Crossroads Asia

The Strange Case of Aramais Avakian

In Uzbekistan, a local dispute became an accusation of extremism.

The Strange Case of Aramais Avakian
Credit: fish via

On February 19, Aramais Avakian and four of his friends were sentenced to prison terms in Uzbekistan on charges of plotting “anti-constitutional activities” and of participating in an extremist organization. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have called the trial unfair and say Avakian showed signs of having been tortured in detention. According to the Uzbek authorities–citing Avakian’s new beard and text messages sent after the five men disappeared in early September–the men were ISIS sympathizers.

The catch is that Avakian, an ethnic Armenian Uzbek citizen, is a Christian. Shirin Tursunova, Avakian’s wife told the RFE/RL Uzbek Service, “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.”

The case of Aramais Avakian–while terrible in its own right–illustrates the transposition of a nationally-identified “enemy” onto the landscape of local politics and problems. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the case of imam Rashod Kamalov falls into this trend. Kamalov was the last of the popular ethnic Uzbek imams in southern Kyrgyzstan to not be removed following the 2010 ethnic violence. In reference to this case, Noah Tucker, a noted regional analyst, said, “You have someone that local-level authorities wanted to target and if they weren’t able to do it on one set of charges before now they can accuse them of supporting ISIS.” The same appears to be true with regard to Avakian. Tucker was presenting a series of papers looking at public and state responses in the region to ISIS.

According to reporting by RFE/RL and several human rights organizations, the charges against Avakian were contrived by local authorities seeking to takeover his successful fish farm. It’s difficult to verify his story–it’s essentially the word of his family and friends against that of the state–but the case presented by the Uzbek authorities is vastly more unbelievable.

The crux of the Uzbek authorities’ case were text messages sent on September 5 from a Kazakhstani number which said the men had left for “jihad.” Per Amnesty’s account, “Forty days later, the authorities informed the relatives of the five men that they had all been detained since 4 September.” Local human rights defenders, Amnesty says, “have been able to ascertain that masked officers of the National Security Service (SNB) stopped the car in which Aramais Avakian and his friends were traveling, forcibly removed them, hooded them, and took them to an SNB detention centre in the capital Tashkent.” Other evidence included Avakian’s beard–which his wife says he grew as a mourning ritual for the deaths of his younger brother and grandfather. Another piece of evidence was the alleged testimony of the imam who performed the nikah ceremony for Tursunova and Avakian that he had converted to Islam. Tursunova told RFE/RL that that particular imam died two years ago and that Avakian’s conversation was for the ceremony only, he remained a practicing Christian.

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Four of the men–all except Avakian–confessed in court. Tursunova, who was allowed into early parts of the trial, said her husband showed signs of having been tortured. He was apparently brought into court on January 6 on a stretcher. The authorities claimed he’d broken his leg falling out of a chair. On February 19, Avakian was sentenced to seven years in jail.

The strange case of Avakian, as noted above, is not unique in the region nor is this a new phenomenon. During the collectivization push, “kulaks” were branded the enemy. As Richard Pipes put it in his history of communism, “Lenin, labeling as a kulak any peasant who resisted Soviet authority, fulminated and called for large-scale pograms.” Originally, the term referred to wealthy farmers but as time went on, it came to be a slur flung at slightly-better-off neighbors.