This Gay Journalist Is Being Detained in Russia—And May Not Be Released
Hours after I first arrived in Moscow, Elena, the friend I was visiting, announced that we would be meeting her colleague Ali Feruz at a gay bar. “Is it safe for us to go?” I asked, ashamed that I feared for my own safety in this modest act of rebellion when Elena and her colleagues risked their lives every day just doing their jobs. She laughed at me — kindly — and said that we would be safe. “Ali might not be. The Uzbek Special Services are after him, but he will be safer if he’s there with us.” I wasn’t quite sure what this meant; it seemed like the kind of thing that might be normal in their world, however scary and foreign it seemed to me. Elena and Ali were reporters at Novaya Gazeta, the main national independent newspaper in Russia. Since 2000, six of Novaya’s staffers have been murdered, ostensibly in connection with their work. Many have also been beaten, arrested, or threatened on the job.
We met up with Ali at a set of swings in a plaza. He was kind, funny, and curious, and I was immediately struck by the gorgeous tattoo on his neck that spelled out “Born Free” in florid calligraphy. We passed fancy restaurants and designer stores in a pedestrian zone before turning into a little alley. Down a level, discreet but not hidden, was Nice Club, a bustling gay bar. As soon as we got there, all of Ali’s joints loosened and he came alive as he danced to the heavy thump of the bass. As we stood in line for the bathroom, a young man came up to Ali and Elena and thanked them for their work.
Being in a Russian gay bar felt like what I imagine being in a New York gay bar felt like in the ’70s and ’80s. Of course, there are many places in the United States, and even in New York, where it isn’t safe to be out walking down the street. But in a country where displays of gay affection are considered illegal propaganda, where intolerance is rising, and where the leader of Chechnya — a republic in the Russian Federation — denies the detainment and extrajudicial killings of gay men in the region not by condemning the violence but by claiming they “don’t have those kind of people here,” a space where you can feel safe, to be as big of a queen as you want to be, is nothing short of sacred and sublime. And yet a shadow of existential danger loomed over the room. In enacting safety by coming together in queer communion, these bar patrons were also putting themselves at risk.
We didn’t go back to a gay bar the rest of my time in Moscow, and I didn’t fully exhale until I landed at my connecting flight in Milan on my way back home. I called my mother and texted my ex that I was safe. The day after I landed back in New York City, Ali Feruz was arrested. For an openly gay journalist writing on corruption and alleged human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, the order of deportation he had been given was effectively a death sentence. He was not safe.
On August 1, 2017, Ali Feruz was walking from the offices of Novaya Gazeta to a music lesson when three Moscow police officers stopped him and asked for his papers. When he could not present them with his passport and visa, he was promptly taken into detention. This was what Elena had warned me of, though it was the Moscow police who had taken him and not the Uzbek authorities we had feared.
According to Ali, in 2008, he was detained by Uzbekistan’s National Security Service. He claims that they tortured him for two days despite the fact that he had done nothing wrong and that they were not accusing him of any crime. Torture, which a 2003 Human Rights Watch report said was “endemic to the [Uzbek] criminal justice system,” was, according to Ali, simply a tool they were using to get him to become an informant in his community. After being subjected to brutal torture — having needles stuck under his fingernails, being dragged around the floor by his hair, hearing the Security Service operatives threaten to rape his wife — he agreed to their conditions. But after being released, Ali managed to flee to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, where he was able to apply for refugee status from the UN refugee agency, though the application was rejected.
In 2011, Ali was able to move to Moscow. In 2012, Ali’s expired passport was stolen. Ali claims that because he was hiding from Uzbek authorities, he could not reapply for a new one without risking arrest. This complicated his asylum application and meant that Novaya Gazeta could not officially hire him. Not having his passport would also be the grounds on which they would arrest him five years later.
Despite the tremendous risks given his delicate immigration status, he came out as gay and became a human rights activist in Moscow, publicly protesting for LGBTQ+ protections and on behalf of refugees’ rights. Choosing to be an activist anywhere is hard work and takes a great deal of courage. Choosing to be an activist in Russia is heroic. As a newly out gay Uzbek refugee, the easiest thing for Ali to do would have been to keep a low profile and draw as little attention to himself as possible. But that is not what Ali did. Instead, he dedicated himself to fighting for justice and giving voice to the voiceless by writing about refugees, workers, and the homeless.
Born Khudoberdi Nurmatov, he adopted the pen name Ali Feruz. His first piece for Novaya was about an Uzbek refugee who had been hiding from Uzbek authorities and was kidnapped from Moscow. This was a fate Ali would fear when he began writing about the elections in Uzbekistan. And yet it was not the fate that awaited him. There was no secrecy or subterfuge in his arrest — the illicit kidnapping he feared was instead above board in Russia, through arms of the very state in which he sought refuge.
