Get all your news in one place
100’s of premium titles. One news app. Zero ads. Just $10 per month.
Businessweek

Sports Reporter by Day, Political Revolutionary by Night

Bobomurod Abdullayev was a decent enough sports reporter, but he was a really good politics blogger. Household-name good. Getting-things-done good. So good that he lived in fear of government agents showing up to take him away. For most of the past two decades, Abdullayev kept this second beat a secret from even his wife and kids. Under his own name, he wrote jovial columns on soccer matches and posted YouTube videos of himself singing folk songs. But when he clicked over to a different tab, he became Usman Haqnazarov, the whistleblower who shook Uzbekistan.

Abdullayev’s homeland, a landlocked former Soviet republic situated between Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, is best known for its cotton, its natural gas, and its autocracy. Islam Karimov, a member of the Soviet Politburo, simply kept running the country after it declared its independence from the USSR three decades ago. The local KGB became the Uzbek secret services, and President Karimov continued to rule brutally for another quarter-century. His secret services rooted out, tortured, and often killed enemies real and imagined. It barred foreign media and kept the state’s approved press outlets closely in line. One person it couldn’t seem to silence, however, was the mysterious Haqnazarov. Under this pseudonym—a name that means “God’s all-seeing eye”—Abdullayev wrote juicy posts in extreme detail. He called out high-ranking politicians and other public figures he said had stolen millions of dollars in public funds. These public figures included secret services officials and the president’s daughter.

Over the course of more than a decade, the Haqnazarov reports helped trigger international investigations and the seizure of almost $1 billion in what US law enforcement officials say were ill-gotten gains. A prominent Uzbek journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, stated that, from the beginning, the posts were read with outrage in the upper echelons of Karimov’s government. Although Haqnazarov became something of a folk hero, Abdullayev spent his nights terrified that his true identity would be exposed. “I had been scared of that day for a long time,” he says. To avoid being traced, he’d concealed his identity from some of his closest sources and made sure not to post from his own home.

In 2017, the year after the president died and his longtime No. 2 took over, Abdullayev’s luck ran out. While he was walking to the local mechanic to pick up his car, two men grabbed him by the arms, forced him into the back of their car, and pulled a black bag over his head. He was charged with sedition and conspiracy to commit treason and, he says, tortured by the special services. He says they beat him, left him handcuffed and hanging from the ceiling, and threatened to rape him with a rubber club. (At trial, the judge in his case said that medical experts weren’t able to confirm torture.) Abdullayev was acquitted at trial but nonetheless sentenced to pay 20% of his earnings to the state for three years.

Public outcry, and Karimov’s death, helped keep Abdullayev alive and secure his release within about six months. But even after he was freed, the regime offered few illusions about his long-term safety. State corruption in Uzbekistan remains pervasive, law enforcement still regularly uses torture to investigate crimes, and, despite press reforms, both foreign and domestic journalists continue to be harassed by the security services, according to the nongovernmental organization Freedom House. Early last year, Abdullayev fled the country. He’s since taken up residence in Berlin, where he’s been watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine—worried, he says, that his home government might tilt Vladimir Putin’s way. On a new YouTube channel called Fakt va Fikr (Fact and Opinion), he speaks out in favor of free speech and against the so-called New Constitution, a set of amendments proposed by the regime that he argues would concentrate even more power in the hands of the executive. “I focus on the systemic problems in Uzbekistan,” he says. “Nothing will really change if the system and the constitution do not change.”

These YouTube videos can take on a pox-on-both-houses air unusual for a man who’s spent half his life as an enemy of the state, and some critics say they’re muddying Abdullayev’s legacy. Others say it was plenty muddy all along, because his blog posts as Haqnazarov were prone to exaggeration and the occasional blunder. “His work is fiction,” says Umida Niyazova, an activist from the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights. “It’s no good for Uzbekistan.”

Abdullayev doesn’t deny that he often attributed direct quotes to people he never spoke with and wrote as if he were inside the president’s head. “I wanted the secret services to think I was someone in their inner circle,” he says, and for a while, at least, that helped throw the authorities off his trail. Besides, he argues, if he managed to scare the government into behaving a little less badly, then surely those were the whitest of lies. As for criticizing the opposition along with the regime, he says he’s merely speaking truth to power. Nonetheless, Abdullayev’s case exemplifies the trouble with truth in the era of disinformation: If we can’t take a whistleblower literally, what is he really saying? 

