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U.S.: Exiled Uzbek Journalist Faces U.S. Deadline

Ruslan Sharipov shown during his time in Uzbek custody (courtesy photo) (Courtesy Photo) July 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An independent Uzbek journalist and laureate of a prestigious international journalism award says he fears he's worn out his welcome with U.S. authorities.

Ruslan Sharipov served a prison term in his native Uzbekistan for what he and activists insist were trumped-up child-molestation charges. He fled his homeland after what he describes as threats against his life by Uzbek authorities, and was granted political asylum in the United States.

Sharipov, now 29, spent 10 months in an Uzbek prison -- where he says he was constantly threatened, harassed, and tortured.

His ordeal, and the bureaucratic and legal hurdles he has faced since he fled his homeland in 2004, have taken their toll. Now in California, Sharipov claims to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and says he has flashbacks from his prison experience.

'His Own Worst Enemy'?

He has also emerged as a highly outspoken man. So much so that an acquaintance who helped Sharipov gain U.S. asylum suggests the journalist might be "his own worst enemy" in his efforts to gain permanent U.S. residency.

Sharipov has no U.S. Green Card, and tells RFE/RL from Sacramento, California, that he faces possible deportation.

"On July 3, 2007, a representative of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security openly declared to me that, based on their information, they could send me to Uzbekistan," Sharipov said. "The letter I received says that [I was] considered 'ineligible and inadmissible' for a Green Card because of the 'commission of or conviction for a crime involving moral turpitude.' That's the terminology [in the letter]."

(Contacted by RFE/RL, a representative said the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on Sharipov's or any other specific cases. In light of that official silence, the account of Sharipov's dealings with U.S. authorities presented in this article reflects his version of those events.)

Sharipov was convicted by an Uzbek court of homosexuality and sexual acts with minors and sentenced to 5 1/2 years -- a sentence that was later reduced to three years.

Rights groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) argue that Sharipov's journalistic activities -- and not his sexual orientation -- were the real target of the charges.

Before being jailed in 2003, Sharipov wrote of human rights abuses and corruption in the upper echelons of the Uzbek government.

Alleged Torture

At his trial, Sharipov confessed and asked Uzbek President Islam Karimov for forgiveness, retracting his criticism of the government.

But Sharipov said his confession came after he was suffocated with a gas mask, and threatened with rape and infection with the HIV virus.

Foreign governments and rights groups are convinced that Karimov's administration routinely tortures detainees.

Sharipov was able to flee to Russia and -- with the help of international rights groups -- receive U.S. asylum. Sharipov arrived in California in October 2004 to reunite with his mother and two brothers.

Sharipov said he fears that his political views are behind his current situation. He said he participated in protests against the U.S.-led war in Iraq, voted for President George W. Bush's impeachment in an Internet poll, and posted articles on the Internet that were critical of the U.S. president.

Looking For Help

John Smart has known Sharipov personally since his days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan in the late 1990s, and helped him with the asylum process in 2004.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Wisconsin, where he is a member of the Wisconsin Governor's Commission on the United Nations and a local Democratic Party leader, Smart ventures that the Bush administration "does not care" about Sharipov's political views.

But Smart suggested Sharipov might be the object of another form of discrimination.

"He has been treated the way he is because he is from an Islamic country," Smart said. "What's happening now in the U.S. because of 9/11 and because of the war in Iraq -- it seems to me that the Department of Homeland Security is starting to show discrimination against people who come from Islamic countries."

Smart said he thinks U.S. authorities tend to regard Muslims -- or anyone from a predominantly Muslim country -- with intense suspicion.

Sharipov's mother and two brothers have all managed to obtain their U.S. Green Cards, as have many other refugees from Uzbekistan.

Smart also said that two U.S. senators -- Russ Feingold (Democrat, Wisconsin) and Blanche Lincoln (Democrat, Arkansas) aided Sharipov's original asylum request.

Smart said he is trying to help Sharipov again in the hope that the journalist can become "a highly functioning and valuable member of American society."

Sharipov said he has already appealed to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He said he got a "nice and polite" response from Schwarzenegger's office on July 13 that says the case is a federal one that is outside the governor's jurisdiction.

'Limited' Options

None of the international groups that helped draw attention to Sharipov's case three or four years ago has issued a public statement about his current dilemma.

Sharipov was awarded a Golden Pen prize in 2004 by the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers (WAN), which seeks to promote press freedoms worldwide.

Kajsa Tornroth, a co-director of Press Freedom and Development Programs at the WAN, said she is aware of Sharipov's present situation. Tornroth told RFE/RL that she is unsure why Sharipov's Green Card procedure has taken what she describes as a "tremendously long time." But she also said the WAN's options for helping Sharipov are "limited."

"Now that he is in the United States, this is more an affair between Ruslan and the Homeland Security Office," Tornroth said.

The deputy director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division, Rachel Denber, said she is unsure of the reasons behind Sharipov's current troubles. But speaking to RFE/RL from Berlin, Denber expressed concern over Sharipov's possible deportation to Uzbekistan.

"I am really not sure why he is facing this risk of deportation. But regardless of the reasons, the fact remains that he must not be deported to Uzbekistan. There is no possible explanation that could justify sending a man who had to flee prosecution back to the country where he will undoubtedly face prosecution, and where he will almost certainly face a risk of torture."

Sharipov said U.S. authorities set a deadline of August 4 for a decision on his future. But he said he is wary of any requests that might appear to acknowledge wrongdoing in connection with his Uzbek conviction.

"As another officer [explained to] me, I have to apologize and write by August 4 that I am going to change and become a good citizen," Sharipov said. "I never understood what I should apologize for."

Sharipov said he is convinced that if he is deported back to Uzbekistan, he will end up in jail -- or worse.