Blogger attack pushes Uzbek gay community underground

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Blogger Miraziz Bazarov lies on a stretcher upon arrival at the hospital after being beaten by a group of unidentified men in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on March 29, 2021. REUTERS / Timur Karpov

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ALMATY, April 9 (Reuters) – Members of the LGBT community in Uzbekistan say they were forced into hiding for fear of a backlash after a blogger and some of his supporters were attacked last month as a result social media posts calling for gay gatherings at Muslim holy sites.

Uzbekistan, for decades one of the most isolated countries in the world, is trying to open up its society as part of the cautious reforms of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took office after the death in 2016 of Islam Karimov, autocratic ruler since the Soviet era.

Blogger Miraziz Bazarov remains hospitalized with a broken leg, bruises and other injuries, after being beaten last month by a group of unidentified assailants. Bazarov, who is not gay, had posted on social media a call for LGBT gatherings in holy places and for a new “state and gay” security force.

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An angry mob then attacked several young people who were planning to attend an event hosted by Bazarov, although it had nothing to do with LGBT issues and was devoted to Korean pop music and Japanese cartoons. Police said they intervened and avoided injuries.

Homosexuality is prohibited in Uzbekistan, and consensual homosexual sex is a crime. Nonetheless, two members of the LGBT community, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters they were largely left alone until the public backlash against Bazarov’s posts. Now, they said, they felt their lives were in danger.

“Right now, because of this explosion, LGBT people are receiving many threats and are trying not to leave their homes, not to meet in cafes, many want to leave the country,” said one of the them. “There are thugs on the streets who can approach anyone and ask them about their sexuality.”

Gay people now avoid cafes where they once met in public, some of which have closed, they said.

“They are afraid to go out, some have left their hometowns fearing for their lives,” said an Uzbek human rights activist who also requested anonymity.

‘TALKING ABOUT THE INEVITABLE’

Uzbekistan, the most populous country in the former Soviet Central Asia, is landlocked and poor. Mirziyoyev expressed hope to bring prosperity by opening it after decades of isolation under Karimov, including drawing tourists to the medieval Blue Dome Silk Road towns of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

But many young people say his reforms don’t go far enough. Bazarov supporters claim that the blogger’s provocative comments on LGBT issues were intended to challenge a broader and stifling social conservatism that was encouraged under Karimov to strengthen the power of a corrupt political elite.

“This (wave of homophobia) would have happened anyway,” said Timur Karpov, an ally of Bazarov. “He was just talking about the inevitable.”

Karpov said he believed the attackers who beat Bazarov were less motivated by his messages on gay rights than by his previous criticisms of the government, including a call to boycott the parliamentary elections in 2019.

But gays who spoke to Reuters said they feared their safety could be endangered by activists interested in provoking a confrontation unrelated to their rights.

“Bazarov was just trying to create the hype and hurt the (LGBT) community,” the human rights activist said.

Since Bazarov’s words, several public figures and a football club have spoken out to condemn homosexuality.

“The day we allow (legalized gay sex) will be the day we die,” senior member of parliament Rasul Kusherbayev said last month.

Hugh Williamson, director of the Europe and Central Asia division at US-based Human Rights Watch, called the beatings last month “totally horrific.”

“Uzbekistan made a commitment at the UN Human Rights Council this month – in theory – to uphold international human rights standards. It should do so! Stop the attacks on LGBT people, ”he tweeted.

The authorities, wary of both liberalism and politicized Islamist conservatism, appear to want gay rights and the backlash against them to fade into the shadows again.

Komil Allamjonov, the head of the influential Media Support and Development Foundation whose management includes a daughter of Mirziyoyev, urged local media not to cover LGBT issues.

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Writing by Olzhas Asezov Editing by Peter Graff

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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