UARU
Fear, Humiliation, and Torture: How LGBT People Live in Tajikistan
19 June, 2018

Editor's Note: The following is a translation of an article by Hromadske’s partner, Kloop.kg, which was produced with support from the Russian-language Media Network. All names have been changed to protect the identities of people interviewed.

LGBT rights are constantly violated in Central Asia, making it one of the most difficult places in the world for LGBT people to live. In Tajikistan, relatives try to “cure” them, police blackmail them, and religious leaders condemn them.

The portrait of Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon hangs on nearly every building on the central street of Dushanbe, the country’s capital. Cameras have been installed along the roads and police are everywhere.

Internet access in Tajikistan is limited by high tariffs and periodic service failures. That means most people get their information from newspapers and television.

The media rarely write about the LGBT community. An activist called Bakhodur said Tajik journalists only started covering LGBT issues around 2012–2013, after a special training course on how to cover this topic was held for the first time in the country. He believes this had a slight effect on people’s attitudes toward the community.

"About five or six years ago, people had a more negative attitude [toward the LGBT community]. Now they’re more laidback. That’s my opinion though, I can’t speak for the whole of Tajikistan. There are people who don’t care, but there are those who look at the community negatively,” the activist said.

He also notes that there are cases of gay people being misunderstood and rejected by their own families. They may be asked to resign from their job or choose to go abroad.

Not Like Everyone Else

Dilovar smokes frequently during the interview. It was difficult to find him and persuade him to speak with the media. Tajikistan’s LGBT community is very closed, everyone is afraid of publicity. The LGBT community only speaks with journalists who are recommended by someone they trust – and even that doesn’t always work.

Dilovar realized he was gay when he was around 15 years old. At that time, it was difficult for local residents to obtain information about what it meant to be gay – the internet was developing slowly, and leaflets or support organizations were non-existent.

Photo credit: Danil Usmanov for Kloop.kg

"Gay people communicated through dating sites. Even there people are approached with caution, and you don’t meet with many of them,” says Dilovar. “There is fear of being caught, but you feel lonely and take this risk. It’s not even about finding someone you are sexually attracted to, you just want to find someone to talk to,” he says.

He hasn’t told his parents he is gay.

"I'm not afraid of the consequences I’d have to face myself, but rather I worry for my mother, whose nerves might suffer. Although I still believe that she would accept it,” Dilovar says.

Aziz, who is also gay, believes that those around him generally have a negative attitude toward the LGBT community: they pick on and taunt them. Gay people are like aliens for the locals, he jokes. "Some find the way we behave or dance savage. Yes, we are a little camp, we’re different from others,” he says.

There are no gay clubs in Tajikistan. Gay people arrange get-togethers in their apartments, and sometimes they go to clubs, bars, and cafes in small groups. The community says there was a gay club in the 2000s, but it only existed for a couple of months. There have been no attempts to open another one since everyone is afraid of being exposed.

Photo credit: Danil Usmanov for Kloop.kg

To avoid unpleasant situations, Aziz and his other friends who are gay often go to places with girls – this way they look less suspicious. Like Dilovar, Aziz hasn’t told his family he is gay, but he is sure they have suspicions about his sexual orientation.

"I know when they find out I’m gay for certain, they will feel bad," he said.

He said that he hides his sexual orientation from his family because he loves them and doesn’t want to upset them. At the same time, Aziz tells them that he is not planning to marry (which is not typical for Tajikistan).

According to him, in Tajikistan, it’s typical for families to force their children to marry early. This is especially common in religious families, who want to demonstrate that their children are “normal.”

“[Gay people] marry to check a box, for the sake of avoiding suspicion. After the wedding, they still do what they want – cheat on their wives,” Aziz says.

Dilovar agrees with him. He says a man has to be married by the age of 30. "Nobody even asks if this is what you want," he added.

Police Blackmail

Dilovar has been abroad several times. He is planning to move from Tajikistan to another country some day.

"There is no life here. Not everyone can live in constant fear, in secret. Everyone wants to talk freely, walk freely, breathe freely,” he said.

According to him, the Tajik police treat gay people “either negatively or negatively.”

"At best [the police] will constantly manipulate you: blackmail you, extort money from you. All this plays on your fears that people will find out about you. The worst case is a fatal outcome, when a person is driven to commit suicide,” says Dilovar.

