Uzbek Psychologist Released from Prison Early; Sentence Reduced to Community Service
December 7, 2011
Maksim Popov, a 29-year-old psychologist in Uzbekistan, was released from prison on June 9, 2011, after serving two and a half years of a seven-year sentence. Although Mr. Popov was freed from prison in June, his release was not made public until recently.
Following a trial that did not meet international fair trial standards, he was convicted of embezzlement of funds received from international donors, “inciting antisocial behavior in juveniles,” “debauchery,” and inciting use of narcotic drugs. According to Uzbek domestic law, prisoners convicted for a “less serious crime” can apply for conditional early release after serving one-third of their sentence. Reliable sources report that Mr. Popov’s sentence was reduced to community service. We understand that he is working as a handyman and that a portion of his salary is confiscated by the government. Additionally, he is denied the right to obtain a managerial job for two years, which was part of his original sentence.
At the time of his arrest, in January 2009, Mr. Popov was executive director of IZIS, a nongovernmental organization in Tashkent that he had founded. IZIS was an organization of young health professionals and activists working to prevent and stem the spread of HIV/AIDS in Uzbekistan through counseling services, anti-drug education for youth, provision of sterile needles, and AIDS education. Its funding came from a number of well-respected international organizations. Mr. Popov’s conviction for embezzlement stemmed from grant funds he received from UNICEF and Population Services International (PSI), despite the fact that neither organization ever made a claim of fiscal impropriety against him. Furthermore, UNICEF has told CHR that it has never had any problems in its financial dealings with IZIS and that Mr. Popov satisfactorily accounted for all activities related to the grants in question. PSI confirmed the same in a public statement.
The remainder of the charges against Mr. Popov relate to his efforts as a psychologist to help reduce and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Uzbekistan through methods widely used by the international public health community. Namely, he taught about and distributed booklets and brochures on HIV/AIDS prevention. One booklet gave detailed information about preventive measures to avoid the deadly disease, including the importance of sterile syringes for drug users and ways to practice safe sex. Although the country has one of the world’s fastest-growing infection rates, particularly among youth, the booklet was found by government-appointed Uzbek “experts on national traditions” to be offensive and without moral or spiritual content. The court ordered all copies to be burned.
The CHR undertook Mr. Popov's case and sent a number of letters to the Uzbek government appealing for his release, contacted the international organizations for which he worked to establish character references, sent him letters of moral support from IOM members, and, together with several member academies of the H.R. Network, submitted his case to a U.N. body.