by Leander Milbrecht
Maksat (23) fled from Turkmenistan via Russia to Europe after police officers beat him up and forced him to sign a confession about his sexuality. Now he faces charges of sodomy and a trumped-up charge of deliberately spreading HIV. Maksat talks about the situation of the queer community in the Asian country and his fear of never seeing his family again.
The 23-year-old spoke to RadioFreeEurope about his life and his escape. Maksat’s name was changed because he wants to remain anonymous to protect his family. He also does not want to reveal the country he now lives in. He found asylum there at the beginning of the year after fleeing from his homeland. Homosexuality is accepted in the country – but Maksat is still not really free.
Maksat grew up in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. With over a million inhabitants, it is the largest city in the post-Soviet state, which lies on the Caspian Sea and borders on Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Iran. Homosexuality is illegal in Turkmenistan: Article 135 of the Turkmen penal code considers same-sex relationships between men an act of bestiality punishable by up to two years in prison.
In this predominantly Muslim country, the queer community lives underground, because homosexuality is not only a criminal offence but also a major social taboo. When young men come out to their family, they are often forced to start their own family – so that they do not end up in prison or they and the family are socially ostracised.
Maksat says that he had to hide his homosexuality in his youth from everyone, including his family and friends. When he moved to Russia at the age of 18 to study business administration, he felt more independent and free. This changed radically when he was tested HIV+ in autumn 2019. This ended his legal stay in Russia – because in Russia HIV+ foreigners are deported.
He was all alone
Maksat voluntarily returned to his home country before his deportation, where he had to hide his life from his family again with great effort. He could not confide in anyone and finally sought medical support in an HIV centre in Ashgabat. For a possible treatment he had to register as HIV+. When he returned two days later, two police officers were waiting for him.
The officers wanted to know why he was HIV+. Fearing a prison sentence that would involve admitting homosexual acts, Maksat lied and claimed not to know. They let him go – but that night they brought him back. Three police officers escorted him from his apartment to the police station. Another interrogation followed – and beatings. The policemen demanded that he admitted to being gay. Again and again they beat him. Maksat tells:
“First, they questioned me. Then they began to beat me violently. They told me: ‘We know where you got HIV. You are gay.’ I told them that’s not true. But they kept hitting me.”
Finally the policemen blackmailed him. They presented him with a statement in which he admitted to being gay and demanded that he sign the papers. Otherwise they would tell his family that he was gay. Finally, Maksat gave up and signed. The signature threatened him with criminal proceedings for violation of the sodomy law. But the young man’s fears went even further: a second charge of deliberately infecting others with HIV could follow – based on fabricated evidence. Such an offence could be punished in Turkmenistan with up to five years in prison.
During the New Year celebrations, the offices in Turkmenistan are closed for several days. The officials who let him go ordered him to report to the police station in his district after the New Year. Maksat had only a few days, but he took the opportunity that New Year’s Eve gave him and fled from Turkmenistan. There he left everything behind: his home, his roots, his family and his friends.
Maksat’s escape first took him to Russia, where a friend put him in touch with queer activists who eventually helped him to get asylum in Europe – just before the Russian authorities were able to deport him back to Turkmenistan because of his HIV status. Maksat now lives in a country where homosexuality is accepted. But he can neither reveal his whereabouts nor really openly show his sexuality. The reason is his family: if his sexuality becomes known in Turkmenistan, it will bring shame on his parents.
The incidents still incriminate him. Together with the loneliness and fear: Maksat is wanted as a fugitive in Turkmenistan, at any time police officers could question his parents about his whereabouts – and bring everything to light. Moreover, the charges against him are so serious that he may never be able to enter his home country again, because otherwise he would end up in prison. He therefore fears that he will never be able to see his family again.
Now Maksat lives in a free, European country – but he himself is still a prisoner.
- thomas-willmott-2I-xbdl0DLI-unsplash: By: Thomas Willmott / CC0
- sebastiaan-stam-Y8hOeIKliig-unsplash (1): By: Sebastiaan Stam / CC0
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