This story was originally published and aired in Uzbek on Voice of America’s Uzbek Service.
Even when one finds refuge in a new country, justice can be very hard to come by.
Chet Kaufman, a federal public defender in Tallahassee, Florida, told VOA’s Uzbek service that he felt he had an almost impossible task when he first learned about the case against his client, Nodirbek Yusupov, an asylum-seeker from Uzbekistan. By the time Kaufman met Yusupov, he was behind bars, having fled to the United States from Uzbekistan in 2003. But the criminal charges facing Yusupov were not the kind a public defender encounters on a regular basis. His crime was his refusal, following a court order that he be deported, to board a plane back to his home country of Uzbekistan, where he feared he could be tortured or possibly killed based on his perceived religious beliefs.
Kaufman’s job was to convince a federal court that Yusupov — an Uzbek citizen who had spent almost 11 years in the US without legal status — should not be charged with a crime because his actions were those of a reasonable person seeking to avoid torture. This involved explaining Uzbekistan’s awful human rights record with respect to religious believers in particular and the government’s long record employing torture to fight perceived “extremists.”
Kaufman was ultimately successful on the criminal case. The court ruled in late 2013 that Yusupov should be cleared of criminal charges, and given another opportunity to seek political asylum.
Nodirbek Yusupov – follower of Obidkhon Nazarov, Uzbekistan’s dissident imam Yusupov, 40, is a Tashkent native. According to statements he made in his immigration proceedings Yusupov is an observant Muslim. He briefly attended Tashkent’s famous “Tokhtaboy” mosque, one of the largest mosques in Uzbekistan. Until 1998, “Tokhtaboy” hosted one of Uzbekistan’s most famous religious figures, Imam Obidkhon Nazarov (aka Obidkhon Sobitkhony), best known to his followers as “Obidkhon qori.” A renowned Islamic scholar and charismatic speaker, Nazarov grew very popular in the 1990s. Over time, he became increasingly critical of President Islam Karimov’s policies on religious practice. Nazarov called them repressive and denounced the regime. Nazarov was forced to flee Uzbekistan in 1998, spending a few years in Kazakhstan, and with the help of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), resettled to Sweden in 2006.
Back in Uzbekistan, authorities tried Nazarov in absentia on charges of extremism, typical charges leveled by the government at religious Muslims who practice their religion independent of strict state controls. In February 2012, an unknown assailant shot Nazarov in the stairwell of his apartment building in northern Sweden, leaving him in a coma and incapacitated to this day. Nazarov’s attempted assasins have never been caught, but Sweden’s prosecutors believed there was strong evidence that the crime was linked to Tashkent. Nazarov’s followers and relatives believe that Uzbek authorities, who had hunted Nazarov for over a decade, finally managed to catch up with him. The criminal investigation into the February 2012 shooting remains unsolved.
While Yusupov and his brothers followed and read Obidkhon qori’s lectures with great interest, his mother, Mastura Yusupova, a retired school teacher, says she does not believe any of her sons were politically opposed to the government.
“Nodirbek is my eldest son,” she told VOA Uzbek over the phone from Tashkent. “He finished school with excellent grades and went on to pursue his studies in higher education.” Earning a diploma from the Bukhara Institute of Food and Light Industry, he later studied engineering and eventually opened up a catering business with his brothers. According to Mastura, Nodirbek and his brothers lived relatively well, and harbored no interest in politics, let alone opposition activities.
But their lives dramatically changed in 2008, when her two younger sons–Oybek and Hasan—were found guilty of “extremism” and “membership in an illegal organization.” Both were sentenced to more than five years in prison. Just before their terms were set to expire in 2013, authorities unilaterally extended their sentences by three years allegedly for violating “internal prison rules.” Human rights groups have documented the use of this widespread practice in hundreds of cases of Uzbekistan’s “religious prisoners.”
Oybek, 38, is imprisoned in Navoiy, while Hasan, 33, remains in a prison in Qarshi.
Their mother believes her sons did not break any laws. “They have asked for mercy [from the state] again and again. My grandchildren are growing up without their fathers. It breaks my heart every day. I miss my sons, who are missing so much as their kids are coming of age, studying, working and marrying, beginning new lives,”she says.
