By Chris Rickleton
An appellate case involving a young homosexual man convicted of distributing pornographic films is shaping up as an important test for gay rights in Kyrgyzstan. Local rights activists contend that that the defendant, Mikhail Kudryashov, was entrapped and is a victim of gender-related bias at the hands of police and prosecutors.
Kudryashov’s appeal is currently being heard in Bishkek after a lower court found him guilty this past winter, handing out an 18-month suspended sentence and validating the confiscation of personal property, including a video camera. The defendant claims that in mid-2010 a young man phoned him out of the blue and told him, “I haven’t known for a long time.” The phrase was a code that closeted homosexuals used at the time to gain entry into the gay community. Having earned his trust, the young man persuaded Kudryashov to meet with him and sell him two films of an erotic nature as a one-time “favor.” Kudryashov, who had not previously sold films, freely admits that he agreed to the transaction.
But Kudryashov insists he did not commit a crime, contending that he sold “erotic” rather than “pornographic” films. Under Kyrgyz law, the distribution of pornographic material is illegal, while the dissemination of erotic material is not. The law does not clearly define the boundary between the two categories. Prosecutors argue that the two films Kudryashov sold were pornographic, not erotic.
For two months, Kudryashov’s new “friend” disappeared without trace. In October, he called again, begging Kudryashov for more films, offering a substantial amount of money, according to the defendant. When they met, members of the Financial Police burst into the premises, confiscating the discs and arresting Kudryashov. He was then detained, interrogated and beaten for several hours, he asserts. Doctors at a Bishkek clinic subsequently certified him as having suffered a concussion, soft tissue bruising and blurred vision.
The defendant maintains that police officials forced him to sign a waiver of counsel. During his interrogation, Kudryashov was escorted to his apartment, where valuable items such as his video camera were declared “pornography” and confiscated, he alleges. He adds that law-enforcement officers tried to extort money from him and use him to find more closeted gays to entrap and blackmail.
“They know the society we live in,” Kudryashov told EurasiaNet.org.
“They know that people will pay any amount of money to avoid the stigma of everyone else knowing [about one’s sexual preferences] – at work, at home, at church. But I refused, and I said I would never give anyone up.”In recent years, Kyrgyzstan’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community has endured repeated attacks. In 2008, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on officials to “halt anti-gay raids,” highlighting an assault on the main office of Labrys, the country’s largest LGBT advocacy organization. In the Labrys incident, police officials searched the premises and read private files without a warrant, interrupting a dinner party with international funders. During an earlier raid on Labrys, police threatened “they would rape everyone inside,” according to HRW.
As LGBT representatives have grown more organized and capable of defending themselves against such strong-arm tactics, they complain law enforcement officials have turned to threatening and extorting money from community members.
Dahn Pak, a project coordinator at Labrys, is monitoring Kudryashov’s appeal. Pak maintains that the conduct of Kudryashov’s original trial suggests that the defendant’s sexual orientation influenced the outcome and denied him due process.
“The judge paid less attention to the case itself – whether he [Kudryashov] did or did not distribute porn – and more attention to his personal life and sexual orientation,” Pak explained. “The judge and prosecutor addressed him with bad words, homophobic words. … The prosecutor told him that this was a Muslim country, that we had traditions and culture. But according to the constitution, we are a secular country, and being gay is not a crime.”Kyrgyzstan’s constitution protects the right of citizens to engage in same-sex relationships, albeit not marriage. But the country’s two main religions, Islam and the Russian Orthodoxy, are openly opposed to homosexual activity. The defendant’s own church, a Protestant denomination, expelled him from membership after news of his arrest appeared in the capital’s leading Russian-language language newspaper, Evening Bishkek.
Tolekan Ismailova, whose organization Citizens Against Corruption is also observing Kudryashov’s trial, argues that Kyrgyzstan has a long history of intolerance toward people of non-traditional sexual orientations.
“In the Soviet era, it was man and wife and nothing else,” Ismailova told EurasiaNet.org, noting that homosexuality was officially a crime back then.
“Of course, we perfectly understood that there were people who had a different orientation.” These days, Ismailova added, “young Muslims and so-called patriots of Kyrgyzstan strongly oppose [LGBT people]. They don’t understand that they are people who should enjoy the same rights and freedoms as any other person.”Describing the Kudryashov case as “strategic,” Ismailova described law enforcement institutions, particularly the State Security Committee (GKNB) and the Financial Police, as “the biggest threat to democracy and human freedoms in Kyrgyzstan. “They can beat, they can arrest they can invade a person’s privacy,” she continued. “They haven’t reformed, and they aren’t subordinate to anyone.”
Kudryashov’s appellate trial is scheduled to resume on May 25. In addition, he has filed a counter-suit against the Financial Police, claiming he was entrapped and beaten. A Western diplomat familiar with the case and who shares the opinion that Kudryashov was set up, doesn’t expect him to receive justice. "It's just the wrong place to be gay,” the diplomat said.
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.