Dining with Dictators

Imprisoned AIDS activist Maksim Popov will not be attending the Cannes Film Festival this week. But his jailer will.

Co-chairing one high-profile event in the south of France this week, Cinema Against AIDS 2010, is H.E. Amb. Gulnara Karimova, that is, the daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov and currently Uzbekistan's ambassador to Spain, whom the Spanish national daily El Pais recently compared to Cruela de Vil.

With good reason. Though she likes to socialize with Europe's cocktail and diamond set, Ambassador Karimova represents one of the most repressive regimes in the world. This is the country where, five years ago last week, state security forces opened fire on mass demonstrations, killing some 750 civilians in the eastern city of Andijan. The regime in Tashkent has spent the intervening half decade hunting down witnesses and threatening them and their families in an effort to cover their bloody tracks.

The oppression of Amb. Karimova's government knows no bounds. Every year, the state closes schools en masse and forces over two million children to work in the cotton fields -- cotton is the country's biggest earner -- for the enrichment of a few top dogs in the regime structure. Cocktail parties and diamonds don't come cheap, after all.

In addition, torture in police custody in Uzbekistan is "systematic", to use the words of the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture, which brings us to the unlucky Mr. Popov, rotting in an Uzbek prison. Popov was sentenced to seven years imprisonment, ostensibly on tax-related offenses, but in reality because of his HIV prevention efforts. He was director of the non-governmental organization IZIS, which was funded by USAID, UNICEF, UNAIDS, the Global Fund, the UN Development Program, and the Department for International Development (UK). IZIS conducted activities such as counseling services, provision of sterile injection equipment, training for an AIDS education hotline, and anti-drug education for youth. These services are sorely needed in Uzbekistan, which has the highest HIV rate in Central Asia, and where over half of those living with HIV are between the ages of 15 and 30.

The court cited a booklet funded by UNDP, UNAIDS and USAID, to accuse Popov of having "the aim of committing indecent acts against people he knew to be under age 16... bearing propaganda promoting homosexuality and prostitution, as well as pornographic images, among youth." Another brochure, HIV and AIDS Today, written and funded by UNICEF that included a discussion of same-sex relations and the use of condoms, was also cited. All copies were seized by authorities and burned.

Yet, a representative of this government is co-chairing a major AIDS benefit at Cannes. One wonders if other chairs of the event -- including Giorgio Armani, Kenneth Cole, Sharon Stone and Harvey Weinstein -- are aware of all this.

They could, of course, learn this information from the well-known organization, Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). On 10 May, amfAR was one of many international groups to sign a joint letter to US and UN authorities protesting Popov's wrongful detention and highlighting Ambassador Karimova's government's appalling treatment of the AIDS activist.

It is clear that amfAR is in touch with all these stars about the event, Cinema Against AIDS 2010, because -- and now the story takes a crazy twist -- amfAR itself is the organizer of the very event in Cannes, Cinema Against AIDS 2010.

Yes, you read that correctly: amfAR, a major AIDS research charity, is running Cinema Against AIDS 2010, which is co-chaired by Gulnara Karimova, ambassador for Uzbekistan, the country amfAR itself has strongly criticized for jailing a leading health worker on HIV/AIDS prevention projects.

amfAR is clearly in a muddle over its contradictory public positions and what to do. They first had Karimova on their webpage announcing the event, then removed her last week, only to return her to the page a few days later.

But if amfAR is going to hold to the principles in the joint letter it signed, it needs to drop its association with the Uzbek government representative. Better still, perhaps it can suspend that association until Ambassador Karimova's government releases Popov from prison and allows the health educator to continue his important work unmolested.

If that works to get Popov free, perhaps amfAR and the stars at Cannes can then take up the case of Salijon Abdurakhmanov and the dozens of other journalists and human rights defenders wrongfully imprisoned by the Uzbek regime. Theirs is a cause the glitterati at Cannes could well turn a spotlight on.