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Tashkent Theater Wins Prestigious Award

A production of "Ecstasy with the Pomegranate" at the Ilkhom Theater, the only independent theater in authoritarian Uzbekistan
An independent Uzbek theater has been awarded the prestigious Prince Claus Award for its achievements in culture.

The renowned Ilkhom Theater received the award in a ceremony in Tashkent on April 5, where presenters heralded the theater's success in pushing accepted political and social boundaries in the face of censorship.

Ilkhom, founded by Uzbek director Mark Weil, is the only independent theater in Uzbekistan, an authoritarian-ruled country notorious for its human rights record.

Presenters of the award paid special recognition to Weil, the founder of the Ilkhom Theater, who was brutally murdered in Tashkent in 2007.

Details surrounding his killing are murky. The official line from Uzbek officials is that Weil was stabbed to death by three religious fanatics who targeted him for his "Imitating the Koran" performance, which was condemned by conservatives in the country.

Ilkhom Theater founder Mark Weil was killed in 2007.
Ilkhom Theater founder Mark Weil was killed in 2007.
Uzbek authorities, who charged three young men in connection with the murder in 2010, have hinted that Weil, whose family lives in the United States, may also have been singled out for being a homosexual and a practicing Jew.

Veronika Zuryeva, head of public relations at Ilkhom Theater, says Weil's death dealt a massive blow to the theater industry in Uzbekistan. She adds that Weil's legacy lives on, and inspires the theater to continue its work.

"It's hard without him, because he was the one who founded the theater and was an inspiration to us. But his disciples remain with the theater and retain all the performances as they were originally created," Zuryeva says.

"There is an acting school launched by Weil which teaches young actors in the spirit of Weil's approach. We are the same independent theater as we were before."

Zuryeva also rejects rumors suggesting that the theater is now in the hands of President Islam Karimov's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, the controversial part-time fashion designer, singer, and diplomat who has increasingly left her mark on the country's cultural institutions through her Fund Forum.

"Right now, we are independent like we were before. Nothing has changed in our status," Zuryeva says. "We are not a member" of the Fund Forum.

Written by Frud Bezhan, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service