A feud over fish ponds may have landed a man in jail in Uzbekistan on charges of supporting the Islamic State militant group.
Aramais Avakian, an ethnic Armenian, has been held in an isolation cell of the local branch of the Uzbek National Security Service (NSS) in Jizzakh region since September 4.
Authorities accuse him and four friends also held of plotting to carry out “anticonstitutional activities” in Uzbekistan, and of being sympathizers of IS among other things.
"My husband's a Christian. He can't even say ‘amen’ like the Muslims do. Now they want to slander and accuse him of being an Islamist extremist,” his wife Shirin Tursunova told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service.
She and the families of those held strongly suspect the case has nothing to do with terrorism, but all to do with the successful fishery that Avakian was running with the help of the others. They say the local khokim, or district governor, threatened to have Avakian thrown into jail so he could snatch up the profitable fish ponds for his own family.
The families and others say the Uzbek authorities have acted more like keystone cops in building their case against the accused, one that is full of holes.
One of the key pieces of evidence against Avakian is SMS text messages he is alleged to have sent on and after September 5, a day after he went missing. In those messages, Avakian said they were in Kazakhstan on their way to an unspecified destination to carry out "jihad," explains Ulugbek Khaidarov, an exiled Uzbek journalist in Canada who has been following the case.
All the while, Khaidarov says, local authorities carried out a search for the missing men along with their families.
But during that time, a man identified as leading the investigation against Avakian and the others notified their families that they had been detained on September 4.
"Why did law enforcement officials for 40 days carry out a search for the missing men along with their parents? How did these guys, sitting in an isolation cell at the local unit of the NSS in Jizzakh region, manage to send out SMS messages using Kazakh numbers saying that they had headed for jihad? No one has been able to answer those questions yet," Khaidarov says, adding it appears clear the SMS messages were the work of the NSS.
'Covered In Bruises'
Other aspects of the case against Avakian have bordered on the comical.
Sources close to the investigators told RFE/RL that Avakian’s decision to grow out his beard was proof of his Islamist extremism -- a claim Tursunova dismisses outright.
"The Armenians have a tradition that says you shouldn’t shave your beard for 40 days after someone close dies," she says. "When his younger brother and grandfather died, he decided not to shave."
The imam who presided over their wedding also allegedly told investigators that Avakian had converted to Islam.
"That’s a complete lie. The imam who read the nikah [part of the Muslim marriage ceremony] died two years ago," Tursunova says, adding that for the sake of the wedding ceremony her husband briefly "converted" to Islam, but otherwise observed all Armenian Christian traditions.
Tursunova says she and her one-year-old daughter make the trek every day to the local NSS headquarters where her husband is interned, and every day the guards turn her away. She says only his lawyers have access to him. They say Avakian walks with a limp and is covered in bruises.
"The main thing is that he’s alive,” Tursunova says, adding she’s not even allowed to deliver food or medicine to her husband.
Tursunova says her husband’s problems with the local authorities began two years ago when he decided to open a fishery in the Pakhtakorsk district of Jizzakh region.
Avakian created a network of ponds and started raising salmon and carp, which he began to sell to market after their numbers were in the dozens of tons. That success, however, attracted the attention of the local khokim.
“I was told the khokim of Pakhtakorsk district, Sobir Karshiboev, wanted the ponds for himself and his family,” explains the exiled Uzbek journalist Khaidarov. “At one point, the two had a discussion over the matter, which ended in uproar. There are people who say they heard the khokim yelling at Avakian, 'I’ll get you thrown in jail.'"
Karshiboev publicly denies any attempt to seize the ponds, which are still owned by Avakian.
While the role, if any, Karshiboev had in the arrest of Avakian and the others is unclear, what is not is that they remain in prison, and their trial has been postponed until next year, according to an Uzbek law enforcement source.