An ethnic Armenian man is facing trial in Uzbekistan for alleged links with Islamist militants, but his family members insist that he is being persecuted because of a business dispute with a local strongman.
The Uzbek National Security Service (NSS) has charged Aramayis Avakian, a 33-year-old citizen of Uzbekistan, with “religious extremism, separatism and fundamentalism” on the basis of an alleged text message sent to his friend’s family as well as the fact that he sported a beard at the time of his arrest.
Avakian, a father of two from the town of Jizak in eastern Uzbekistan, went missing on September 4. For nearly six weeks his family did not hear from him or know his whereabouts. Only in mid-October did they learn that he and several of his business partners had been arrested by the NSS and kept in a local detention center.
It emerged that Uzbek investigators accuse Avakian of setting up and leading a group that disseminated Islamic radicalism and attempted to overthrow Uzbekistan’s constitutional order.
But Avakian’s mother and Muslim wife insist that he is a Christian and could not have been involved in activities related to Islamic extremism. The man’s defense lawyer, meanwhile, claims that the investigators tortured her client in custody while trying to extract a false confession from him.
Avakian was engaged in fish farming near Jizak, which is known in Uzbekistan for its fish-breeding industry, and, according to his family, had arguments with local authorities over this business. In particular, Sabir Karshibayev, the mayor of Jizak, allegedly threatened to have him imprisoned after failing to illegally seize his business.
Avakian’s mother Flora Sakunts, who moved to Uzbekistan from Armenia in 1979, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) that the crackdown on her son began after Karshibayev finally decided to get hold of the fish-breeding reservoir rented by the Armenian farmer together with his Uzbek partners.
“[My son] told [Karshibayev] he could not let him have the reservoir, because it was the only source of income for him,” said Sakunts, adding that three days after that conversation her son disappeared.
When Avakian’s family finally learned about his being kept in a local remand prison, they found him in a bad condition. Sakunts said her son was beaten up by his captors and denied a lawyer for quite a long time.
“They broke my son’s leg. He told the lawyer that they were beating him up so hard during the first three days that he had to be taken to hospital in [the capital] Tashkent. Then he was brought back to Jizak, and he had his left side in a plaster cast. They did not let us see it. He was beaten so hard he could not walk,” Avakian’s mother said.
A Central Asian state ruled by the authoritarian President Islam Karimov ever since the Soviet collapse, Uzbekistan is notorious for its poor human rights record. According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, “the Uzbek government has imprisoned thousands of people on politically motivated charges to enforce its repressive rule, targeting human rights and opposition activists, journalists, religious believers, artists, and other perceived critics.”
Avakian’s Uzbek wife Shirin Tursunova told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that for a long time the prison administration refused to take food and medicine from her to be transferred to her husband and that at one point she even doubted that he is alive at all.
Tursunova and other relatives of Avakian dismiss as baseless the investigators’ arguments that the man had a beard and must have therefore been connected with a jihadist group.
Avakian’s mother told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) that her son did not shave for 40 days because in accordance with an Armenian tradition he was in mourning for his younger brother and grandfather who died last summer.
Tursunova insisted that Avakian is a Christian and did not convert to Islam when he married her. The NSS claims that a Muslim imam who allegedly married the couple claimed the opposite. According to Tursunova, the claim cannot be taken seriously because the cleric died two years ago.
The NSS has also cited a text message that one of his business partners allegedly sent to a family member on September 5. “We are in Kazakhstan. From here we will go for Jihad. Don’t think ill of us,” read the message.
The text of the alleged SMS suggests that the Uzbek NSS also suspects the men of planning to join the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or some other radical Islamist group operating in the Middle East and beyond.
But as a senior law-enforcement official in charge of the case later revealed to the Avakian family, the ethnic Armenian was arrested a day before the alleged SMS was actually sent. A Canada-based Uzbek journalist, Ulugbek Khaidarov, who has followed the case, told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that he believes the text message was sent by the NSS.
The preliminary investigation into the case was completed in early December. The trial of Avakian and others is expected to begin in 2016.