Praised by U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in June for “significant progress”, Uzbekistan bid on July 1st to host the 2027 Asian Games. Within hours, the country’s bid had attracted controversy, as news of a young man’s torture and death spread within local media.
A growing body of politicians and human rights activists are now calling for event organizers to bar Uzbekistan, and other nations who commit atrocities against their own citizens, from hosting important international sporting events. They include the architect of the Magnitsky Act, Bill Browder, Shadow Spokesperson for the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, MP Alyn E. Smith and veteran human rights campaigner Nadejda Atayeva. Condemnation for the atrocity has also been voiced by the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, while ranking members of the U.S House of Representatives contacted during the drafting of this article have also expressed private condemnation, but could not comment by the time of publication before Independence Day celebrations.
How Torture Allegations Interrupted Uzbekistan’s 2027 Asia Cup Bid
Although Farrukh A. Hidirov is only one of many victims of torture in Uzbekistan, the haunting details of Mr. Hidirov’s final hours are consistent with thousands of other victims. But they are so brutal, that I find them painful to explain. In footage sent to me by human rights activists within the country (which have since been deleted from the internet), Hidirov’s body has been burnt, scarred, starved and maimed.
Mr. Hidirov’s skeletal body is contorted beyond description. The story, as reported by uznews.com, explains that on the same day Uzbekistan bid for the 2027 Asian Cup, the country’s authorities attributed Mr. Hidirov’s death to tuberculosis. It also quotes Uzbek authorities as warning readers of the consequences of spreading disinformation.
Curiously, for a nation keen to host a sporting event, Uzbekistan’s most public attacks on media have been in the form of slights against sports journalists (which, like Mr. Hidirov’s case, also broke in to Western media). On May 27th this year, state television sacked two prominent football reporters for comparing the fake happiness (feigned through fear in a PR stunt) at President Shavkat M. Mirziyoyev’s response to a natural disaster with scenes from North Korean state media.
As this is certainly not an isolated case in Uzbekistan (Amnesty International concur), serious moral questions surround the legitimacy of international sponsors or sports conglomerates’ participation in Uzbekistan’s bid for the event. So how did a regular man, who experienced treatment that is still regular in Uzbekistan, become emblematic of human rights organisations calls to hear Uzbekistan’s victims…on Independence Day?
Farrukh A. Hidirov’s: A Victim Of Torture Who Embodies Uzbekistan’s Silent Victims On Independence Day
Farrukh A. Hidirov was born in 1975. He had been tried four times by authorities in Uzbekistan, for reasons that are as ambiguous and inhuman, as they are vague.
First imprisoned in 2008, and a further 3 times consecutively, Hidirov’s circumstances suggest those of a political prisoner. This statement is made on basis of the Central Asian state’s well documented use of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ to imprison thousands, and simultaneously discredit their standing in the process. That his treatment by Uzbekistan broke on the day the nation tried to further advance its international reputation by bidding for a sports event is a coincidence. But Mr. Hidirov was, by all accounts, a loyal and kind man, who simply sought to do right by his family and live quietly in an authoritarian nation backed by U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He would not have not sought fame.
As a key ally to the United States in the early years of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, Uzbekistan’s deceased dictator, Islam A. Karimov, utilized U.S fear of transnational crime and Islamic fundamentalism to crush dissent and extract enormous amounts of foreign aid from Western allies.
While the Karimov family enriched themselves, Uzbekistan continued its practices of forced labor, mandating that the country’s people pick cotton without any wage. This led to the desecration of a state in exchange for personal gain.
From ‘Princess’ To Pauper, To Prisoner, via Switzerland…To Uzbek Jail
The late dictator’s daughter, Gulnara I. Karimova was sentenced to 13 years in prison only months ago, in March 2020, for embezzlement and corruption that cost the country approximately $1.7 billion U.S Dollars.
While I wish (or rather must) state, that no criminal charges have been brought against Uzbekistan’s new President, Shavkat M. Mirziyoyev, I do feel it pertinent to clarify that President Mirziyoyev was Uzbekistan’s Prime Minister under Karimov’s dictatorship. He was (accordingly) very close to the dictator (as countless others in Karimov’s proximity who were not found agreeable, either died, disappeared, or spent decades in jail). And Mirziyoyev was evidently very popular, too. He served in office from December 12th, 2003, through until December 14th 2016). Not one single election for the job was deigned free or fair by international observers (who on occasion were not welcome).
