Wake up and smell the coffee … in a Kyrgyzstani jail

In June when the US whistleblower Edward Snowden sought political asylum in Russia, his detractors saw this as some form of “hypocrisy”. Russia isn’t exactly a bastion of free speech, went the argument, so Snowden’s whistleblowing was tainted by his choice of destination. 
It was always a weak argument. Snowden’s revelations about industrial-scale US and UK surveillance were one thing; where he sought protection from a government intent on prosecuting him as they had Chelsea Manning, surely another. Anyway, Russia’s recent human rights record is demonstrably awful (Pussy Riot, Greenpeace, the NGO raids, the Foreign Agents law, Magnitsky, etc etc), but that doesn’t mean that Russia is somehow incapable of offering a place of refuge to a person facing persecution. Indeed it has an obligation under international law to do so. Which brings me to five other people - somewhat less well-known than Edward Snowden - currently seeking asylum in Russia. These are Abdilaziz Hamrakulov, Vohid Aliev, Murodil Tadzhibayev, Botir Turgunov and Nabid Abdullayev.
I doubt you’ll have heard of them. They’re from Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet state tucked away in central Asia. It’s fair to see that Kyrgyzstan’s profile on the international stage is low, but as recently as the summer of 2010 it was actually headline news the world over. This was when ethnic violence exploded in the Kyrgyzstani cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. Ethnic Uzbeks were particularly heavily hit. Hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks were killed and tens of thousands fled into neighbouring Uzbekistan. I blogged several times about this at the time (including one post written during an England v USA World Cup football match!) where I wondered whether there would be much reporting of the Kyrgyzstan crisis. (For a while there was, with live reports on the likes of Sky News).
Well, the coverage faded and, to be fair, the crisis itself abated. But things are never as simple as that. For example, the five Kyrgyzstani men I’ve mentioned, who are all ethnic Uzbeks, are charged by the Kyrgyzstani authorities of criminal involvement in the 2010 violence, not the first to be sought by the authorities in a long process of what Amnesty has described as “selective justice” against Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks. Russia, previously a place of refuge for Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks, has recently been trying to send the above-mentioned Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks back to Kyrgyzstan. Very possibly they would face unfair, ethnically-biased trials back in Kyrgyzstan and spend years in jail.
Well, what would life be like for the five in a Kyrgyzstani jail, I hear you ask!? As it happens I have the answer to that (sort of), because I’ve recently been looking at the French photographer Eric Gourlan’s powerful photos of life in four prison “colonies” in Kyrgyzstan. These are haunting, cold, blue-drenched photographs, often showing inmates’ faces in deep perspective framed by broken-down brick arches or by the heavy iron viewing latches of cell doors. If you’re at all interested in Kyrgyzstan or photography (or both) have a look at the 20-minute slideshow of the images. This is good because it has a soundtrack of prisoners’ own voices and various ambient prison noises (hammering, children chattering etc) but is, I have to say, rather marred by a dreadful guitar solo-laden music score.
Anyway, my partner - who does research on Russia and other former Soviet countries - was in Kyrgyzstan at the opening of the exhibition of Goulan’s photos in the capital Bishkek on 16 October. She reports that the exhibition was put on in a museum where upmarket coffee machines were also being showcased and sold to visitors. Coffee and the penal colonies, a strange brew. Naturally, our Kyrgyzstani five won’t be treated to connoisseur coffee if Russia forces them back to Kyrgyzstan. Indeed, despite the heavily-reported Snowden case, Russia’s record of conniving in the forced return of at-risk people to central Asia is well-documented. Snowden’s celebrity may protect him from this fate, but what about the rest?

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