Why are D.C. lobbyists laundering Uzbekistan’s reputation?

The regime of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is making a hard sell to promote the “new Uzbekistan” to the West. The benefits to Taskhent are obvious, but why are highly reputable Washington firms helping launder the reputation of a country with no meaningful free civil society and where LGBTQI+ citizens are at particular risk of torture and other violence?

Uzbekistan is lobbying aggressively to draw foreign investors to Central Asia, win accession to the World Trade Organization, and take advantage of its strategic location bordering Afghanistan, especially after last year’s pullout by U.S. forces. Mirziyoyev has declared Uzbekistan “open for business,” launched economic reforms, vowed to fight corruption, and privatized state assets.

The regime has recently even made one substantive change in its human rights practices, acceding to the international campaign to end systematic forced labor in its cotton harvest.

However, despite the proposed constitutional and criminal code reforms that purport to foster democratic political changes alongside a more open business climate, Uzbekistan fundamentally remains an authoritarian state with an abysmal record on human rights, as documented both in the most recent State Department report and by independent NGOs, including Human Rights Watch.

For LGBTQI+ people in Uzbekistan, the situation is especially dire, as the state arrests citizens for consensual same-sex sexual behavior; uses forced anal testing, which can rise to the level of torture, on those suspected of violating the ban on homosexuality; and subjects LGBTQI+ prisoners to so-called “conversion therapy” to prevent further criminalized acts. At the same, these abuses point to the fundamental lack of respect for the rule of law in Uzbekistan, the severe constraints on civil society at large, and the utter failure to guarantee fundamental human rights such as the freedom of expression and assembly for all Uzbekistani citizens.

So it comes as little surprise that for years, Tashkent has been engaged in highly strategic “reputation laundering,” as documented by UzInvestigations, a partnership of Ulster University and the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights.

But why are three reputable Washington firms, Arnold & Porter Kay Scholer, BGR Government Affairs, and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, such enthusiastic lobbyists for a profoundly repressive regime?

Courtyard view of madrassa in Samarkan, Uzbekistan

The money trail, unsurprisingly, leads to the immediate answer. This past spring, Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Investments and Foreign Trade hired the three K Street lobbying firms to advocate for Tashkent, now paying $200,000 every month for their services, which include representation by high-profile advocates such as former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. (See recent filings from Akin Gump, Arnold & Porter, and BGR.) This is especially surprising, since former Representative Ros-Lehtinen was perhaps the leading Republican voice for LGBTQI+ rights while serving in Congress.

Uzbekistan’s hard sell has been effective on the Hill, especially among Republicans. Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) noted how “They are in the top one, two or three in reaching out to our office, and they’re one of the most proactive embassies I’ve seen.” Bacon also declared, after meeting with Mirziyoyev in Tashkent, that he believes that Uzbekistan can “grow into a democratic nation that turns into a protector of human rights.” Such conservative support comes  despite the regime’s disregard for religious liberty, having imprisoned more than 2000 persons based on their religious beliefs.

Another recent victory for Uzbekistan’s public relations campaign came when the World Tourist Organization named Samarkand its 2023 “capital.” That organization’s General Assembly is scheduled to take place in the ancient Silk Road city, as part of Tashkent’s initiative to draw millions of tourists to the country — notwithstanding its notable mismanagement of its historical and architectural heritage.

The plastic storks that Uzbekistani authorities placed atop a dome in Bukhara are an all-too-apt metaphor for the façade of political reform proposed in the pending revisions to the nation’s constitutional and criminal code.

Despite some “moderate improvements” in the 2021 draft of the revised criminal code, HRW notes how the law “also retains many provisions that violate the rights to freedom of speech, association, and religion, [while] others fall short of protections to which women, victims of torture, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are entitled under international law.” And momentum for even those “moderate improvements” now appears stalled.

The draft of the new constitution proclaims to elevate human dignity and social welfare, but the provision that has drawn the most attention is the clause that would allow Mirziyoyev to remain in power well into the 2030s. This move, provided cover under the guise of a democratic popular vote, follows directly in the footsteps of Russia’s 2020 referendum that allowed Vladimir Putin to run for an unlimited number of future terms.

Also like Putin’s 2020 referendum, Mirziyoyev’s proposed measure would follow Russia’s lead by enshrining homophobia in Uzbekistan’s constitution. Specifically, the revised text would update Article 63 [Russian only] to prohibit same-sex marriage by defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Let’s be perfectly clear: there is no movement for marriage equality in Uzbekistan — indeed, beyond the lack of an independent civil society, Article 120 directly makes it impossible to openly advocate for LGBTQI+ rights in the country. So including this anti-LGBTQI+ measure in the proposed constitutional reforms appears to be at least in part a calculated move to keep Tashkent aligned with Moscow, its vigorous lobbying in Washington notwithstanding.