While I cannot (or must not) infer any responsibility for Karimov’s atrocities upon President Mirziyoyev, I think it is surprising that Uzbekistan’s new commander in chief did not act to improve human rights during 13 years in public office as second in command.
But in regard to the protection of human rights, the case of Mr. Hidirov, and the nation’s readiness to tout the kind of progress which sport should promote, I refer to Mirziyoyev’s statement before the United Nations General Assembly (Seventy-second session, 5th plenary meeting) on Tuesday, 19 September 2017, as proof the President either failed (or lied). At approximately 3 p.m EST, in New York, Mirziyoyev told delegates of Uzbekistan’s transformation in this statement which I have sourced and read. Thoroughly. I quote the entire paragraph for disambiguation, as spoken, verbatim, by Mirziyoyev, in reference to the steps he foresaw taking as his boss’ successor:
“Proceeding from the principles of humanism, many individual cases of detained persons have been reviewed” Mirziyoyev said. “Misguided citizens who fell under the influence of the ideology of extremism are undergoing social rehabilitation, and conditions are being created for their return to normal life. The activities of all law enforcement agencies in terms of protection of human rights and freedoms are under constant parliamentary and civil supervision”.
I say foresaw, as they have not been taken.
On this basis, Mirziyoyev failed Mr. Hidirov, who spent much of his life within site of Tashkent – a city already set to host the AFC U-19 Championship in October 2020. Hidirov died shortly before Uzbekistan announced its bid for the 2027 Asian Games. Mirziyoyev (per United Nations promises) will now, presumably, launch an investigation. If he is to honor his words before the United Nations. As cited (for clarity, and to jog memory, in this link).
Holding The Perpetrators Accountable: A Magnitsky Act for Sport?
Citing Mr. Hidirov’s case and the circumstances of his death, I spoke with William F. Browder, who is best known as Bill.
Browder is an American-born British financier and political activist, who remains CEO of Hermitage Capital Management. Bill once ran Hermitage, then Russia’s largest hedge fund. Upon uncovering substantial fraud, Browder’s life changed forever on November 16th, 2009, when his friend, lawyer and tax adviser Sergei L. Magnitsky died, following torture, in a Russian jail.
Bill subsequently created the most feared tool in international human rights law, through bipartisan consensus in the United States. The Magnitsky Act designates those who violate human rights, and is one of the most feared tools in law applied against their violators.
Upon discussing the circumstances of Hidirov’s death, Bill told me, by phone, that “I think I can say without any reservation that a country with as horrendous a human rights record as Uzbekistan should not even be considered for any international sporting event. These events should be reserved for civilized, democratic countries that honor international norms. If the evidence of Hidirov’s death proves to be true, then those responsible for this latest atrocity should be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act”.
Alyn E. Smith, who is a Member of the House of Commons, and SNP Shadow Spokesperson for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office expressed concern about Uzbekistan’s bid for the Asian Games to me, via email. Acknowledging that Uzbekistan had every right to bid for the tournament and that this could mean the country become the first successful host in Central Asia, Alyn stated “I would hope the organizing committee of the Asian Games will consider human rights and democracy in their criteria (when deciding Uzbekistan’s suitability as host). Sport is a great unifier and an opportunity for a host country to shine on the world stage. I would hope Uzbekistan clean up its act domestically to match this.”
Atayeva: A Legacy of Human Rights Abuse Unanswered On U.S Independence Day
Nadejda Atayeva is one of the best known and respected campaigners against human
rights violations in Central Asia. As she admits, with no fear of reprisal or need to self censor, Mr. Hidirov’s case is not uncommon. In fact, it is widespread. It must be taken in to consideration by those who laud and award dictatorships with sporting glory. Mr. Hidirov must not die in vain.
As Atayeva told me, by phone, “The practice of torture and corruption are integral parts of the political regime of Uzbekistan. At the same time, the former Communists firmly retain their presence in power, even if now they call themselves Democrats. Some 30 years after the collapse of the USSR, there are as yet no instances of free democratic elections in Uzbekistan. All election processes are in violation of the current Constitution and the fundamental principles of democracy. In the last month alone, three cases of death from torture became known to the public and one of them is the case of Mr. Khidirov. Over the current week, more than 10 victims of torture and failure to provide timely medical assistance turned to our organization.”
Many of us will watch sports events, this Independence Day. But, as we do so, all who have contributed to this article ask that close attention be paid to sport’s value as a cohesive force in democracy. It should not be used as a force of coercion by authoritarian governments to oppress, or, as is alleged, torture to death, critics. On the same day a nation bids for the prestige of hosting an international sporting event via costly media campaign.