On August 1, hours after his arrest, after the Basmanny Court in Moscow had ordered his deportation, Ali took a ballpoint pen and tried to slit his wrists right there in the courthouse. As Elena told reporters, “He said it is better to die than to go back to Uzbekistan. He is in the shadow of death.” The bailiffs stopped him, but in a statement Ali made to Novaya Gazeta, he claims that later in the escort car to the detention center, the bailiffs beat him and tased him. Days later, at the Moscow City Court, Ali lifted his shirt to reveal large bruises on his back.
The European Court of Human Rights froze the decision, forbidding Russia from deporting Ali back to Uzbekistan until it had considered his complaint under the court’s “Rule 39,” which can be used to temporarily forbid deportation when there is a serious “risk to life or of torture, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment.” On August 7, the Moscow City Court ruled that Ali could not be deported to Uzbekistan until the court had reviewed the case. It could be over a year before it does.
Make no mistake about it — Ali may be in a “detention center,” but he is effectively a political prisoner. His detention is the result of a complicated intersection of international politics, shady relationships between governments, systemic homophobia, and the oppression of a free press. Despite having a visa in Germany and papers from the International Red Cross allowing him to cross the border, Russia will not let him leave the detention center. There have been moments when all signs pointed to his imminent release. It seemed so sure that his colleagues had made travel arrangements for him twice, but each time, something has gotten in the way.
On November 21, the day before one of these intended departures, Ali was unexpectedly brought to court. This impromptu hearing took place just days after an investigation by authorities into the immigration hiring practices of Novaya Gazeta. Despite the fact that Ali was never technically an employee, he was ordered to pay a fine of 5,000 rubles, then about $84, for his allegedly illegal employment, and the court reaffirmed the deportation decision.
The timing of this hearing seems to leave little doubt that Ali’s inability to voluntarily leave Russia is no mere bureaucratic issue. The Kremlin has been vague and cryptic about its motivations. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described the case as “very complex” and said that authorities could not “close their eyes to a whole series of violations” without elaborating on what those complexities and violations might be. As Novaya Gazeta has said, “The Federal Security Service wanted to give him to the Uzbek services — as a broad gesture, or in exchange for another service.” It also seems unlikely for it to be a coincidence that Uzbekistan renewed its interest in Ali when it did.
Islam Karimov, who had been Uzbekistan’s first president, died in office in September 2016. A special election then followed, and former prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev was elected with 89% of the vote in a country where, as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe concluded after the election, “the legal framework is not conducive to holding democratic elections.” Ali wrote about the elections for Novaya, and it was this work that may have put his freedom in jeopardy.
It would be mutually beneficial to Uzbekistan and Russia for Ali to be deported. The Uzbek government would get to curb the work of a brave journalist who may expose things it doesn’t want exposed. The Russian government would get a bargaining chip in talks with Uzbekistan, not to mention the chance to silence a promising journalist at the news outlet it seems to fear most.
January 1 marked five months of Ali’s detainment. Ali is currently in the Sakharovo Detention Center for Foreign Nationals, an immigration detention center where people are routinely detained unlawfully and where conditions are notoriously grim. Ali has kept a diary in the detention center, and being the naturally empathic journalist he is, it contains sharply observed vignettes about the diverse group of people he has found himself with. But it also details the despair and alienation that he has felt in captivity.
“I am afraid to be sent to Uzbekistan,” he wrote. “Today, migrants from Uzbekistan were telling me about torture in their country during the walk in the yard. Whenever I think of that, I break out in a cold sweat and the world gets bleak. I want my heart to just stop beating. Seems like that would be easier for everybody. I spoke with mom on the phone today, she was angry about how sad my voice sounded. Well, I can’t really enjoy my life when I am not free.”
There has been an outpouring of international support for Ali, especially in Germany, where he is slated to go should he be released. Activists have held readings of his diary in Moscow and Germany, and I helped to organize a protest and diary reading in New York that occurred simultaneously with a reading in Berlin. His colleagues at Novaya Gazeta have been indefatigably fighting for his release. His boyfriend, Pavel, has been his most constant supporter, and a few months ago, Ali proposed to him over the phone. Same-sex marriage is still, of course, illegal in Russia, but it had just been legalized in Germany, where Ali hopes to go if he is released and unable to stay in Russia. But he still needs to be released.
When I was in Russia last summer, Elena took me to her office at Novaya Gazeta, just a few days after I met Ali. The offices occupied just one and a half floors, making me appreciate the behemoth buildings that we have here in the United States devoted to independent journalism. There is a modest museum display of artifacts from Novaya’s 24 years in business, including the paper’s first computer, which Mikhail Gorbachev helped them purchase. She showed me the conference table, situated in a niche in the large staff room. Portraits of the six murdered staffers hang on the wall above the table. Each time a writer pitches a story at a staff meeting, they are reminded of both the risks of what they do and why they do it.
If Ali is not released, he very well may end up as a seventh portrait on that wall above the conference table. As his colleagues at Novaya Gazeta have said, “We don’t have the right not to save him.”