In 2011, “Memorial,” one of the leading Russian human rights organizations, identified Oybek Yusupov as one of thousands of political prisoners in Uzbekistan, imprisoned on trumped up charges of religious extremism. Yusupov testified that Oybek had served for a time as a muezzin in the “Tokhtaboy” mosque where Obidkhon-qori Nazarov was a preacher. But their mother does not confirm this. She says that her sons were just namozkhon—observant Muslims.
Detention and Torture In court documents, Yusupov asserts that officers from Uzbekistan’s National Security Services (NSS) detained him in Tashkent on September 10, 2002. The officers accused him of memberhip in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group that the Uzbek government and some other governments consider an extremist organization. While considered an Islamic ideological group that propagates a fundamentalist vision of Islam, most Western states, including the US, have not designated Hizb-ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization because it does not advocate the use of violence to achieve its goals of establishing an Islamic caliphate. According to Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek government over the years has arbitrarily detained and imprisoned thousands of mainly Muslim men on the pretext of membership in Hizb-ut-Tahrir as part of a long-running campaign against religious believers. Human Rights Watch has documented that many such prisoners have been subjected to torture in prison.
Yusupov says he was held in a basement in a police station where he was subjected to torture continuously over the course of three days. NSS officers pressured Yusupov to confess to being “radicalized” and threatened him with sodomy and rape if he did not cooperate. Yusupov stated that the officers hit him repeatedly with clubs all over his body, including over his vital organs. He says he felt the biggest blow to his bladder because it was filled from not having used the bathroom. Eventually, he passed out following a brutal beating. After a few days he was transferred to the Tashkent city jail (“Toshturma”), a detention facility known for the systematic practice of torture. There he says officers kept him in a cell with freezing temperatures. His interrogators offered him a deal: they would let him go if he would agree to work as an informant at Nazarov’s former mosque, tracking the Imam and his followers. However, were he to refuse, they said, he would stay in prison and authorities would find ways to lock up his wife and brothers for the rest of their lives.
Faced with further torture in prison and intolerable conditions, Yusupov says he broke under the pressure and finally agreed to cooperate. After his release later in 2002, he spent two months recovering in a hospital. Meanwhile, Uzbek security service agents were becoming impatient. Yusupov testified that during this period he realized there was no escape from further harassment and possible torture. The only thing left to do was to flee.
In June 2003, Yusupov obtained a business visa to the United States. It is unclear how much Yusupov was forced, if at all, to cooperate with Uzbekistan’s security services before he fled the country.
At present, Yusupov is detained in a Florida immigration detention facility. In total, he has been deprived of his liberty for over two and half years in connection with both the criminal and immigration proceedings against him.
Chet Kaufman, his public defender, visits him often. According to Kaufman, Yusupov is doing well considering the circumstances. The local Uzbek community in Florida has also been doing what it can to be supportive along with other Uzbek friends of Yusupov’s from Maryland where he lived earlier.
Deportation Yusupov arrived in the United States with a six month business visa but ended up staying nearly 11 years, engaged in a long process in and outside of the court system to receive political asylum. He has managed to survive with a series of odd jobs, including as a dishwasher, washing cars, and cleaning rooms. In many respects, Yusupov is very similar to the other 11 million undocumented workers who struggle to survive in the United States.
Yusupov’s initial claim for political asylum was unsuccessful, and he is now appealing the earlier ruling. According to Kaufman, the earlier legal team simply failed to demonstrate to the court that were Yusupov to be returned to Uzbekistan that he would face imminent imprisonment and torture. “In fact, there is a legitimate torture claim here and therefore the court should take another look,” says Kaufman.
Both American and international law prohibit the US government, and any other, from returning a person to a country where he or she could face a credible risk of torture.
Human Rights Watch’s Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow agrees with Kaufman that Yusupov’s claim for asylum warrants serious review.
