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K., a transgender woman, says she faced death threats back home in Uzbekistan before applying for asylum in Belarus.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Uzbekistan face deep-rooted homophobia, discrimination, and the threat of violence, activists and human rights defenders say.

And so it was for K., as she identifies herself for security reasons, a transgender woman who says she indeed faced death threats back home in Uzbekistan.

She was detained in Tashkent by Uzbek police and security forces four times between 2014 and 2017.

Each time, they demanded that K. out other members of the LGBT community, and when she refused she was brutally beaten.

"I was beaten badly. After five or six days [of such abuse] you just lie there," the 26-year-old K. tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service in an interview from Minsk.

Uzbekistan’s authoritarian ruler Islam Karimov died in 2016 after nearly 27 years in power. But his death and the installation of former Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev as president failed to usher in any meaningful improvements in Uzbekistan’s "abysmal human rights record," as Human Rights Watch has described it.

Blackmail, Extortion

HRW said that police use blackmail and extortion against gay men, threatening to out or imprison them. LGBT people face deep-rooted homophobia and discrimination. Consensual homosexual sex is a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison.

For K., the "final decision to leave" came on January 3, 2017, when she was raped while in police custody.

Getting out of Uzbekistan was tricky though.

"I was born in disputed territory which became disputed after the collapse of the Soviet Union," says K. "At that time there were no borders, and this area belongs to Tajikistan. There was a massive outflow of the population -- to Russia and neighboring countries. And those who came to Uzbekistan have yet to be granted citizenship."

That made her essentially a "stateless" person. Despite that, Uzbek authorities did issue her with an exit visa -- a practice inherited from the Soviet days -- after a six-month wait.

She headed for Moscow, but authorities there on December 25 turned down her asylum request, refusing to recognize her LGBT persecution as justifiable grounds.

Next up was Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled since 1994 and earned the moniker of "Europe's last dictator."

Bad Reputation

Belarus is far from a safe haven for the LGBT community, but to K. it seemed to be her best option, and Belarus authorities earlier this week granted K. two weeks to formally submit an asylum request.

However, the country suffers from a bad reputation when it comes to LGBT rights.

Amnesty International said in a report on December 22 that LGBT rights activists were facing rising hostilities in parts of the former Soviet Union, including Belarus, fueled by discrimination, homophobia, and what it described as Russia's crusade against "nontraditional sexual relations."

Belarus's LGBT intolerance was on full display a few months earlier in October 2017 when police raided nightclubs popular with the LGBT community, during which two clubs were shuttered and patrons were harassed, some even detained by police.

"The reports out of Belarus are alarming. It is alarming that police targeted legal businesses, violated the privacy of their patrons, demanded personal information, and dragged some away to detention," said Human Rights First’s Shawn Gaylord on October 24.

Room For Tolerance

On the international stage, Minsk has blocked efforts to advance LGBT rights.

In October 2016, Belarus reportedly led a group of 17 countries to block a plan to include LGBT rights in a new urban strategy crafted by the United Nations, according to Reuters.

There is, however, some room for tolerance within the law.

Belarusian rights activist Natalia Mankovskaya.
Belarusian rights activist Natalia Mankovskaya.

"Our legislation allows a person to ask for protection when a person belongs to a particular social group and for this reason he or she is being persecuted at home," says Belarusian human rights activist Natalia Mankovskaya.

According to Mankovskaya, after submitting an asylum application, K. can legally stay in Belarus for up to six months while a decision is being reached.

"We also appeal to the Minsk office of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to grant K. international protection," says Mankovskaya.

For K., her options are limited. She wants to avoid at all costs returning to Uzbekistan, where she says she would face charges for her sexual orientation.

"I hope that I am granted some type of status here, so I can avoid what I've already faced," K. says. "This is a much more tolerant society."

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on material from RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent Alyaksandra Dynko

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (right) says his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) will be invited to discuss the recent protests in Iran with the EU. (file photo)

Germany’s top diplomat says the European Union will invite Iran's foreign minister for talks about the widespread antigovernment protests that have rocked the country since December 28.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told ZDF TV in Berlin on January 7 that "together with the EU's foreign policy chief [Federica Mogherini], we agreed to invite the Iranian foreign minister, if possible next week."

