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‘Sometimes I dream that my release was itself a dream’ An interview with journalist Ali Feruz, who miraculously avoided deportation to Uzbekistan

Pavel Golovkin / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Ali Feruz (born Khudoberdi Nurmatov), a journalist for the opposition-leaning newspaper Novaya Gazeta, flew from Russia to Germany on February 15. Before going, he spent six months in a migrant detention center in the suburbs of Moscow, as Russian officials threatened to deport him to Uzbekistan, where he is a citizen. Feruz was never deported, however, thanks to the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights and a sustained support campaign organized by Feruz’s colleagues at Novaya Gazeta. He maintains that the Uzbekistani authorities would torture him, if he ever returned to the country, saying he fled in the first place to escape punishment for refusing to cooperate with the secret police. During his six months in the Moscow detention facility, Feruz kept a diary where he catalogued the conditions prisoners there endure. Meduza correspondent Evgeny Berg spoke with Feruz after his flight to Germany.

The case of Ali Feruz

Ali Feruz, an Uzbekistani citizen, claims that he fled to Russia in 2008 when the Uzbekistani secret services attempted to recruit him. In 2012, Feruz says his passport was stolen. That year, he filed the first of many requests for temporary asylum in Russia. By this time, he was already a freelance reporter for Novaya Gazeta, but Russian officials nonetheless rejected his asylum request. Police repeatedly detained him, and on August 1, 2017, the Basmanny Court in Moscow convicted him of remaining in Russia illegally and ordered his expulsion to Uzbekistan. On August 4, the European Court of Human Rights blocked that decision on the grounds that Feruz would face substantial dangers upon returning to his home country. Four days later, the Moscow City Court ordered the suspension of Feruz’s deportation process. On January 24, 2018, Russia’s Supreme Court overturned the deportation order. On February 9, the Basmanny Court finally permitted Feruz to fly to a third country, and he departed for Germany.

“They asked me which of the religious students I knew”

Ali, how did all this whole thing become about deportation? You were born in Uzbekistan, but didn’t you grow up in Russia?

Yes, I was born in Uzbekistan, which was then a part of the Soviet Union. After the breakup of the USSR, my mother returned immediately to Gorno-Altaisk [the capital of the Altai Republic in southern Siberia], to her hometown, and she took me with her. I went to school there. Every once in a while, we would run into a bit of trouble, and at one point, I had to move back to Uzbekistan and live there for a little while. Then, my mom brought me back to Russia. I spent my whole childhood between Russia and Uzbekistan.

What kind of trouble did you encounter?

The financial kind, mostly. We didn’t have a place to live in Russia—at first, we had to live with some friends and then with my mom’s relatives. We would live with someone for a month, then for a month with someone else. When things got hard, my mom decided that I would do better in Uzbekistan, until she saved enough money to rent a place of our own.

In the end, you received Uzbekistani citizenship?

That was a pretty weird, complicated situation. When I graduated from high school, I had a rough adolescence, and I had trouble getting along with my relatives. It turned out somehow that right when I was supposed to receive citizenship in Russia, I had a terrible fight with my mom. I left for Uzbekistan and got a passport there, but I returned to Russia after about six months or a year.

Is it true that you worked at a market in Uzbekistan?

Yes. My stepfather lived permanently in Uzbekistan, and he had a stall in the market. I was always helping him, and after some time, I started working there too. It was a temporary job.

When did you realize you needed to leave Uzbekistan?

In 2008, sometime in late September, a group of policemen and secret service officers came to my house. They brought me to a different city under the guise of a document check and held me there for a long time and tortured me. They interrogated me for a very long time about my education at the Russian Islamic University, about why I chose a Russian university and not an Uzbekistani one, and asked me which of the Uzbekistani students I knew at my university, and which of the religious students I knew. I managed to get away once I agreed to work for them. When I was free, I realized that I couldn’t honor the agreement: I would never forgive myself if someone I denounced were put in prison or killed. But not working with them was never a possibility. The only possibility was to leave the country — to escape.

Why did those people in Uzbekistan come for you?

It’s a pretty widespread practice. People know about the regime of [Uzbekistani President from 1991 to 2016 Islam] Karimov all over the world. Under totalitarian regimes, the authorities go after dissenters, whatever the nature of their dissent, and they’re always looking for collaborators and informers. I knew a lot of people who couldn’t leave or didn’t want to and just had to live with all this. There were people who escaped. There were people who refused to cooperate and landed in prison for extremism, terrorism, or violations of the constitutional order.