“The Uzbek government is well-known for its record of persecuting, imprisoning, and torturing religious believers that it perceives to be associated with extremism,” says Swerdlow. “Human Rights Watch has over the years seen numerous individuals who the Uzbek government associates with Imam Obidkhon qori Nazarov imprisoned and subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment. What makes this case all the more compelling, however, is the fact that Yusupov’s brothers are already imprisoned and have had their sentences extended despite no evidence of their involvement in extremism or violence. This raises a serious concern that Yusupov could share the same fate were he to be returned to Tashkent.”
But in order to be successful, Yusupov will have to convince the court that his fear of persecution is “well-founded” under US law. If an asylum-seeker fails to do so, he or she is then at the disposal of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) whose job it is to return him or her to their country of origin.
When Yusupov had lost an earlier asylum case in 2011 he found himself in exactly that position. Hundreds of thousands of individuals are deported from the United States each year. But in Yusupov’s case, the deportation went differently.
So afraid of what awaited him in Uzbekistan, Yusupov refused to board the plane back to Uzbekistan on several occasions. “Keep me locked up in a prison but please do not send me back to my country,” he reportedly begged the ICE agents.
Terrified of what might happen to him back in Uzbekistan, Yusupov pleaded that he not be returned.
But how is it possible that Yusupov was able to resist? Why didn’t US authorities simply force him on to the plane, lock him into his seat, and let the plane fly back to Uzbekistan? After all, this is what many imagine when thinking about deportation.
“That’s how I would have presumed too before taking on this case. But there are a couple of other concerns that the [US] government has to consider,’ says Kaufman. “One thing, he would have been removed on a commercial airliner. And commercial airlines do not want to have people on board who do not want to be there, who are resisting taking that flight. So, the federal government does not necessarily have the power to put somebody on an airliner who does not want to fly.”
ICE attempted to deport Nodirbek Yusupov on October 6 and in November 2011, on April 13, 2012, and also on April 8, 2013. But it was his fear of Uzbek authorities and the memory of his previous torture that propelled Yusupov to resist and gave him the determination to survive, said Kaufman.
“We are asking the immigration authorities to take a second look at his case… We have got plenty of good reasons for them to do that. If the immigration authorities give this a serious look, and take into consideration the medical evidence that we have put together, and all of those statements by various authorities around the world, such as the United Nations, US Department of State, groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and look at what these institutions are saying about Uzbekistan, they’d see that everything that Mr Yusupov has alleged, is completely consistent with all those horrible reports that these institutions and agencies have been making about Uzbekistan.”
While in jail, Yusupov has also received medical treatment for various issues, including problems with his liver and bladder.
Could Yusupov’s story serve as an example to others facing deportation? His public defender says it is more complicated than it seems.
“Particular facts have to be taken into consideration. Had they been tortured? Do they have any legitimate fear that they would be. Had they done everything right? Yusupov committed no crimes in this country,” Kaufman says.
And, as this story shows, refusing deportation is a crime under US law. Indeed, Yusupov was charged with resisting his own deportation from the United States. “He did it non-violently. There was no violence implicated in this situation whatsoever,” says his public defender.
In late 2013 Kaufman filed a motion to dismiss the criminal charges on the basis that Yusupov’s refusal to assist in his own deportation was reasonable given the risk of torture and even imminent death he could face returning back to Uzbekistan. The motion was successful and the criminal charges dismissed.
“Keep Me Behind Bars, Just Don’t Send Me to Uzbekistan, to Torture” Following the dismissal of the criminal charges, US authorities have agreed to allow Yusupov to once again file a claim for asylum. Kaufman told VOA Uzbek that this case shows that there is humanity in the US justice and immigration system. Ultimately, ICE agents and later a judge were persuaded by a man who was telling them that he would be tortured or even killed if deported to Uzbekistan.
“To the credit of immigration officers, I think, they understood what he was saying and what he was doing. They probably even felt for his position. They are doing their job.”
What lies ahead for Yusupov and his asylum claim is unclear. Yusupov’s mother in Tashkent prays her son will never be forced to come back to Uzbekistan. Anything to avoid deportation, she says, even if that means her son might not see his aging parents, his three children and his wife for a long time to come.