under Uzbek law, for an Uzbek citizen to travel outside the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], he or she needs a stamped exit sticker, which they can only get in Uzbekistan. Most of our clients don’t have an exit sticker, so they simply can’t go home.”

The detainee of the FSB of Russia is a member of the cell of the Islamic state group in the Moscow region. Still image with video provided by the FSB. Photo: RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.This situation used to be resolved if a third country was willing to offer Uzbeks a visa and asylum. But that option is no longer available, Gannushkina tells me: “With the breakdown in relations with the west, Russia has started not just observing the agreement, but giving it greater force than the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which states that countries should respect the will of other states when offering people asylum. So Russia now considers a totally shameful agreement with Uzbekistan a higher authority than the UN Convention.”

Gannushkina stresses that Russia is not a safe country for Uzbek citizens. Uzbekistan’s security services are completely at home here and support their Russian colleagues in every way, although often with strings attached.

Forced return

Bakhodir Karinov was lucky. Thanks to his own competence and help from rights campaigners and his wife he managed to avoid extradition to Uzbekistan. But many refugees are illegally “returned” to their own country.

One common means of “return” involves a request for extradition. The person’s home country opens a criminal case against them and sends the Russian authorities a request for their extradition, whereupon they are taken into custody by the police. “In cases like this, we apply to the European Court of Human Rights [ECHR], arguing that in their home country they might be subjected to torture and asking the ECHR to use its Article 39,” Gannushkina explains. “This is a preventive measure, forbidding countries to carry out actions that might cause substantial harm to life and limb, which includes extradition.”

In most cases, Russia doesn’t challenge ECHR rulings, and the person involved is released from custody. But here other mechanisms can come into play. “As soon as they are released from detention, they are arrested by the police, who find irregularities in their ID papers and rule to deport them under Article 18.8 of the Administrative Offences Code [‘Infringement by a foreign citizen or stateless person of the regulations governing entry into the Russian Federation or residence therein’],” says Gannushkina. “The court then acts as if Article 39 doesn’t exist. Our courts are in the habit of pretending that extradition isn’t possible, but deportation is. The ECHR has often said that you can’t unlawfully extradite someone under the guise of deportation, but the practice continues.”

The security services often stoop to simple kidnappings. In 2014, for example, Mirsobir Khamidkariyev, the producer of a film about corruption in Uzbekistan, was abducted from Russia. His country couldn’t forgive him, and he was accused of religious extremism. “We directed him to the migration service, where he could apply for refugee status, but he was turned down,” Svetlana Gannushkina recalls. “We went to court with him, assuming that he would be refused there as well, but, to our amazement, the court didn’t just rule that it was unlawful to refuse Khamidakariyev refugee status, but ordered the migration service to give him this status.”

Mirsobir Khamidkariyev. Courtesy Photo. A week later, Mirsobir was abducted. He had called a taxi and was travelling in it with his wife and small child. The two of them needed to drop in at a chemist’s on the way – when they came out the car and Khamidakariyev had disappeared. A chance witness reported that several people had got in the “taxi” and it had sped off.

“We asked around everywhere and searched the airports, but Mirosobir had disappeared. However, he soon turned up in a Tashkent prison,” Gannushkina tells us. “Our lawyer saw how thin this tall, strong man had become: he weighed just 48 kilogrammes. After repeated beatings, he ended up signing some papers.”

“There was just one witness at his trial, who claimed that Mirsobir was calling on women to cover their heads, and on that basis he was sentenced to eight years in an Uzbek prison. He had been flown from Russia on an ordinary flight – in other words, everyone on the plane, from the FSB through the border service to the cabin staff were involved in his abduction. Now a video has appeared, in which he admits to planning a terrorist act. He’s evidently having a hard time in jail.”

Another client of Civic Assistance also fled to Russia after he was forced to sign a document in Uzbekistan, promising to act as an informer. But the security services caught up with him. One day someone called him on his mobile, saying that he had won a fancy phone. But his wife was suspicious – as Gannushkina says, it could have been a trap: “She went with him to collect his prize, and if it hadn’t been for her he would have been immediately expelled from Russia. When they got into the car waiting for them, his wife literally clung onto him. There were officers from both the Uzbek and Russian security services sitting in it, and he was driven off to a police station, from where we were able to rescue him.”

Enemies of the state

A year and a half ago, Rakhmetdin Kamolov was pushed into a car right in the centre of Moscow and taken to Domodedovo airport for a flight to Uzbekistan. In Russia, Kamolov worked for the “Pomoshch” [Help] organisation headed by human rights activist Bakhrom Khamroyev. Rakhmetdin looked after the NGO’s work with Uzbeks and Tajiks who were experiencing politically-motivated persecution. He hadn’t been back in Uzbekistan for several years.