While you were living in Russia, did the Uzbekistani special services try to get to you somehow?

No — they didn’t try to contact me directly or indirectly. Even after I was arrested on March 16, 2017, I was interrogated about my work for Novaya Gazeta, but nobody asked me why I left Uzbekistan or what’s going on there or about my relatives.

“People like you should be burned to death”

Do you remember how you first ended up in the CTDFC [the Center for Temporary Detention of Foreign Citizens in Russia]?

On August 1 [2017], the Basmanny Court sentenced me to be deported from Russia. It was so hard for me to believe because in all those years I’d spent in Moscow, I followed the law very strictly. I never broke any rules, and I was certain that what they were doing to me was wrong. I grew up in Russia, and all my relatives are Russian citizens, my mom included. For me, the court’s decision was unexpected. Even now, I think I’d rather kill myself than face torture in Uzbekistan. Under torture, a person still dies, but it’s a very difficult and painful death.

And I remember that in the Basmanny Court, after the sentencing announcement, I thought, “How can I kill myself?” And I saw a pen in my lawyer’s hands. I took it, and…

I’ve spoken to refugees who survived torture in Uzbekistan, and I know that some of them managed to save their own lives by, say, cutting themselves to expose their veins. They were taken to the hospital and managed to get in touch with lawyers there. And there were cases when someone didn’t manage to contact anyone and was never seen again.

I tried to cut open my veins — it turned out to be very hard, not like I imagined. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but I remember that afterwards my hands were chained behind my back. They took me away and locked me in a police van with other migrants. Most of them were in handcuffs too. We drove away from the Basmanny Court in the direction of the CTDFC, and after about 500 meters [1,640 feet], maybe a kilometer [a little more than half a mile], one of the bailiffs suddenly came up to me, tased me several times, and started beating and insulting me.

How, exactly?

Well, he said, “People like you should be burned to death. We need to get rid of your kind.”

He said that because of your sexual orientation? [Feruz is openly gay.]

Yes, he was talking about my orientation. “Faggots like you should be burned,” he said — something like that.

And at the CTDFC, were there any problems with people’s reactions to your sexual orientation?

[Long pause.] Is it okay if I don’t answer that?

Sure. Can you tell us about the conditions at the CTDFC? About the daily routine?

The conditions are like what you find in a pretrial detention center. It’s restricted access, you’re in a cell, and there are steel doors and steel bars. There are two-person and four-person cells. There’s constant video surveillance. The wake-up call is at six in the morning, and breakfast is at seven, when the “feeder” opens, and they slip some food through. At nine, the guards check every cell and kick out everyone into the hallways. Around 11:00, they take everyone for a walk for 40 or 60 minutes — it varies. In the afternoon, there’s lunch, and dinner is around five in the evening. It’s lights out at 10:00 p.m. They take you to the shower once a week. So you are always either in the cell or under escort.

So it’s basically like prison.

Yes, it’s essentially prison. The CTDFC is definitely nothing like a camp or a dormitory for migrants.

I had exactly that idea of it.

It’s actually nothing like that. This is no dormitory.

Do you have to go to the bathroom in your cell, too?

Yes, there’s a toilet and a sink in each cell. It’s exactly like in a pretrial detention center — maybe it’s a little better renovated. And at the CTDFC, they let you use the telephone once every three days for 10-20 minutes, and you can see your relatives.

You can see your relatives?

Yes, at least I didn’t encounter any restrictions. My mom came to visit me, and there weren’t any restrictions at all.

And are there windows in the cells?

Yes, but not like in a normal house. They’re a little bit above your head, under the ceiling.

So you can’t see out of them?

No, you can see out of them. I would sit on the top bunk and look out at the sky all the time. The windows were barred.

How did you occupy yourself during all the time you spent there?

At first, I read a lot and kept a diary; then, I taught myself to draw. But of the half year that I spent there, I could only distract myself with something like that for about two or three months. Mostly, I just sat stupidly on the top bunk and looked out the window. In expectation that something would happen to me. In fear and in expectation.

What exactly where you afraid of?

I had this expectation that, I don’t know, they could come in, handcuff me, and deport me. Or worse. It was an overwhelming, constant fear.

How were you removed from the CTDFC?

