Reporter Khodoberdi Nurmatov, better known as Ali Feruz, is being threatened with deportation by Russian authorities.
Russia is attempting to deport Ali Feruz, a reporter based in Moscow, to Uzbekistan, over the protests of activists, courts, and Feruz himself.
Feruz, who is also known as Khodoberdi Nurmatov, fled Uzbekistan in 2009 after he was tortured for two days when he refused to cooperate with the country’s notorious security services. He came back to Russia — the country where he was born — in 2011.
Once there, Feruz began reporting for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, covering refugees and women’s issues, as well as establishing himself as a well-known campaigner. But in 2012 Feruz had his passport stolen, leaving him without documentation after he was unable to go to the Uzbekistan embassy as he had fled the country just a year earlier.
On Aug. 1, Feruz was picked up by police as he was en route to work. Later that day, a Moscow judge, ignoring Feruz’s current asylum applications, ordered that the 30-year-old be deported back to Uzbekistan, saying he had been living in the country illegally.
“He said it is better to die than to go back to Uzbekistan,” Lena Kostyuchenko, from the Novaya Gazeta, told BuzzFeed News on Friday.
“He is in the shadow of death,” Kostyuchenko, speaking from Moscow shortly after she had spoken to Feruz from the detention center where he is being held, said.
She said she was “perfectly sure” that sending Feruz back to Uzbekistan would be a death sentence.
Last year, an Amnesty International report examined how Russian authorities were cooperating with Uzbekistan’s security services in deportation cases, resulting in hundreds of people simply vanishing when officials colluded to send them back to Uzbekistan.
“There are people disappearing in silence,” Kostyuchenko said. “If he went back there we will never know what happens to him. He does not deserve what is happening to him.”
Kostyuchenko met Feruz four years ago when he first started pitching and writing for the newspaper.
He was an “extremely talented” reporter who spoke “eight or nine languages”, Kostyuchenko said, and had written movingly about the refugee situation in Russia.
“We started out as colleagues but now we are very close, he is so kind,” she said. “He has great sympathy for everyone. He always tries to understand everyone.”
“He always tries to defend the person in the weak position,” Kostyuchenko explained, describing how, when Feruz overheard a man make a sexist remark at her, “he immediately started fighting with him – not physically or anything like that — but he said, ‘No! It’s is very disrespectful, you cannot speak to her like that.’ I was shocked!”
“He’s like that: He sees some injustice and he fights it.”
“We are so shocked and angry, and we are ready to fight to the end,” she said. “Everybody loves him. Everybody signed the petition to our president, I mean from chief editor to the people working in our cafeteria: everybody.”
Kostyuchenko said when she spoke to Feruz earlier he asked her to bring him cigarettes and notepaper. “‘Paper?’ I asked. ‘Yeah, because I am finishing my reporting from here,'” she explained. “He is a true-born reporter and we need him.”
“It’s as close to a death sentence as it can be,” Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s deputy program director for Europe and Central Asia, told BuzzFeed News from London. “The details … just do not bear thinking about.”
“Should he go back, at the very least, he will be subjected to criminal prosecution for being gay, which is a crime in Uzbekistan. It is a crime punishable by prison.”
Members of the LGBT community in Uzbekistan face constant threats and abusive from Uzbek authorities. A Human Rights Watch report earlier this year noted that “police use blackmail and extortion against gay men, threatening to out or imprison them”. The community faces “deep-rooted homophobia and discrimination”.
Krivosheev said that if the deportation went ahead, Feruz “has little chance of justice. He is facing a very real risk of torture and ultimately this would mean many years in a very horrible prison.”
“It is quite unusual that Putin’s spokesperson will be answering questions about this, and clearly indicated that Putin is aware of this case.”
The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, yesterday said that the Russian leader was “aware of the existence” of Feruz’s case, and that it was impossible “to close one’s eyes” to the situation.
On Friday, the European Court of Human Rights froze Feruz’s deportation order, according to his lawyer Kirill Koroteyev.
Koroteyev, writing on Facebook, said that the court in Strasbourg had stated that the Russian court could not deport Feruz. Radio Free Europe reported that the court had given the reporter until the end of September to file a new asylum application.
It follows Europe’s commissioner for human rights urging Russia to rethink the decision, and stop Feruz’s immediate deportation, earlier this week.
“States have a duty to ensure a safe and enabling environment for the work of human rights defenders and journalists, and to protect them from reprisals,” Commissioner Nils Muižnieks wrote on the ECHR Facebook page on Wednesday.
“It should be recalled that international law prohibits sending a person to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing that the person may be subjected to torture or ill-treatment.”
A Change.org petition calling on the Russian authorities to reverse the decision has gathered almost 50,000 signatures.
— Владимир Варфоломеев (@Varfolomeev) August 3, 2017
Meanwhile, Feruz’s unwell mother is trying desperately to reach her son before the next court hearing on Monday.
“All I want is to be near him…because he is my son,” Kostyuchenko said she had told her.
Nils Muižnieks’s and Denis Krivosheev’s names were misspelled in a previous version of this post.