(MOSCOW) — A gay journalist at a crusading investigative newspaper in Russia faces possible deportation by Moscow to the central Asian country of Uzbekistan where homosexuality is illegal and where activists fear he may face torture and imprisonment.
The journalist, Khudoberdi Nurmatov, who writes under the pen name Ali Feruz, is being held in a Moscow migrant-detention center after a Russian court ruled last week that he had violated immigration laws and must be expelled.
The case is drawing international attention, including by the European Union’s human rights commissioner, Nils Muižnieks, who called on Russia to release Nurmatov. “It should be recalled that international law prohibits sending a person to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing that the person may be subjected to torture or ill-treatment,” Muižnieks wrote a Facebook post.
A Kremlin spokesman told reporters they are aware of Nurmatov’s case.
Nurmatov was born in Russia, and his mother is a Russian citizen. But he now faces being sent back to Uzbekistan which he fled several years ago after being tortured by the country’s security services who had pressured him to become a government informant, according to his lawyer.
Uzbekistan is ranked by rights groups as one of the world’s most repressive states, with homosexuality treated as a crime punishable by imprisonment.
“It’s not a death sentence, but it’s very close to that,” Denis Krivosheyev, Amnesty International’s deputy program director for Europe and Central Asia said in a phone interview of the deportation order against Nurmatov.
He said that considering Nurmatov fled Uzbekistan after being threatened by the security services and that he is openly gay, he could easily be arrested on his return and disappear into the country’s prison system.
“It’s very dangerous baggage to be taking back to Uzbekistan,” he said. “It’s a deadly mixture.”
Uzbekistan currently holds thousands of political prisoners, according to a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year, and accounts of torture there are well-documented.
The country’s LGBT community also faces significant harassment, and sex between two men is a criminal offence punishable by up to three years imprisonment. According to the Human Rights Watch report, police in the country blackmail and extort gay men with threats to imprison them or to out them in a society where homosexuality is often still viewed as shameful.
After leaving Uzbekistan, Nurmatov returned to Moscow in 2011 and began working for the crusading Novaya Gazeta newspaper, covering refugees and abuses against migrant workers.
He requested asylum in Russia in 2015, having lost his Uzbek passport which left him undocumented. But his request was rejected, and last week police arrested him as he was walking to work at the newspaper.
On Friday, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to freeze any deportation of Nurmatov until the court examined his case, according to his lawyer, Kirill Koroteyev.
A Change.org petition calling for Russian authorities to overturn the decision has gathered over 57,000 signatures.
Russia has already been under intense scrutiny over its treatment of LGBT citizens after reports emerged early this year of an organized round-up of gay men in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, in which local authorities were alleged to have kidnapped and tortured dozens of men accused of being homosexual.
The reports stirred international condemnation, and the Kremlin pledged to investigate, but since then it has been accused of trying to cover up the persecutions and shielding the Chechen authorities.
Chechnya’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov, has repeatedly denied that any such persecution is taking place, asserting that there are no gay men in his country.
Nurmatov’s newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, broke the story of the alleged detentions in Chechnya, for which it received death threats.
Another of Nurmatov’s lawyers, Tatiana Glushkova, told ABC News that Nurmatov lost his Uzbek passport in 2012 and cannot receive a new one without returning to Uzbekistan.
A Moscow court is due to hear his appeal of the deportation order Wednesday. Glushkova said she hopes the Russian judge will heed the order by the European Court of Human Rights to freeze the deportation action.
Nurmatov’s colleagues at Novaya Gazeta said he was working on a story even while being held, writing about conditions faced by migrants at the detention center.
“He always tries to defend the person in the weak position,” Elena Kostyuchenko, a reporter at the newspaper told Buzzfeed, saying she fears he would disappear in Uzbekistan.
“If he went back there we will never know what happens to him,” she told Buzzfeed. “He does not deserve what is happening to him.”
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