Born during Soviet rule in 1973, Abdullayev grew up the oldest of four kids in Uzbekistan’s rural west, near the border with Turkmenistan. Understated rebellion ran in the family. He vividly recalls his economist dad, who died when Abdullayev was in his teens, making fun of Leonid Brezhnev with family and friends. “My father was never afraid to say things the way they were,” he says.

The independence of Uzbekistan brought with it elections and hope for democratic reforms, but that hope ebbed quickly as President Karimov consolidated his power. The new nation consistently ranked near the bottom of the press freedom index maintained by Reporters Without Borders, and longtime opposition leader Muhammad Salih fled the country after Karimov accused him of treason. Over the course of the 1990s and into the new century, the state increasingly seized private land and bribery became a crucial way to obtain government positions, state contracts, protection against criminal prosecution, and even basic public services, according to the US Department of State. During this time of growing repression, Abdullayev studied Russian philology at Tashkent University, and in 1996 he went to work translating documents for the country’s central bank. “This is where I learned how the state inflated figures and cooked the books,” he says.

Abdullayev traces his political awakening to the beginning of 2003, by which time he was married with three kids. On New Year’s Day, he met with opposition leader Atanazar Oripov at Oripov’s home in the capital city of Tashkent. Oripov told Abdullayev some wild stories about Uzbekistan’s agricultural minister operating as a sort of shadow prime minister. A little more than 24 hours later, Abdullayev published his first blog post as Haqnazarov on the independent news site Centrasia and began cultivating sources inside Karimov’s administration.

In Abdullayev’s early years as Haqnazarov, he wrote about cabinet-level intrigue. He wrote about how the government compiled secret lists of political enemies, ranked on a scale from 5 (annoying) to 1 (a serious threat). And he wrote about how anything in official Uzbekistan could be bought with a cash bribe, whether a government post or a university degree. (A bachelor’s cost a maximum of $1,000, Abdullayev says, and a doctorate $10,000.) Outraged comments flooded Centrasia, and opposition leaders quickly took note of the Haqnazarov posts. At the same time, the secret services began questioning journalists they thought might have a clue to the blogger’s identity, including Abdullayev himself. He recalls feeling elated that his work was worrying the regime, in tandem with a deepening fear of discovery. He began taking more steps to protect his identity.

Abdullayev says he mostly got by on ideas from spy novels. When he was typing a post or taking a call, he covered the windows of his apartment with thick carpets to make it tougher to track his comings and goings or overhear his conversations. He saved his articles on floppy disks and published them from internet cafes, then burned the floppies. When he wasn’t blogging, he strenuously avoided talking about Haqnazarov and did his best to play the fool. And his security measures seemed to work. Two of his most important sources say that for many years they had no idea who Haqnazarov really was. His wife, Katya, says that outwardly her husband remained as happy-go-lucky as ever and that she didn’t notice anything suspicious. (Abdullayev told her the carpets were to block glare from street light on his computer screen.) “The only odd thing I noticed during those years was that he slept a lot during the day,” she says. “I’d ask him, ‘How are you going to learn anything about the world sleeping like that?’ ”

Abdullayev’s early stories didn’t get much play outside Uzbekistan. The Karimov government provided an airbase for US missions in Afghanistan and was an ally of some value to the Bush administration, which downplayed the regime’s corruption. Around 2010, however, Abdullayev began writing regularly about Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova, widely seen as a future presidential contender. Her company Zeromax, a big participant in Uzbekistan’s food, textile, fossil fuels, and entertainment industries, had abruptly shut down and was said to have left behind hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid debts.

In 2012, US and European authorities began investigating whether Karimova had used her influence in the telecommunications industry to demand bribes from foreign carriers. In 2017 the US Department of Justice seized $850 million tied to her, alleging that she’d laundered the money through the US financial system. By then, she’d been placed under house arrest in Tashkent, and the Uzbek courts sentenced her to 10 years in prison on charges including extortion, money laundering, and embezzlement. The sentence was soon lightened to five years under house arrest, but in 2019, around the time the US charged her with conspiracy to violate foreign corruption laws, Uzbek authorities jailed her for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest. In 2020, shortly after she offered to return $686 million to the country’s treasury if her case were dismissed, she received an extra 13 years in prison from the Uzbek courts.

