A recently published, fictionalized account of life in an Uzbek prison aims to promote a change in the way the West interacts with Uzbekistan. The book is evocative of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s classic novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a work that helped launch the process that culminated in 1975 Helsinki Accords.
The new 242-page novel, titled In the Zone, Uz: Book One, For Those Who Love Freedom (В зоне UZ: Книга первая. Для тех кто свободу любит) follows a prisoner called Serzh Ivakov as he endures arbitrary abuse in captivity. In the eyes author Evgeni Dyakonov, the work serves as an indictment of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian political system, which is presided over by President Islam Karimov.
“I hope the publication of the book will open the eyes of the European Union and the United States about whom in reality governs Uzbekistan. That is Stalin and Hitler rolled into one,” Dyakonov told EurasiaNet.org in an email interview. “The book opens a new page in human rights, in other words [it tells us] about crimes against humanity in Uzbekistan – political repression against ‘undesirable ones,’ censorship, torture, extra-legal executions, bringing back the re-education camp system.”
Like Solzhenitsyn’s One Day, Dyakonov’s tale is rooted in personal experience. Now living in exile in Norway, he was imprisoned in Uzbekistan for over a year back in the late 1990s, sentenced on what he insists were spurious charges.
“When I was taken into custody, I realized at once that it was total lawlessness. I was not sure if I would survive prison and so I started writing down everything since the first day there. Then it resulted in the book,” he said.
Individual initiative is what got Dyakonov, an Afghan War veteran, into trouble in the first place. After getting a degree from Tashkent State University, he took advantage of the openings created by the 1991 Soviet collapse to get into the entertainment business. Eventually, he opened his own rock club in Tashkent. Its success quickly led to his downfall: the club’s popularity attracted the attention of representatives of Kamolot -- a public youth organization that was, in essence, the successor of the Uzbek Leninist Young Communist League (Komsomol).To get him out of the way, his rivals set him up for a criminal conviction, Dyakonov asserted.
“Officially, I was sentenced for a number of crimes, from possession of drugs and keeping of weapons and anti-governmental flyers to an attempt against the constitutional order. Of course, everything was fabricated,” he said. “My “crime” was that I crossed … some officials from the pro-government foundation Kamolot.”
Dyakonov was arrested on March 1, 1997, and soon thereafter sentenced to 22 years in prison. Having no faith in the justice system, he shunned all thoughts of appeals, and instead he “bought” the truth because it was “easier” than “proving it.” He gained his release from prison on March 19, 1998, after spending just over a year in custody. “I sold everything I had and gave a bribe so I could leave prison through a psychiatric hospital – in other words, I was declared mentally ill,’ Dyakonov said. “I gave them the sum they had asked for … and bought freedom for $30,000 USD, in accordance with prices of 1998.”
After regaining his freedom, Dyakonov remained in Uzbekistan until 2003, when he went to Norway. He maintains that arbitrariness is an essential feature of President Islam Karimov’s regime, a feature needed to instill fear in the population.
“If the authorities abolished repression and torture, they would lose their power over the people,” he said. “They are forced to keep people in continuous fear.”
According to Uzbek government data, the country’s prison population stands at 46,200, spread out among 58 penitentiary facilities across the country. Authorities maintain that prisons have an 80 percent occupancy rate.
That claim contrasts with a US Department of State report that asserted that prison overcrowding was common in Uzbekistan, and prison conditions were in some circumstances harsh and life threatening. The report also highlighted the use of torture in Uzbek prisons.
Former Uzbek prisoner Hazratqul Khudojberdi who lives now in Sweden called the Uzbek prison system “one of the most anti-humane in the world.”
“Today prisons in Uzbekistan are overcrowded with tens of thousands of completely innocent people most of whom are simple [Muslim] believers. Another large group of the convicted is the members of the opposition, human rights activists, their relatives and sympathizers. The third group of those who were convicted without guilt is comprised of journalists, writers, artists who ventured to criticize unlawful actions of authorities,” Khudojberdi told Eurasianet.org.
As for Dyakonov, he shuns any comparison to Solzhenitsyn, even if they shared a similar motive in writing about the prison experience. “I have written the book because I thought the world should be told about that and that nightmare should be stopped,” he said. “I wouldn’t like to copy the great writer, but I’d like Europe and the United States to appreciate the book.”
Zone, Uz: Book One book, published in Germany by the Düsseldorf-based publisher Za-Za Verlag.