Maxim Popov, an Uzbek HIV/AIDS campaigner and educator handed a harsh sentence of seven years of prison last year for distributing sex education booklets, was quietly freed early from prison in June, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported, noting that the news of his release was only made public August 30. Popov is still confined to his home and has been given a job as an unskilled laborer, but has his wages garnished by the state.
Popov, a psychologist by training who ran various youth programs, was accused of "corrupting minors" for distributing booklets about safe sex. He was also charged with embezzlement of foreign donor funds, a claim the foreign agencies themselves didn't make,which seems to have been trumped up by the authorities. Numerous NGOs signed a petition on behalf of Popov, but as we noted last year, USAID (the U.S. government's Agency for International Development) and other international agencies that had once given grants and publications to distribute to Popov seemed to disappear when it came time to defend him publicly.
An alleged cable recently released by WikiLeaks indicates how USAID backed away from his case and UNICEF said they were not following it; there was disagreement about the origins of the booklet he was said to have distributed but there was no evidence for the charges of financial mismanagement. The State Department privately raised his case with Uzbek officials.
The arrest of Popov, widely known in the community, send a chill over both NGOs and foreign donors, to the point where a US official launching a new HIV/AIDS education initiative had to tell NGOs "what happened to Popov will not happen to you," ferghana.ru reported.
It is not known why Popov was released in June, although there has been constant speculation as to whether Uzbek government would amnesty some political prisoners in honor of the 20th anniversary of independence on September 1st. Yet the date came and went without any amnesty at all, which may have been prompted by public concerns about the release of criminals, uznews.net reported.
While Popov's plight has been eased, there has been an uptick in attacks on other human rights monitors and independent journalists:
o Journalist Elean Bondar was detained August 22 at the Tashkent airport after returning home from two months of study in the Central Asian School of Contemporary Journalism of the OSCE Academy and the Deutsche Welle Academy, fergananews.com reported. Security agents confiscated her disks and flash drives which contained materials from the independent Uzbek press and her own articles. She was later summoned to the border authorities, interrogated for 2.5 hours, and told the materials had been sent to the Center for Monitoring of the Uzbek Information Agency -- which has been involved before in trumping up cases against journalists.
o Leonid Kudryavtsev, an Uzbek citizen working as a press secretary for the British Embassy, lost his appeal for holding an "unauthorized meetings" with human rights activists, despite British diplomatic protests, uznews.net reported.
Sukhrobjon Ismoilov, a Tashkent-based lawyer and director of the Expert Working Group told EurasiaNet that he did not think the increase in attacks on human rights monitors was necessarily tied to any "clean-up" before the independence anniversary, "although the authorities have always tightened up security measures, including their watch on the local activities on the eve of such events.” Rather it is part of a longer trend since 2006, after the Andijan events, to silence protest, he said.
"I think the government has decided then to shut the voices of a few remaining activists (human rights defenders, independent journalists and other types of activists) who dared still to speak up about the existing problems," he said.