Summary and Current Status
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. 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. Although Mr. Popov was freed from prison in June, his release was not made public until recently.
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. He was arrested in January 2009 and subsequently charged with embezzlement of funds received from international donors and “involving underage persons in anti-social behavior.”
According to reliable reports, Mr. Popov is reported to have been tortured and mistreated. His trial was closed and, no evidence was presented to support the charges that Mr. Popov engaged in any fiscal impropriety. It is our understanding that none of his funders—including such reputable health organizations as the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, UNICEF, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)—has any complaints about how he expended the grant funds he received. UNICEF and Population Services International (PSI) have made statements confirming that they have never had any problems in their financial dealings with IZIS and that Mr. Popov satisfactorily accounted for all activities related to the grants in question.
The second charge against Mr. Popov stems from his distribution of booklets and brochures on HIV/AIDS prevention. One brochure titled “The Healthy Way of Life: A Manual for Teachers of the 21st Century,” which was funded by UNDP, UNAIDS, and USAID and brought into Uzbekistan for distribution by Population Services International (PSI), was cited specifically by the court. We understand that this brochure, which promotes use of condoms and distribution of clean needles to heroin users, was found offensive by state-appointed Uzbek “experts on national traditions.” The “experts” testified in court that:
The brochure is extremely harmful and its goal is to discredit our educational system. [Its] entire content focuses on the idea that such phenomena as prostitution, homosexuality, and sexually transmitted diseases are widespread among contemporary youth. Such a claim carries extremely defamatory character in regards to contemporary youth, including our own. . . . The brochure does not contain any information on spirituality, morality, and the cultural and national traditions of our country. Moreover, it demonstrates a blatant disregard to national customs and the traditions of the Orient. . . . The brochure implies that schoolchildren engage in sexual activity and talks about contraceptives. . . . [It] should be banned from distribution.
Also cited by the court was the brochure “HIV and AIDS Today,” written and funded by UNICEF and PSI, which includes a discussion of same-sex relations and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. We understand that all copies of this brochure were seized and burned by government authorities. Given that the brochures contain educational information widely used by the international public health community to help curb the spread of HIV/AIDS and the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan reportedly contains nothing about “national traditions,” Mr. Popov would appear to be imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising his fundamental rights to freedom of expression and opinion as promulgated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Uzbekistan has one of the world’s fastest-growing HIV infection rates, two thirds of reported cases are young people ages 15-34 years old, and the majority of infections are caused by injecting drug use. The Institute of Medicine has conducted studies on the effectiveness of AIDS prevention strategies in high risk countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States and elsewhere, as have the internationally respected public health organizations named above that funded Mr. Popov’s nongovernment organization, IZIS. All strongly support and advocate the same strategies that he undertook to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS. Mr. Popov’s incarceration, the court-ordered burning of his brochures, and the government’s decision to close down IZIS are a significant setback in the struggle against HIV/AIDS in Uzbekistan. In addition, World Bank studies on the potential economic impact of the spread of HIV/AIDS in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries have concluded that, unless preventive programs are significantly expanded, especially among highly vulnerable groups, the uninhibited spread of HIV will diminish your economy’s long term growth rate and the number of eligible blood donors and, at current prices, the costs of HIV treatment would not be sustainable by the public budget in the future.