Tashkent, Uzbekistan – On March 25, 2017, Andrey Kubatin, a 35-year old Uzbek scholar of Turkic languages and history, and associate professor at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, was about to finish work.
He took his belongings, including a hard drive with meticulously catalogued academic literature he had collected over the years, and left the building.
He was going to meet Muzafar Zhaniyev, also an Uzbek, and a local employee of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), who needed the electronic library to prepare an Uzbekistan guidebook for Turkish-speaking tourists.
Kubatin had been asked by TIKA – a Turkish organisation working legally in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries – to work on the project but he refused, citing a lack of time. He offered instead to share some of his academic resources with Zhaniyev.
What Kubatin did not know at the time is that before their meeting, Zhaniyev had been in contact with Uzbekistan’s security services.
Kubatin would soon become the main protagonist of a Kafkaesque trial, charged with espionage for Turkey.
He met Zhaniyev in front of his workplace and, after exchanging pleasantries, gave him the hard drive.
Zhaniyev insisted on giving Kubatin a lift, which he eventually accepted.
To his surprise, Zhaniyev changed the route.
A white sedan cut them off. Two men got out of the car, beat Kubatin and dragged him into the vehicle.
The men turned out to be agents of the National Security Service, the infamous heir to the KGB, known for frequent use of torture.
They drove Kubatin to the nearby branch of the Department of Internal Affairs where he was violently interrogated for two days.
In the end, Kubatin was sentenced to 15 days in prison for allegedly disobeying the officers’ orders.
He hoped his problems would end there, but his ordeal had just begun.
After a prolonged investigation and a closed 30-minute trial in a military court in Tashkent in December 2017, Kubatin, a father of one, was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment for espionage and treason against the state.
In a telephone conversation with Al Jazeera, Kubatin, talking from his prison cell, could hardly contain his emotions.
“The first court accused me of transferring state secrets to Turkey, although it was proved that I did not have access to any clandestine materials. Then they accused me of contributing to hostile activities against Uzbekistan, but at the same time no charges were brought against TIKA and its leaders who continue working in Uzbekistan,” Kubatin said.
“After I received the sentence, I started appealing and making complaints. An examination was conducted on the books that I had on the hard drive, and it was proved that they are all in the public domain, but this was not taken into account.”
On appeal, Kubatin’s sentence was lowered to five years.
His laptop with the alleged state secrets was returned to him and is currently in his home.
“I handed over the same material to many scientists. It is educational material and there is nothing illegal in sharing it, it is a common practice among scientists,” Kubatin said.
Driven mainly by paranoia, treason prosecutions have led to the imprisonment of numerous soldiers, businessmen, former diplomats, and even staff of some international organisations, and in this case, even scholars.
Uzbekistan, until recently one of the most isolated governments in the world with restricted individual and social freedoms, has been opening up.
Since coming to power in December 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has introduced reforms.
According to Human Rights Watch, Mirziyoyev has freed approximately 50 “political prisoners”, taken approximately 20,000 citizens off an infamous blacklist of suspected “extremists”, and has moved to reduce forced labour in the country’s cotton fields.
However, despite the reforms, the security services, often viewed as a state within the state working for their own enrichment, continue to target individuals with vaguely defined charges, including treason.
“A still major category of political prisoners in Uzbekistan are those convicted on politically-motivated charges of treason (Article 157), a crime that the former authoritarian president Islam Karimov used widely to imprison a wide category of people perceived as potentially disloyal or somehow associated with the West and other supposedly hostile powers,” Steve Swerdlow, senior Central Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
“Driven mainly by paranoia, treason prosecutions have led to the imprisonment of numerous soldiers, businessmen, former diplomats, and even staff of some international organisations and, in this case, even scholars.
“During 2019, we’ve seen a re-emergence of new arrests on these vague, Karimov-era charges – cases which seriously threaten the image of a reforming Uzbekistan that officials are trying to project to the world.”
Swerdlow cited the recent arrest of former Uzbek diplomat Kadyr Yusupov, now on trial, who has reportedly been charged with treason, tortured, and was initially denied access to his lawyer in detention.
Rights advocates say people like Kubatin should be freed swiftly to support Uzbekistan’s new image.
“President Mirziyoyev took an important step in freeing the first batch of high-profile prisoners early in his presidential term,” Swerdlow said. “But now comes the harder work of examining each and every case of torture and abuse, like Kubatin’s, ensuring that that all political prisoners are freed and rehabilitated.”
Rallying support for Kubatin
In early 2018, Mirziyoyev took on an ambitious task to reform the security services, which included dismissing Rustam Inoyatov, head of the National Security Service for 23 years, and renaming the agency the State Security Service.
The new name was meant to bring a change in approach and break from the past abuses of power.
As Kubatin explained, since the reforms he has received better treatment in prison.
In the past, beatings were frequent and he was subject to severe sleep deprivation. For five months at a time, he had no contact with his family or lawyer.
Now, he said, his situation has improved.
But authorities started to seriously revise the scholar’s case only when his sister, Klara Sakharova, began a public fight for his release.
The hardest thing has been the separation from my family. That my child is growing up without a father. This I think is the worst part of this story.
In December 2018, she posted a video on her social media accounts announcing she would set herself on fire to raise awareness of her brother’s ordeal.
“You know why I resorted to such a move? When they sentenced him to five years they started forcing him to ask for pardon, but he refused. He said he will not write anything as he hasn’t been guilty of anything,” she told Al Jazeera.
“No one wants to help him they just want to make him plead guilty.”
Sakharova never resorted to the desperate move. Instead, she began writing letters to officials, including the president, asking for her brother’s case to be reviewed. She posted details of her actions to her social media accounts.
Local and international scholars singed open letters in support of Kubatin’s release and Uzbek civil society groups joined the movement.
In April, the general prosecutor ordered the case to be reviewed, citing mistakes in the investigation process.
The trial reopened on May 28. The court is currently examining the material.
Kubatin has been transferred to a penal colony. His family can now visit and he has access to books.
Over the course of his stay there, he has published seven academic papers.
He was also invited to an international conference but could not attend due to his detention. He remains optimistic.
Al Jazeera contacted the Ombudsman’s office in Tashkent several times by phone to comment on the case, but no one answered. By the time of publishing, an email Al Jazeera sent was also unanswered.
When asked about the reasons for his arrest, Kubatin hesitates before answering.
“I assume that I fell victim of statistics. Uzbekistan’s relations with Turkey began to improve, so perhaps someone [who did not support these better ties] was interested in showing that we also have Turkish spies in Uzbekistan,” Kubatin said.
“The hardest thing has been the separation from my family. That my child is growing up without a father. This I think is the worst part of this story.”