A common practice, according to Tajik LGBT people, is the “cooperation” of policemen and gay people caught by them. Law enforcement officials either ask them to out other gay men, who they can extort money from through blackmail, or they use the guys to frame rich people. This is another reason why the LGBT community is so closed.

Photo credit: Danil Usmanov for Kloop.kg

Other possible consequences of being detained by the police include being taken to the station and subjected to torture and humiliation.

"There are many stories of gay people being caught and then raped by police at the department. But they don’t consider themselves ‘fags’,” he said.

Dilovar recalls how one time he and a friend tried to prevent a policeman from detaining “a guy in women’s clothes.”

"Naturally, we tried to protect him, but in the end, my friend stopped me. Otherwise, we would have suffered. We were simply told, ‘Either you shut up and go away, or we'll tie you up and lock you up, too.’ And we know what happens in these departments: there is torture among other things,” he explains.

Outside the capital of Tajikistan, the situation is even more difficult. There are small villages where everyone knows each other and people are more religious.

"I have friends who work to protect the rights of gay people. They talk about what goes on in the regions. There are a lot of stories, like the father finds out that his son is gay and rapes him. The whole family knew about it and kept silent,” says Dilovar. “Families in the villages, if they find out and aren’t successful in ‘curing’ their son or daughter, they just kill them instantly.”

Battle Against LGBT Rights

As indicated in the NGO International Partnership for Human Rights 2017 report, the Tajik authorities are trying to fight against LGBT people.

"There is reason to believe that the authorities within the Ministry of Internal Affairs received tacit instructions to fight ‘the spread of homosexuality',” human rights activists say.

In June 2014, on the orders of interior minister Ramazon Rahimzoda, police conducted a series of night raids "to identify those engaged in prostitution, pimping and the maintenance of brothels.”

Photo credit: Danil Usmanov for Kloop.kg

According to human rights activists, during these raids, not only were sex workers arrested, but also members of the LGBT community, who were not involved in prostitution or the maintenance of brothels.

That same year, the head of the Islamic Center of Tajikistan, Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda, publicly condemned same-sex attraction during a sermon. He called it a "disaster" and a "misfortune."

"I'm ashamed that I have to talk about this in the mosque. Unfortunately, we had to hear about the homosexual orientation of educated and cultured people who refuse to have relations with their wives and women and commit the sin of sodomy,” the BBC quoted Abdulkodirzoda in 2014.

In October 2017, Tajik and foreign media started reporting that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor General's Office of Tajikistan had compiled lists of 380 representatives of the LGBT community.

Officially, the authorities claimed that this was done because the members of the community "are at a high risk of contracting HIV."

Activists say that information about the lists was published to raise media ratings and actually there was no raid to identify LGBT representatives.

"In my opinion, there is no list,” said Bakhodur. He said that the media published a paragraph from the Prosecutor General's Office journal with statistics about a 2015 raid to identify sex workers, during which both men and women were detained.

Sayera, an activist who works in a Tajikistan human rights organization, also believes this.

But representatives of Tajikistan’s LGBT community, with whom Kloop journalists spoke to, disagree. They say that there was a raid in late 2017, during which authorities made a list of detained LGBT people.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor General's Office of Tajikistan did not respond to official requests for comment from Kloop media.

LGBT Community Informers

According to activists, there are about five human rights organizations in Tajikistan that work with the LGBT community as part of their missions. There are no groups who officially only work on LGBT issues. Activists say the authorities would not allow this.

However, the LGBT community doesn’t trust human rights workers. They believe that they cooperate with the police.

"It appears that they give reports to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and they learn where we go and hang out,” says Aziz.

Dilovar shares these views. He says that he never intends to contact human rights organizations in Tajikistan.

"I know that things will be even worse after that. You will become a target for the authorities wherever you go. [Human rights organizations] are props that work for law enforcement agencies,” he said.

Photo credit: Danil Usmanov for Kloop.kg

Dilovar said that earlier there were organizations in the country that tried to help the LGBT community, and who could be more or less trusted, but they were all forced to close down.

"For those that somehow managed to remain, the question arises: how did you manage? Come on, everything immediately becomes clear,” he maintains.

Both Aziz and Dilovar believe that organizations tasked with the protection of LGBT rights in Tajikistan earn money by treating gay people poorly and don’t provide any real assistance.