“I was glad to see her captured,” Abdullayev says. “It verified much of my work.”

Yet his reporting on this mega-scandal tarnished him, too. By this time, Abdullayev had begun working directly with Salih, the exiled opposition leader, and the investigative rigor of his reporting had begun to ebb, increasingly replaced by soap opera fluff. He wrote about extreme scenes that he’d be unable to support with evidence: ashtrays smashed against politicians’ faces, the president by turns weeping and laughing maniacally to himself. In one Haqnazarov post from 2017, the blogger claimed that the head of the Uzbek security services had broken both his legs in an accident, but the security chief appeared on live TV the next day, walking just fine.

Abdullayev says Salih was his source on that one. (Salih denies this and says all of Abdullayev’s claims about him are false.) Yes, Abdullayev says, he did exaggerate and change certain details, but the core of the stories was always true.

In 2016, Karimov died, and Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over. Mirziyoyev did institute some democratic reforms and pare back the authority of the secret services, but he also represented continuity with the Karimov era. According to Human Rights Watch, the new president had spent years overseeing forced labor, including child labor, in the cotton-producing region. Uzbekistan remained at the bottom of the global press freedom index. Early one morning a year into Mirziyoyev’s tenure, Salih called Abdullayev. “I’m concerned,” Salih told him, “the security services know who you are.” A few hours later, they had him. 

Abdullayev and Salih don’t talk anymore. “I think I was betrayed,” Abdullayev tells me in Berlin, sipping mint tea. The Uzbek government released Salih’s brother, a political prisoner, in early 2017, and Abdullayev says he thinks his arrest was part of a quid pro quo. Salih vehemently denies this, and I couldn’t find anyone who could corroborate Abdullayev’s claims on this front.

Whatever the cause, Abdullayev still bears emotional scars from his abduction and imprisonment. On a late fall morning last year, I meet him outside his apartment building in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood. He’s shorter and rounder than he looked in his photos, his face peppered with stubble, dark circles beneath his brown eyes. He seems nervous and fidgety and speaks slow, well-enunciated English, but switches to Russian once our translator arrives. He takes me to his studio apartment to tell me about the worst period of his life.

The men who abducted him drove him with the bag over his head for no more than 20 minutes, he says. Once they removed the bag, things got worse.

They led him to a basement, handcuffed him, and dragged him into a cramped room, where they suspended him by his hands from a large iron ring in the ceiling. Two new men entered the room, pointed to a bottle in the corner, and told him that it was his toilet. He spent the night hanging from the ceiling like a sack of wet clothes, unsure whether he was going to live or die. In the morning, a man brought him a plate of mashed potatoes and then escorted him to another room. There, two interrogators demanded that he confess his double identity, then beat him with a plastic pipe and a wooden truncheon. They threatened to rape him and his daughter if he didn’t cooperate.

The torture continued for close to six months, Abdullayev says, until his trial began. During that time, he slept on three stools that he’d grouped together in his otherwise empty cell. He says the head investigator denied him a lawyer and told him, “You’ve been drinking our blood for 15 years. Now we will drink yours.”

Given that Abdullayev wasn’t one to shy away from stretching the truth, I ask him how much of this story was exaggerated. He insists it’s all true. And it was undeniable that the Abdullayev who appeared in court in 2018 had been traumatized. Many witnesses told me he looked emaciated, and contemporaneous news reports described the veins on his hands as looking visibly swollen from several meters away.

In court, Abdullayev was accused of sedition and conspiring to overthrow Uzbekistan’s government. Apart from identifying him as Haqnazarov, the security services alleged that they’d found a digital manifesto that indicated that he, along with three other people, had been plotting a coup. Abdullayev’s lawyer, Sergei Majorov, told the court that the file had been uploaded to the reporter’s computer while he was in custody.