This again begs the question regarding why three reputable Washington lobbying firms are helping Uzbekistan launder its reputation — and whether they have a responsibility to make sure that Tashkent improves its human rights record as the price of closer economic and strategic ties with the U.S.

Uzbekistan is one of just two OSCE members (and two former Soviet republics) that continues to criminalize homosexuality. Moreover, the government continues to arrest individuals suspected of same-sex sexual relationships under Article 120 of the Criminal Code and even rejected the United Nations recommendation to decriminalize homosexuality, calling LGBTQI+ issues “irrelevant to Uzbek society.”

Just last year, Alisher Kadyrov, the head of the “National Revival” political party — who once declared that gay men, like terrorists, “have no pride, no nationality” — called for stripping LGBTQI+ Uzbekistanis of citizenship and deporting the community en masse to other countries.

Also in 2021, Rasul Kusherbayev, a young member of Parliament popularly associated with reformist positions, posted to social media that decriminalization of homosexuality would lead to the death of the Uzbek nation.

A June 2022 report from the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia; the Eurasian
Coalition on Health, Rights, Gender and Sexual Diversity; and the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) documented how “aggressive homophobes” seek out LGBTQI+ people and their allies, threatening them with violence and doxing them by publishing their names, photos, and contact details on social media.

The connections between extrajudicial violence and state persecution are vivid: in March 2021, hours after publicly calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality, blogger and human rights advocate Miraziz Bazarov was severely beaten outside his home in Tashkent. In response, the police blamed Bazarov for the attack and placed him under house arrest following his release from the hospital. In January 2022, a court sentenced Bazarov to three years’ restricted freedom for “slander.” In turn, the attacks drove Uzbekistan’s LGBTQI+ community further underground.

That same June 2022 report also documented extensive human rights abuses against gay and bisexual men and transgender women. These abuses included cases of Uzbekistani police having access to the confidential medical information of LGBTQI+ patients at HIV centers and using that data to blackmail, threaten, or otherwise persecute those individuals.

Under Article 120, gay and bisexual men and transgender women are subject to three years’ imprisonment. (Given the patriarchal history of Uzbek society, the code omits lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender men). Those detained under Article 120 face the risk of being subjected to physical abuse, including sexual violence, from law enforcement. Even when detainees are not arrested, they face extortion and blackmail from the same officials.  Unsurprisingly, LGBTQI+ Uzbeks consistently report being afraid to report violence and discrimination to the authorities.

Uzbekistan’s human rights record is particularly marred by the authorities’ use of forced anal examinations on detainees suspected of engaging in consensual sex-sex relations. Furthermore, courts have sentenced gay men under Article 120 using “evidence” gathered under this thoroughly discredited and abusive practice. The UN’s leading expert on torture has noted that this practice is “medically worthless and amounts to torture or ill-treatment.” As Neela Ghoshal, then Associate Director of Human Rights Watch, explained,

“Forced anal examinations, and their use in seeking convictions for consensual same-sex conduct, are an appalling violation of basic rights that diminishes Uzbekistan’s efforts to make its poor human rights record a thing of the past. The Uzbek government has been vocal about its intent to make human rights reforms, yet persists in using a discredited, abusive procedure that amounts to torture.”

Additionally, the U.S. State Department has recently reported that according to Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, 49 men convicted for engaging in same-sex sexual acts were being subjected to so-called “conversion therapy” in prison to treat “the disorder of homosexuality” and thus “eliminate repeat crimes and offenses[IL1] .”

Just this summer, Uzbekistan’s Internal Ministry proposed a repressive new law that would require police to conduct mandatory testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, as part of police raids on venues where “dangerous groups” gather or live as well as those suspected of having close contact with them. Such “dangerous groups” include men who have sex with men, along with sex workers and people who use drugs, all groups whose members are regularly subject to human rights violations.

Uzbekistan must implement genuine reforms — including the decriminalization of homosexuality, deleting discriminatory language in the proposed constitutional revisions, and an end to forced anal testing and so-called “conversion therapy” on prisoners — that will promote human rights and civil society, for LGBTQ+ Uzbeks and for all citizens of the country.

Indeed, genuine reforms are urgently needed in Tashkent — not reputation laundering. To that end, we ask Arnold & Porter Kay Scholer, BGR Government Affairs, and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld: how can you be part of the solution to the human rights crisis in Uzbekistan, not part of the problem?

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