On Friday, February 9, the court gave me final permission to leave Russia. It was only on Tuesday [February 13] after lunch that the deputy chief of the CTDFC, Maria Kuksa, approached me and said that they couldn’t escort me to the airport because I had what’s called a voluntary departure and not a forced expulsion. Then, my lawyers and I tried to figure out how the procedure of my departure was supposed to work. In the end, they told us on Wednesday night that I would be taken to the airport the next morning under escort by CTDFC employees. My plane ticket had already been purchased.

I wasn’t sure that everything would work out. Before then, they had already bought me tickets several times and told me “Yes, we’re escorting you out, you’re leaving,” and then, at the last minute, they would come up to me, give me some piece of paper, and say, “No, we can’t let you go anywhere.” They would think up some new argument. And I thought that this time would probably be the same. But to my surprise, they woke me up at 4:30 in the morning and took me to the airport. I boarded the plane without a problem, but the fear was still there. Because wasn’t this too easy? What if they let me board and then said, “Never mind, it was a mistake, you have to come back”? Until the plane had taken off, I wasn’t sure that I was really free. It was all very difficult.

While I was in the center, I wasn’t sure at all that everything would be OK. I even wrote a will. I gave it to my friends and relatives.

“I know pretty well what refugees have to deal with”

Now you’re in Göttingen. What’s it like for you here?

Of course, it’s a stark contrast. When I landed here, I still wasn’t entirely sure… I was in shock for quite some time, and I’m just now beginning to absorb that yes, this really happened — I’m free, and I don’t have to be afraid anymore. For half a year, while I was living in the CTDFC, I was constantly afraid that something would happen to me, definitely something bad. Psychologically, it was very difficult. And when something good happens, when a person goes free, then he has to go free on a psychological level as well — and that takes a while. So I couldn’t believe it for a very long time. Periodically, I dream that my release was itself a dream. That I’m actually still locked up there, in the CTDFC, that nothing has changed.

Sounds like some exhausting dreams.

Yeah, it’s pretty rough. Now my friends and I, and some of the employees at the University [of Göttingen], are looking at the possibility of trying psychological rehabilitation. It’s known that if people are imprisoned for more than four months, their psyche changes, and their way of interacting with the world becomes completely different.

Have you sensed these changes in yourself?

Yes. When I’m just walking down the street or sitting in my apartment, I control myself constantly — what I’m allowed to do here and what I’m not allowed to do. In the CTDFC, there’s a set of rules that you have to follow constantly, and when you go free, you’re still thinking and analyzing. “Am I allowed to go over there? Can I do this or that?” Sometimes, I even start thinking, “I feel hungry. But am I allowed to eat right now?”

How long do you plan to stay in Göttingen?

Today, I went to the migration center and gave them my documents, and in a couple of weeks or a month, I’ll be getting a local ID card — a document that confirms my identity — and then I’ll decide where I’ll be best able to adapt, get a job, and become more independent. I might stay in Göttingen, but it’s possible that I’ll have to move to a different city.

And you don’t speak German?

Unfortunately, I don’t speak German. I’ll study it — today we also discussed the possibility of signing me up for an intensive course. I grew up in a family that spoke three languages: Russian, Uzbek, and Tajik. Research shows that people who grow up like that — bilinguals — learn other languages easily. I hope that will help me out.

You told [the independent television channel] Dozhd that you moved to this city through an agreement with the local university, right?

Yeah, the process of receiving refugee status started about a year ago for me. At the University of Göttingen, there’s a program to provide aid to refugees who work for the university. While I was working as a journalist in Russia, I was also an expert on migration for the University of Göttingen. When they learned about my situation, they sent a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so that the Ministry could take on my case and try to help solve my dilemma.

Are you planning to keep working with them?

Yes, yes, of course. Today, I met with a group of university representatives, and tomorrow, there will be another meeting in the morning. I’ll be working on journalistic research through a joint program with the University of Göttingen and the Boris Nemtsov Fund.

What will you be researching?

I don’t know for certain at this point; we discussed collaborating with a professor at the University of Göttingen who studies migration. I’ll be living in a refugee camp, and I’ll try to look at all this from the inside. I know some Arabic, Persian, and a few other languages. Although there has been a lot of this kind of research and a wide variety of journalistic coverage on this issue, I will try to draw on my own experience as a migrant. I know pretty well what refugees have to deal with to assimilate or gain legal status. I think it will be easier for me to find a common language with them.

Interview by Evgeny Berg, translation by Hilah Kohen