Fortunately for Abdullayev, President Mirziyoyev was seeking foreign aid to finance his economic agenda, and the trial presented an opportunity to show what his democratic reforms had achieved. Although Abdullayev was found guilty of writing anti-government articles as Haqnazarov, the sedition case was dropped because of the lack of evidence linking him to the manifesto, and he was released in May 2018, after seven months in prison. He then began to work in a glass factory, and, as a condition of his release, he had to pay 20% of his salary to the state.

That Abdullayev was released at all was, by Uzbek standards, a minor miracle. In the past, most people accused of sedition there would have been killed or, best case, imprisoned for a very long time. That was little comfort, Abdullayev says, during his days watching how his family was suffering or his own nights spent reliving his torture in dreams. Still, he felt proud to have started work he hoped others would be inspired to continue. Other imprisoned Uzbek journalists have been freed, news websites blocked by the government are now readable again, and foreign media can apply for credentials.

There’s a lot left to do. In 2019 a United Nations committee reviewing Uzbekistan’s record on civil and political rights found that torture and related abuses of state power were still taking place “by or with the consent or acquiescence of public officials.” That is to say, the security services remained old-school, and so did their grudges. In August 2020, while Abdullayev was a fellow at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek government freshly accused him of sedition, claiming he’d been writing anti-government screeds on Telegram and Facebook under the name Qora Mergan (or “Black Sniper”). The Kyrgyz government arrested Abdullayev and extradited him to Tashkent.

This time, however, the reporter’s stay in state custody lasted only two days, because Qora Mergan had continued posting while he was locked up. As an apology, Mirziyoyev gave the journalist a three-bedroom apartment in Tashkent. To everyone’s surprise, Abdullayev accepted it, and even hailed the president’s generosity. But he didn’t stick around to enjoy it. A few months later he accepted a fellowship with Reporters Without Borders, the press freedom group, and relocated to Berlin, leaving his wife, kids, and elderly mother behind. 

The rest of the family has had a tough time in Tashkent, even with their new flat, says Katya, Abdullayev’s wife. The couple’s two daughters are living there with her, while a college-age son is studying in Turkey. Occupying the apartment as a measure of rapprochement with Mirziyoyev has cost them old friends and allies, yet they don’t quite feel out from under the eye of the regime, either. Guests rarely visit. They’d been expecting to start a new chapter in Europe, but Abdullayev, who completed his time with Reporters Without Borders late last year, now says he plans to return to Uzbekistan instead. He’s not sure quite when.

In Berlin, Abdullayev has mostly been working on his autobiography, tentatively titled Secretly Against Secrets, and a book advocating for reforms to the Uzbek constitution that he’s calling Wake Up. This doesn’t sound like the to-do list of a man who’s been cowed, but on the second afternoon I spend with him, I notice how tired he looks, how defeated. It’s tough, he says, to live alone in a tiny apartment in a country where he doesn’t speak the language.

On YouTube, Abdullayev’s Fakt va Fikr videos are also often focused on constitutional reforms, with titles such as “Seven Methods for getting rid of Corruption, recommendations for the President.” (High on the list: Ditch the New Constitution provision about making presidential terms longer.) Abdullayev isn’t too shy to criticize Uzbek opposition leaders as well for what he describes as failures to stand up for the Uzbek people. Salih and his comrades, he says, put too little stock in popular protests and electoral challenges, making it too easy for a dictator to seize and maintain power.

Abdullayev’s own legacy has become a bit of a Rorschach test for reformers in Uzbekistan. Supporters who saw his work change minds—and bring some measure of accountability to elites long thought untouchable—argue that he’s done more to advance a democratic agenda in the country than many opposition politicians. Those uncomfortable with his casual relationship to the truth, or furious to see him accept that apology apartment, say he’s become a tool of the regime. “His behavior has become detrimental to the independent journalism of Uzbekistan,” says Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “I have lost my confidence in him.”

Abdullayev is adamant that he’s not merely some government asset. “I’m on no one’s side,” he says. Yet his position is a lot murkier than it was when he was anonymous, and in this way, the regime may have won. As Haqnazarov, Abdullayev could be what anybody wanted him to be. Without the mask, he’s just a man again.Read next: A Ragtag Band of Belarusian Hackers Is Waging Cyberwar on Putin’s Supply Lines

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.