"We very quickly affirmed that we support the freedom to demonstrate and that the state should support this," Gabriel said.

Still, he said, his country would not follow the lead of U.S. President Donald Trump, who vowed to help Iranian protesters "take back" their government.

Gabriel said that Germany, as well as France, has "warned against attempts at instrumentalizing the domestic conflicts in Iran."

There was no immediate reaction to the comments from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Instigators 'Defeated'

Gabriel’s remarks come after Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said that antigovernment protests that it blames on foreign instigators have been "defeated."

In a January 7 statement, the IRGC said "Iran's revolutionary people along with tens of thousands of Basij forces, police, and the Intelligence Ministry have broken down the chain [of unrest] the United States, Britain," Israel, Saudi Arabia, militants, and monarchists.

IRAN LIVE BLOG: Antigovernment Protests Reportedly Continue

The IRGC statement was issued after Iran's parliament held a closed-door session on January 7 to discuss the antigovernment protests that have rocked the country for more than a week.

The parliamentary session was called by a reformist faction of lawmakers who questioned security and intelligence officials about the causes of the unrest -- which Iran's government has also blamed on foreigners.

Parliament's ICANA website reported that lawmakers questioned Interior Minister Abdolrahmani Rahmani Fazli, Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi, and the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani.

It said some lawmakers voiced concerns about Internet controls put in place in the midst of the unrest, including a ban on Iran's most popular messaging app, Telegram, which officials said had been used to incite violence.

The government reportedly has lifted restrictions that it imposed on the Instagram social media tool.

But access to Telegram remained blocked on January 7, despite claims from Iran's FARS news agency that the restrictions on Telegram has been "fully lifted."

Pro-Government Rallies

"The parliament is not in favor of keeping Telegram filtering in place, but it must pledge that it will not be used as a tool by the enemies of the Iranian people," Behrouz Nemati, spokesman for the parliament's presiding board, said.

Almost a third of Iran's 80 million people use the Telegram app as their main source of news and as a way of bypassing the highly restrictive state media.

The United States and Israel have expressed support for the protesters, but deny allegations of fomenting them.

Iranian pro-government supporters march during a rally in support of the regime in the city of Mashhad late last week.
Iranian pro-government supporters march during a rally in support of the regime in the city of Mashhad late last week.

Meanwhile, state media on January 7 broadcast live footage of a fifth day of pro-government rallies organized by authorities.

State media has stopped reporting on antigovernment protests.​

But RFE/RL has received credible reports that protests continued in at least nine cities across Iran on January 6, including Tehran, where social media footage showed gatherings despite a large police presence.

RFE/RL’s Radio Farda also obtained credible reports on January 6 from sources in Iran about overnight demonstrations against Iran's clerical rulers in Takestan, Arak, Masjed Soleiman, Mashhad, Qazvin, Rasht, Lahijan, and Khomein, the birthplace of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic.

More than a week of unrest has seen 22 people die and more than 1,700 arrested.

Various Iranian officials said on January 6 that hundreds of detainees had been released, some after agreeing to sign a pledge not to "re-offend," the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.

They include around 90 university students, lawmaker Mahmud Sadeghi was quoted as saying by ISNA.

Later on January 7, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, said that 70 of the detained protesters had been released on bail during the previous 48 hours.

Dolatabadi also said that there would be more releases from detention, except for the main instigators of the riots.

Reformists Deny Foreign Involvement

In a rebuke to Iranian government claims that the widespread demonstrations had been organized and/or instigated by foreigners, a group of 16 prominent reformist figures living in Iran issued a statement rejecting that argument.

In the January 6 statement, the signatories said, "Despite the fact the enemies of the country always try to take advantage of such events, we should know that any kind of foreign interference would not be possible without the existence of internal conditions."

They added that, in addition to the government claim of foreign involvement being "an insult" to Iranians, it leads to "negligence toward the real causes of the protests."

The reformist letter also went on to condemn "American interference," especially that of President Donald Trump, in the "internal affairs of Iran."

Most of the signatories to the statement are former officials or parliamentarians from the time of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005).

Iranian émigrés also staged numerous antigovernment demonstrations in front of Iranian embassies around the world during the weekend -- including The Hague, Berlin and Hamburg, Stockholm, London, and Paris.

With reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, and Press TV

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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