MOSCOW—Since July, 2011, when Khudoberdi Nurmatov escaped from Central Asia to Russia, he has lived in fear that one day he would be forced to return to the hell he went through in his former life—prison in Uzbekistan.
About a year ago, Nurmatov, now a 30-year-old reporter with Russia’s leading investigative newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, wrote stories under the pseudonym Ali Feruz about Uzbek asylum seekers in much the same situation as his own. They had escaped torture in their home country of Uzbekistan and hoped to get asylum in Russia. But then they were abducted and taken into custody by Uzbek security forces. There were dozens of cases.
Nurmatov is different now than when he escaped from his home country almost a decade ago. There, he had lived with a wife and two children, and many of his friends had been Islamists, some of them alleged by the Uzbek security services to be violent extremists.
Now he is openly homosexual, an LGBT activist who attends protests and reports stories about human rights violations. By all appearances a typical free-minded Moscow hipster, Nurmatov liked to hang out at cool cafes with his friends, fellow journalists, and actors. He sported bright clothes and was covered in colorful tattoos; one of them on his neck said: “Born Free.”
But last Tuesday, Nurmatov’s own nightmare looked like it was coming true.
At about 2 p.m., he was walking to a music lesson along Sverchkov Alley, a quiet street in in the Kitai Gorod district beloved of hipsters. He had no idea that a man in civilian clothes had come to his music school that morning to check what time he was scheduled to arrive. Russian special services summoned the reporter and brought him to Moscow's Basmanny district court, which a few hours later ordered Nurmatov’s extradition to Uzbekistan.
His friends and colleagues, reporters at Novaya Gazeta, are shaken by the arrest of “Ali Feruz.”
“We are not going to let authorities deport him,” Nurmatov’s friend, LGBT activist and Novaya Gazeta reporter Yelena Kostyuchenko, told The Daily Beast. “If he goes back to Uzbek prison, he will not come out alive.”
“Our colleague officially asked Russian authorities for asylum, his expulsion would be a violation of Russia's constitution,” said another Novaya Gazeta reporter, Nikita Girin. “LGBT suffer terrible persecutions in Uzbekistan, where homosexual love is banned by law, while in Russia, in spite of homophobia, homosexuals live freely, much happier than in Uzbekistan.”
Nurmatov told his lawyer that he would rather die than go back to Uzbekistan.
In 2008, the National Security Services of Uzbekistan detained him in the town of Yaipan, then moved him to a jail in Kokand in the Fergana Valley, where, according to Novaya Gazeta, his interrogators worked on recruiting him: they stuck needles under his fingernails, dragged him around the floor by his hair, threatened to rape his wife.
Such treatment is more or less standard operating procedure in Uzbekistan where, according to a report by the U.N. Committee against Torture, these methods are “systematic,” go “unpunished,” and are “encouraged” by law enforcement agencies.
The interrogators wanted Nurmatov to work as their spy in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, a radical organization.
Under violent pressure, Nurmatov agreed to spy on his friends, but as soon as he was released, he escaped first to Kyrgyzstan, then to Kazakhstan, where he reported his story to the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and asked for refugee status. At the time he was still a closeted homosexual. Later Nurmatov came out of the closet, divorced his wife, moved to Moscow and began to work for human rights organizations.
In the past decade, Russia has received hundreds of thousands of migrants from Central Asia. Many of them are happy to live in Russia, feeling freer to pray the way they like, to wear beards, and to make more money than in their home countries. But not everybody stays happy for long.
“Last year Russian authorities sent out about 70,000 migrants, mostly from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,” Svetalana Gannushkina, chairperson of the Civic Assistance Committee told The Daily Beast.
Ironically, being jailed and tortured to force him to spy on Islamists did not help Nurmatov get asylum. “If only originally he asked UNHCR for protection as an LGBT activist, he would have been fishing in California right now,” said Gannushkina.
Nurmatov spent most of his childhood in Russia. His mother was a Russian citizen. He graduated from high school in 2003, in Russia's region of Altai. In 2004 he went to Uzbekistan because he was interested in Islam.
A human rights defender, Marina Leksina, interviewed him in 2014 at Civil Assistance, an NGO that provides help for immigrants and refugees in Moscow.
"He said he was interested in Islam from a purely academic point of view,” Leksina said. “He also said that in Uzbekistan he often argued with believers, who were interested in joining the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He was against of radicalization."
In 2006 Nurmatov went to study Arabic and Islam in the Russian city of Kazan at the Russian Islamic University.
One year later he returned to Uzbekistan, got married, and had two children. "When he escaped from Uzbekistan, he began to acknowledge his homosexuality, registered on a gay website and even had a couple of dates," Leksina told The Daily Beast. In 2013 Nurmatov came out, and divorced his wife.
Yelena Kosyuchenko, an investigative journalist at Novaya Gazeta and an LGBT activist based in Moscow, said that she had been Nurmatov's close friend for the last four years. "I drank alcohol with him and danced with him at gay parties; I think that he has never been a serious Muslim believer," she told The Daily Beast.
On Friday, Nurmatov’s lawyer appealed the court’s decision in hopes of keeping the reporter in Russia. Before the proceedings, the European Court of Human Rights stated that the expulsion of Nurmatov from Russia would be illegal.
"One thing in this story is clear, that Russia broke the law: kicking out a gay guy [or trying to] who is asking for asylum to a country where homosexuals are persecuted is illegal," Gannushkina conclude.
“Even if he stays and lives in Russia, there is no guarantee that one day [Uzbek] special services will not abduct him,” Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for Europe and Central, told The Daily Beast.