The jailing of an Uzbek public health activist, along with the muted response by international organizations to the case, is having a chilling effect on public health advocacy in the Central Asian state, some experts say.
Maxim Popov, the director of the now defunct non-governmental organization, IZIS, was jailed in early 2009 on a series of financial charges. He was also hit with charges of possessing and distributing HIV/AIDS-prevention publications that were deemed offensive to Uzbek sensibilities. Popov's case only recently came to the attention of international rights advocates.
According to a document purportedly prepared by the Tashkent City Prosecutor's Office, dated June 9, 2009, Popov was found guilty of theft, embezzlement, concealment of foreign currency and tax evasion relating to grants from Population Services International (PSI), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
"Maxim Popov receives seven years in prison. The date of punishment should be counted from January, 22, 2009," the verdict stated.
Authorities contended that Popov allegedly hid a UNDP grant of $49,303 in the wrong type of bank account in order to avoid paying taxes. In addition, prosecutors alleged that Popov misappropriated approximately $7,500 from PSI and UNICEF.
He was also found guilty of promoting drug use and "indecent assault without violence" against minors for supposedly distributing informational materials prepared by PSI. "[Popov] intentionally distributed books containing texts teaching juvenile sexual acts, carrying propaganda of homosexuality and prostitution, and pornography. Distribution of this book will inflict great damage to the spiritual values of the Uzbek people, especially in shaping the worldview of the younger generation," the verdict said.
The verdict also referred to a UNAIDS published book, titled HIV and Men who have Sexual Acts with Men in Asia and the Pacific, which was found in Popov's office. "The content of this book, according to experts, is categorically mismatched with the mentality, moral foundations of society, religion, customs and traditions of the people of Uzbekistan," the verdict stated. [For a background PDF click here].
A spokeswoman for UNICEF in Uzbekistan told EurasiaNet on March 9 the organization has "nothing more to add to what is already in the public domain."
Marshall Stowell, spokesman for PSI, said, he was "unable to provide comment at this juncture." However, Stowell was quoted by Uzbek opposition website Uznews.net on March 3 as saying that ISIZ carried out work funded by PSI "competently."
A former colleague of Popov, who spoke on condition of anonymity out fear of government harassment, told EurasiaNet that conducting HIV/AIDS advocacy work in Uzbekistan is becoming increasingly risky.
"Unfortunately, today international organizations don't give protective help to their grant recipients. It is hard to do AIDS/HIV advocacy work in Uzbekistan, but this isn't a problem for just health NGOs," the activist said.
"All public organizations and NGOs are experiencing difficulties, because without some approval from a [government] commission they can't get a grant," the activist continued. "Most of the international organizations' accreditations are ending and they are not getting new ones."
The activist added that Popov's international partners may have been reluctant to come out forcefully and publicly on his behalf because they saw his predicament as "a domestic case."