“First they tried to persuade him to go voluntarily,” Khamroyev tells me. “They promised that he could just sign some papers and come back. But that was a lie. I’ve never seen an Uzbek seized in Russia who ever returned here. They’re all in Uzbek prisons.”

Bakhrom Khamroyev. Source: Youtube.With Khamroyev’s help, Kamolov avoided abduction, but then the disappointed Uzbek security service officers took him to a Moscow police station. Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan Kamolov was retrospectively charged under Articles 159 (an attack on the country’s constitutional order) and 244 (preparation of materials threatening public safety). Kamolov was placed on an international wanted list, and arrested as soon as he arrived at the police station.

The day after his arrest, Kamolov’s 18 year old brother, who was living in Uzbekistan at the time, was imprisoned in the basement of the SNB (Uzbekistan’s equivalent of the FSB). “They basically murdered him there,” says Khamroyev. “When they had finished with him, he came out onto the street and collapsed. He was taken to the nearest accident and emergency department but died. This was done to put pressure on Rakhmetdin.”

Kamolov’s extradition case went on for a year and a half. After unsuccessful attempts to find a reason to hand him over to the Uzbek authorities, they opened another case against him – this time in Russia.

“He was charged under Article 205.5, Part 1 [membership of a banned organisation], although there had never been any evidence of such membership,” Khamroyev tells me. “The investigators claimed that Kamolov had been the active head of communications of some group. Recordings were made of conversations where he talked about organising iftars [meals that break the fast during Ramadan] as well as barbecues in the country and so on. Anyone who actively leads a conversation can be regarded as a head of communications, but Kamolov got 16 years in jail for it.”

Work for the camera

In June 2017, Russian news agencies revealed the latest victory over terrorism. An alleged IS recruiter, Zokhid Aslonov, had been found and neutralised in the Tula region. The operation had been huge, with the FSB, police and National Guard all involved. The terrorist was so dangerous that officers had to take bulletproof shields, flickering torches to disorientate him and even a battering ram with them, as well as their standard helmets and body armour (you can watch a video of the operation here).

“Zokhid, without any trial or investigation, was immediately declared a dangerous recruiter,” says his lawyer Ahmed Kostoyev. “He had worked at the market, at the same stall, for 11 years, and everyone liked him. He had been renting the flat where he was ‘seized’ for seven years, and his landlady not only knew the family, but often dropped in unannounced for a cup of tea.”

For some people, Russia has become a real prison; for others it is a branch of the Uzbek security services

Aslonov was convicted of charges under Articles 222 and 228 – possession of arms and narcotics. But, as Kostoyev points out, “this was after the whole country had seen him on TV, suspected of being a terrorist and ISIS recruiter.”

Zokhid Aslonov was sentenced to four years behind bars and his family was forced to move away from the Tula region. They couldn’t stay there after the NTV report.

A similar incident happened to Aleksandr Galambitsa, a convert to Islam – Russia’s Channel One showed footage of his arrest in 2013. According to TV reports, Galambitsa recruited women to ISIS. “As a supposed recruiter, he was arrested with quite some pomp, and they found ‘the works’ on him: narcotics, arms, banned literature. But the recruitment bit somehow disappeared from the charge sheet, and he was just convicted over the arms and drugs,” says his lawyer Timofey Shirokov.

Russia won’t help you

Bakhodir Karimov was lucky, he was saved from abduction and prison. Others were less fortunate. For some people, Russia has become a real prison; for others it is more a branch of the Uzbek security services.

“In 2017 alone, 18 people were extradited to Uzbekistan from Russia, and most of them were given between six and 18 years under Article 244 of the Uzbek Criminal Code, although most of them weren’t practicing Muslims [Article 244 provides for prosecution for creating and disseminating propaganda materials, including religious ones, that infringe public order, as well as for membership of extremist and separatist organisations]”, Bakhrom Khamroyev tells me. “They were drinking vodka here! And talking about it openly. But they still got put behind bars as Islamic extremists.” Khamroyev took the cases of 25 people who were abducted up with the prosecutor’s office and the Russian Investigative Committee, but despite the availability of documents and witnesses, no charges were made.

Russia doesn’t provide any mechanisms for Uzbeks who want to receive asylum here

“Uzbekistan has a blacklist. Anyone on it has very little chance of escape. The hunting down of Uzbeks and Tajiks in Russia is just a test run,” he believes. “No one is talking about pressure on them, which suggests a pretext for future repressions against any Russian citizen.”

“Russia doesn’t provide any mechanisms for Uzbeks who want to receive asylum here,” Svetlana Gannushkina tells me. “The only thing that works is the ECHR, but there are rumours going around now that its rulings will no longer be recognised. And that will be a catastrophe for refugees.”

Human rights campaigners and lawyers have only one piece of advice: if someone tries to grab you on the street, shout! Sometimes it might just protect your freedom or even your life. Today, it’s only migrants that are regarded as outcasts – tomorrow, ordinary citizens might well be treated the same way.

 


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