UPDATE: The European Court of Human Rights has forbidden Russia from deporting Khudoberdi Nurmatov back to Uzbekistan until the court can deliver a ruling on a complaint submitted by his defense against Russia’s deportation order.
Read on for Hromadske’s explainer on Nurmatov’s case:
A Russian court has ruled to deport an independent journalist back to his native Uzbekistan. But the reporter’s colleagues and rights organizations warn that deportation would put him in grave danger of detention and torture in the Central Asian country.
In 2009, Khudoberdi Nurmatov, better known by his penname Ali Feruz, fled political persecution in Uzbekistan. He subsequently moved to Russia and, since 2016, has written about the lives of refugees, labor migrants, and other vulnerable social groups for Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper.
“We don’t know anything about migrant workers, but Ali can infiltrate into that environment...He knows several Central Asian languages and some Arabic. Who would refuse to work with such a specialist?” Novaya Gazeta Chief Editor Dmitry Muratov said in a video message to colleagues regarding Nurmatov’s case.
Now, held behinds bars in a migrant detention center, Nurmatov finds himself in a predicament like that of many of the people he wrote about.
Where is Khudoberdi Nurmatov from?
Nurmatov was born in Kokand, Uzbekistan, but raised in Russia’s Altai Krai region. His mother and all his siblings are Russian citizens. However, at the age of 17, Nurmatov returned to Uzbekistan for family reasons. There he worked selling clothing at at market in the city of Aipan. He also received Uzbek citizenship. In 2006, Nurmatov went back to Russia to study Arabic language at Russian Islamic University in the city of Kazan. However, he subsequently returned to Uzbekistan.
Photo: Ali Feruz Facebook page
Why did Nurmatov flee Uzbekistan?
Uzbekistan is effectively a police state. The Freedom House non-governmental organization consistently rates the Central Asian country as having one of the worst records of political rights and civil liberties in the world. The Uzbek authorities have pushed the country’s political opposition into exile.
In 2008, the Uzbek National Security Service kidnapped Nurmatov and demanded that he inform them about a friend’s political views. Nurmatov refused, so the Security Service tortured him and threatened to jail him on false charges. Finally, Nurmatov agreed to cooperate, but then fled the country. In 2011, he moved to Russia.
Why does Russia want to deport Nurmatov?
Nurmatov’s problems in Russia began in 2012, when thieves stole a bag containing his passport. He never received a new passport, as that would involve visiting the Embassy of Uzbekistan, where Nurmatov feared he would be arrested.
In 2015, Nurmatov began working to formalize his stay in Russia. He tried to receive refugee status and then temporary asylum. That asylum case has dragged on until the present day. Nurmatov was in the process of appealing a rejection in July 2017, when the court abruptly ruled that his case should be handled in another jurisdiction. However, the court failed to inform Nurmatov or his lawyer.
Because Nurmatov is in the process of determining his migration status, his presence in Russia is legal. Additionally, he has no criminal record that could complicate his legal entry into the country.
Why was Nurmatov arrested?
On August 1, police officers arrested Nurmatov near the office where he works. Their motivation remains unclear. However, it appears that this was not a coincidental document check — a problem often faced by Central Asians in Russia — and the officers were actually waiting for him.
After being brought to the police precinct, Nurmatov requested that a friend retrieve documents confirming his asylum case from his apartment. However, the authorities did not wait to receive those documents. As is common practice in Russia, Nurmatov was quickly taken before a judge who ordered that he be deported.
Photo: Ali Feruz Facebook page
What dangers await Nurmatov in Uzbekistan?
After his hearing, Nurmatov attempted to commit suicide, but was stopped by bailiffs. “He said he would rather die than come back to Uzbekistan,” his colleague, Elena Kostiuchenko, told Hromadske. Nurmatov also reportedly faced physical abuse from guards as he was being transported from the court.
Human rights activists are sounding the alarm. They fear that deportation back to Uzbekistan would be nearly a death sentence for Nurmatov. Besides being an independent journalist and a human rights activist, Nurmatov is also openly gay. In Uzbekistan, same-sex sexual activity between men is illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison.
“[Nurmatov] is openly gay, a human rights activist and a correspondent for the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper,” said Denis Krivosheev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. “This is a near-lethal combination for someone who is about to be handed over to Uzbekistan.”
Novaya Gazeta Chief Editor Muratov admits that Nurmatov made some mistakes in handling his immigration situation, but he notes that the journalist has been trying to formalize his stay in Russia for three years.
“Does he need to be melted down in acid for that?” he said, referring to reports of brutal torture in Uzbekistan.
Nurmatov is currently being held in a migrant detention center in Sakharovo, Russia. Novaya Gazeta plans to appeal the court’s deportation ruling. The journalists believe that, if Russian authorities want Nurmatov to leave the country, he should be given the possibility to choose where to go. They note that Germany is willing to take Nurmatov.
Novaya Gazeta has appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to take action to help Nurmatov and allow him to leave Russia for a third country, rather than be deported. However, on August 3, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov stated that “a series of factors does not allow us to close our eyes to several violations [of the law] in this case.”