In Uzbekistan it seems that promoting condoms and sterile needles to stop the spread of HIV is "immoral" and deserving of imprisonment in its notorious jails. The country, ruled by dictator Islam Karimov — and recently lambasted by the UN Human Rights Committee — has given one of its leading Aids workers a seven-year sentence.
Maxim Popov is the founder of the now-closed non-governmental Aids organisation, Izis. The group had support from international donors including USAid and the British government’s Department for International Development (DfID).
Publications used worldwide in sexual health promotion got him into trouble with the dictatorship. They included HIV and Aids Today, a brochure that discusses the use of condoms in HIV prevention, the need for sterile needles for injecting drug users, and education on HIV prevention within same-sex relations; a UNAids brochure, HIV and Men who have Sex with Men in Asia and the Pacific and a textbook, Healthy Lifestyles, the Guidance for Teachers, published in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan with international funding.
"The Uzbek government said that the book constituted an ‘assault on minors without violence’ and ordered the book incinerated and barred from circulation," said Robin Gorna, executive director of the International Aids Society.
Popov’s indictment actually says that the content of the Healthy Lifestyles book "does not meet the requirements of didactics, literature, art, journalism, and psychology, as it does not take into account national traditions, culture, and customs of peoples living in Uzbekistan; on the contrary, the book promotes erotica and pornography".
Imprisoning Popov is not only a violation of human rights, but has damaged public health efforts in Uzbekistan, Gorna said. "In most countries around the world the work done by Maxim Popov would be drawing praise and support."
Uzbekistan has one of the world’s fastest-rising HIV infection rates. About 16,000 cases of HIV were reported in 2009 — more than an 11-fold increase from 1,400 cases in 2001.
In April in emerged that about 150 Uzbek children were infected with HIV in the hospitals of Namangan, the third-largest city of Uzbekistan, in 2007-08. It was covered up and became public only in March 2010, when the opposition Ferghana.ru website (blocked in Uzbekistan) leaked a documentary shot by Uzbek TV following the order of the prosecutor’s office. Twelve doctors and nurses were tried in court, found guilty of mistreatment of the children and sentenced to between five and nine years in jail.
Russian news agency Regnum reported that more than a fifth of infections in the country are due to either the negligence of healthcare workers or the poverty of their hospitals.
Al-Jazeera English aired a documentary, Aids on the Heroin Road, in April, which blames endemic corruption in the state bureaucracy and police forces as the biggest factor behind the spread of HIV in Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan.
The International Committee for the Release of Maksim Popov has produced an open letter signed by a long list of smaller agencies accusing Hillary Clinton, the Department for International Development and other international agencies of abandoning him. The letter calls for "concerted diplomatic efforts to secure his immediate release".
"The international fight against Aids cannot succeed if local partners are forsaken when the political winds shift," the letter adds. Unfortunately for Popov, "political winds" mean that Uzbekistan is currently a major and essential supply base for the war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has handed contracts estimated to be worth $850m a year to a Karimov company, FMN Logistics, for construction and supply services on the US airbases in Afghanistan itself.
Rupert Joy, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan gave a speech last month telling the regime "your parliamentary institutions are developing in a positive direction" and "we want to support Uzbekistan in areas where it has introduced progressive legislation, such as habeas corpus and the abolition of the death penalty".
Human Rights Watch says there is no rule of law in the country and that its human rights record "remains atrocious and has only deteriorated further in the past year". Yet according to the British Home Office in immigration hearings for Uzbek asylum applicants, there is no human rights problem in Uzbekistan.
Last year Karimov’s daughter, Gunara, got her picture taken with movie stars at a charity dinner at the Cannes film festival for the Hollywood-supported American Foundation for Aids Research. Another daughter, Lola, organised a concert in Tashkent in December, which included rapper Busta Rhymes, under the motto: "We are against Aids and drugs."
In February, Sting reportedly took £2m of Gunara’s money to play for her in Tashkent. Rod Stewart and Julio Iglesias have also played there.
Popov has been described as "courageous" in his dealings with petty, oppressive police and bureaucrats as he built the work of his group. An Uzbek banker who worked with him for four years says he faced down demands for lists of drug users and was prosecuted when he refused state demands for the NGO to come under government control.
"I think that the liquidation of Izis and the prosecution of one of the few activists will have extremely negative consequences for Uzbekistan," the banker said.
Paul Canning is a gay rights campaigner and editor of LGBT Asylum News. For more details on this case, see Doug Ireland’s article in Gay City News.