Human rights activist Bakhodur said he has never heard of these organizations giving information to the police. Sayera said these are rumors circulated by representatives of the LGBT community who cooperate with the police.

"This is what community representatives who themselves work with law enforcement agencies say – most often they set up others," she says, adding that her organization doesn’t even store their clients’ personal data.

"They did everything they could to me"

Some gay people have been forced to leave Tajikistan because they became targets of police extortion. This is what happened to Daler.

As a child, he told his mother that he liked a neighbor.

"I was told that this is a sin and that I shouldn’t feel like this because I'm a man," Daler recalls.

His parents started taking him to witch doctors, forced him to drink various plant root extracts, and even enlisted the local mullah to cure his “disease.”

Relatives believed that a demon had possessed the boy. Over the years, he himself began to believe that he was sick.

"There was a time when I tried to find answers in religion. I shut myself off from others so they would leave me alone, prayed, went to the mosque, performed religious rituals,” Daler said.

After he began to regularly visit the mosque and pray, relatives calmed down but continued to monitor him.

Photo credit: Danil Usmanov for Kloop.kg

“My parents and relatives began to trust me when I graduated university. I realized then they wanted to marry me off,” he said.

His family had tried to marry him off before, but Daler told them that this would interfere with his studies and they left him alone. In order to avoid forced marriage, he won a grant and moved to Russia to study. Daler thought that once he began to earn money independently and provide for his family, he would be able to tell his parents about his orientation.

But when he returned to Tajikistan, he learned that one of his relatives came out to the family about his sexual orientation and soon after committed suicide.

"An absolutely healthy guy somehow got ‘hooked on drugs’ and after a while hung himself. I will never believe it. In Tajikistan, it’s better to be a drug addict than gay. God forbid that you should be gay. It's a shame on the family,” says Daler.

He never admitted to his family that he had never been “cured.”

After returning from Russia, he began to live with his boyfriend. One day police officers approached them and took them to the station, telling them that they need to check their documents.

Daler was asked to go into a separate room. There he was told that a complaint had been filed against him, but they did not explain about what. He was asked not to change his address and was told that police would soon contact him to follow up.

A few days later, two men in a car approached Daler and asked him to come to the station to deal with the complaint. In the car, the men handcuffed him and put a sack over his head. They took him to a basement.

"When they took the sack off me, a man in a mask was sitting in front of me. I was very frightened. I recognized the voice – it was the policeman who told me that someone had filed a complaint against me,” he recalled.

There he was tortured and forced to confess to the rape of a minor.

"I was beaten with a club. It was wrapped in a thick rag, which was rough, so when they hit me it would scratch. When I would sweat, it would sting – the pain is so terrible that you can’t sit or talk,” said Daler. “Then they played a recording of this young guy being ‘questioned’. He gave my name, surname, my address and my passport details.”

Daler signed the confession.

"I was beaten badly. They placed cellophane over my head and shoved a bottle into my anus. They did everything they could to me: forced me to walk on all fours, pissed on me and made me bark like a dog. After this horror, I was ready to sign anything,” he said.

When the policemen received the signed confession, they offered to hush up the case for $500. Daler says that such a sum could support a Tajik family for several months or pay for a modest wedding.

Daler said that he didn’t have that kind of money, but the police officers said his partner did – they knew that he was paid well. After they received the money, law enforcement officials told them not to change their place of residence, warning them that they could come again.

Daler and his partner immediately fled the country. They have been living abroad for several years now.

"Now I can say that I wouldn’t live like this for anything, because here I know that I am a person and I have certain rights... If you said to me now, ‘Come back to Tajikistan and live like everyone else,’ I'd just look at you, blink and tell you you’re crazy," Daler said.

The situation in other Central Asian countries is no better than in Tajikistan. For example, in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, same-sex relations between men are a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years imprisonment in Uzbekistan and up to two years in Turkmenistan.

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, same-sex relationships are not a crime. But the authorities of these countries, following Russia’s lead, tried to pass a law banning "gay propaganda." So far they have not succeeded. The parliament of Kyrgyzstan didn’t pass the law, although deputies worked on the draft for two years. In Kazakhstan, it was recognized as unconstitutional.

Even so, in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, police still blackmail and beat LGBT representatives from time to time, and society, for the most part, remains homophobic.

/By Alexandra Li for Kloop.kg

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov