An American dream, an exile’s nightmare

Uzbekistan’s government punishes pro-democracy activists living abroad by persecuting their families at home.

Islam Karimov
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has referred to Uzbeks working abroad as 'lazy' [AP]

On a summer night in St Louis, Missouri, two immigrants from Uzbekistan held a banquet to celebrate the success of their company. They had fled the central Asian state after their authoritarian government massacred protesting civilians in 2005, and landed in a United States battered by recession. Undaunted, they learned English, studied business, and in 2010 started a trucking firm.

The company was successful, but the two Uzbek owners were not interested in glorifying their own achievements. They held a dinner to thank their workers – the truck drivers, some from Uzbekistan, who were rewarded with gifts, and the members of the St Louis business community who helped make their success possible.

In a suburban St Louis hotel, I saw the hope embodied in the American Dream – hard-working refugees who had achieved prosperity but put the well-being of their workers first; hard-working Midwestern Americans who treated Muslim immigrants with tolerance and respect.

But behind this dream was a nightmare. Bobir Choriyev, one of the co-founders of the company, is the brother of Bahodir Choriyev, leader of the pro-democracy Birdamlik (Solidarity) movement, one of the largest opposition movements in Uzbekistan. Bobir and Bahodir are among seven Choriyev brothers living in St Louis – an Uzbek family struggling to build a life in the US while working to bring democratic reform to their homeland. (Bobir’s company does not fund any political movements, including Birdamlik.)

Only one thing can really push me into despair. And that is if I am thrown in jail illegally and sentenced without being allowed to talk to the prosecutor.

by - Bahodir Choriyev

In the United States, the Choriyevs could be considered an immigrant success story. But in Uzbekistan, they are considered enemies of the state. The week he held the company event, Bobir learned that his father, 71-year-old Hasan Choriyev, had been arrested in Uzbekistan. It was not the first time Hasan had been targeted. In recent years, the Uzbek government had confiscated his property and interrogated him over his son’s activities. But this was the first time Hasan had been sent to jail.

His crime? Being part of a family of political dissidents, safe in the US but vulnerable in Uzbekistan.

The plight of the Choriyev family speaks to the modern version of an old authoritarian tactic: punishing activists abroad by persecuting their relatives at home. In the digital age, exile has gone from a sentence of silence to a source of strength. Formerly isolated activists use the internet to communicate with other activists around the world and lend financial and moral support to their countrymen. With diasporas playing a greater role in facilitating political movements, dictatorships are struggling with how to control citizens who live beyond their legal purview.

One answer is to attack the loved ones they were forced to leave behind. Under the perverse dictates of authoritarianism, love becomes a liability. Loyalty becomes a lure. For families targeted, the consequences are devastating.

An accidental dissident

“Exile is predicated on the existence of, love for, and bond with, one’s native place,” wrote literary critic and public intellectual Edward Said. “What is true of all exile is not that home and love of home are lost, but that loss is inherent in the very existence of both.”

In 2008, I drove to a QuikTrip gas station in rural Missouri, pulled up to a semi tractor-trailer, and entered the “mobile office” of Bahodir Choriyev. Bahodir is a truck driver, and he uses his job to his advantage. He connects with Uzbeks around the United States through the internet, and invites them into his truck to discuss non-violent struggle and civil liberties.

“I am an optimist,” Bahodir told me that day. “Only one thing can really push me into despair. And that is if I am thrown in jail illegally and sentenced without being allowed to talk to the prosecutor. If I stand on the legs of the law, I sense the possibility of justice.”

Bahodir started Birdamlik in 2004, when the Uzbek government seized his agricultural business after imprisoning him on false charges. Like most Uzbek opposition members, he was an accidental dissident, drawn to politics only after the state declared him its target.

In April 2004, Bahodir announced that he planned to protest the government’s actions against him and that he was forming a mass movement to do so. He planned for a demonstration to be held that June, and began campaigning in the capital for the president’s resignation.

In June 2004, state officials kidnapped Bahodir’s nine-year-old son, telling him they would release him once Bahodir stopped his activity. They let him go eight hours later. Soon, the Choriyevs fled into exile, and Birdamlik resumed his activity from the US.

Nine years after they kidnapped his son, the Uzbek government has taken Bahodir’s father. In the intervening years, Birdamlik’s activity has changed. Forced to work from abroad, the battles they fight are often over reputation, the key to winning citizens’ trust when one cannot be physically present. In an Uzbek political climate fraught with surveillance and suspicion, this is a tough battle to win. Though Birdamlik has branches throughout Uzbekistan, much of its leadership resides in other countries, and its members in Uzbekistan live under constant threat.

The Choriyevs first heard about their father’s plight when a friend called saying he had gone missing. It took days for him to be found – in a detention cell, where he had been charged with rape. While no rape charge should be ignored, it is highly doubtful that the ailing 71-year-old Hasan Choriyev, who has had his prostate removed, is physically capable of this act. The allegation seems designed to destroy the family’s reputation, to denigrate their name in Uzbekistan and abroad.

Exile is love and loss – loss of a beloved homeland and one’s potential role within it. But in authoritarian states, perhaps the greatest cruelty is connection. Family members become surrogates for absent “criminals”. They are guilty by association, persecuted by mere presence. Exiles abroad can do little but watch and grieve.

In jail ‘for no reason’

On a Sunday morning in St Louis, Bobir Choriyev told me he thinks the Uzbek government wants the brothers to turn on Bahodir and abandon Birdamlik’s activity. He says the family is standing united. “We love our father,” he said. “But we’re not changing our fight. Because there are thousands of people like him, thousands of people in jail for no reason.”

We love our father. But we're not changing our fight. Because there are thousands of people like him, thousands of people in jail for no reason.

by - Bobir Choriyev

In Uzbekistan, imprisonment is so arbitrary as to seem almost impersonal. Jails are filled with perceived enemies of the state – Muslims who seem too devout, writers who seem too political, and relatives and friends of real and suspected targets. In a legal system long eroded, suspects rarely have the opportunity to have their case argued based on evidence. They are prosecuted on perception, when prosecuted at all. Sometimes they are jailed without trial.

Familial love is exploited by authoritarian states to attempt to control citizens’ behaviour. Devastated by their father’s incarceration, the Choriyevs nonetheless see his arrest as part of a broader problem, and themselves as part of a broader community. Though their lives in the US may be exceptional, in Uzbekistan they are like all other Uzbeks, vulnerable to the Uzbek government – its baseless charges, its cheap derision.

As Hasan Choriyev was arrested, and his sons celebrated a successful Uzbek-led business, Uzbek President Islam Karimov went on state television to make a statement about the laziness of Uzbeks working abroad.

“I call lazy people those who go to Moscow and sweep its streets and squares,” he said. “One feels disgusted with the fact that Uzbeks have to travel there for a piece of bread… The Uzbek nation’s honour makes us different from others. Is not it better to die [than scrounge]?”

In Uzbekistan, hard-working labourers are deemed lazy. Citizens who seek to follow the constitution are labelled enemies of the state. Poets who speak of morality are deemed immoral. Businessmen who run successful businesses have their assets seized and plundered.

One can see this as a tragedy of wasted potential. And it is. But it also makes you wonder what the Uzbek people could accomplish, if virtues were not treated as crimes.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.

Follow her on Twitter:  @sarahkendzior