Uzbek HIV activist sentenced to 7 years imprisonment

Maksim Popov, a psychologist and head of the non-governmental organization known in Uzbekistan for its energetic work with drug users and sex workers, has been sentenced to seven years imprisonment as a result of his HIV prevention efforts. Popov is leader of the NGO “Izis,” created by young professional medical and mental health workers, and funded by donors such as the US Agency for International Development and the Department for International Development (UK) to conduct activities such as individual and group counselling services, provision of sterile injection equipment, training for an AIDS education hotline, and anti-drug education for young people.

While the proceedings of Popov’s trial have not been made public, observers say that he was convicted of "improper misuse of needles" and fiscal impropriety. This is despite the fact that Uzbekistan's national policy includes support for needle exchange as a means of reducing transmission of HIV, and that Izis consistently received favourable ratings in program reviews conducted by its international donors. The charges of fiscal impropriety come in the wake of years of harassment of NGOs by the Uzbek government via such measures as restricting or blocking access to foreign funds in bank accounts, repeated tax audits, and threatening visits from secret police or others urging NGO heads to close their organizations to avoid trouble. Popov kept Izis open even when the government blocked all access to funds, operating without pay and in collaboration with local community councils and volunteers.

The climate in Uzbekistan makes it impossible for people within the country to speak out. Those of us who have worked with Maksim Popov know him to be a witty, humble, curious, enthusiastic and effective educator and psychologist. We urge the international donors who supported him to break the silence on HIV, as well as all those who care about effective HIV prevention education, to speak out for his release. This prolonged prison sentence will have devastating effects on him and his family. Declaring amnesty, by contrast, will show that the government recognizes him as among those who have worked to protect the people of Uzbekistan, and the next generations, from drugs and HIV.

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