The Bay Area Council of Jewish Rescue and Renewal has launched a massive letter-writing campaign to free Dmitry Fattakhov, an Uzbek Jew jailed in Tashkent for a murder the BACJRR insists he did not commit.
Since his arrest in April, the 23-year-old Fattakhov has been deprived of food and sleep and has been severely beaten, the BACJRR says.
Fattakhov's lawyer in Uzbekistan reports that as a result of this torture, Fattakhov is often in a state of shock, sometimes crouching naked in a corner of his cell with a "wild look" in his eyes. When his mother arrived for her first prison visit in July, Fattakhov reportedly could neither recognize her nor answer simple questions.
"There is some question about whether he will recover mentally from this," said Simon Klarfeld, executive director of the BACJRR. He suggests "This is the second incident in a year where a Jew [in Tashkent] has falsely been accused of murder."
The first case involved Ioisif Koinoiv, who was released several months ago following a BACJRR letter-writing campaign like the one the organization and its national umbrella group, the Union of Councils, is mounting on Fattakhov's behalf. After receiving 10,000 letters in the Koinoiv case, Uzbek authorities promptly released him.
Fattakhov's predicament began April 13, when Pulat Khamdamov — a neighborhood drunkard and gambler with a long criminal record, according to the BACJRR — entered the liquor store where Fattakhov worked as a clerk. Khamdamov's behavior was unruly, say BACJRR sources, so Fattakhov refused to sell him liquor and at 11 p.m. escorted him out of the store. Later, parts of Khamdamov's dismembered body were found in a nearby river.
The prosecution claims that after escorting Khamdamov from the store, Fattakhov killed him with an ax-blow to the head and then dismembered him. They say that with the help of a co-worker, Fattakhov then put the bloody pieces into sacks and drove to the river and tossed the sacks in. Two Russian co-workers were arrested with Fattakhov and charged with being accessories to the crime.
However, no physical evidence was found in the store, on any of Fattakhov's clothing or in the car allegedly used to transport the body to the river. What's more, after one of Fattakhov's co-workers was released from prison, he immediately recanted his confession, saying it had been beaten out of him. In so doing, he exonerated Fattakhov.
Klarfeld said the BACJRR would not take on a case such as Fattakhov's if the organization was not convinced he is innocent.
"We have spoken out so loudly because we are so sure he is not guilty," he said. "Even if he were guilty, he should not be tortured."
The Uzbeki ambassador to the United States and United Nations, Fatikh Teshabaev, denies Fattakhov was tortured. "No one in Uzbekistan is tortured," he said in a telephone interview from New York. "We are trying to make our law enforcement officials work for the goal of the secular, democratic state where everybody can and should have his rights to defend himself."
Officials at the Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan said they have received many letters on Fattakhov's behalf and are passing them on to authorities in Uzbekistan.
Teshabaev, meanwhile, said he is still gathering information on the Fattakhov case, and cannot discuss its details. But the ambassador did say that Fattakhov's Judaism had nothing to do with his being charged with murder.
Klarfeld, however, strongly suspects a connection does exist.
He points to the case of Koinoiv, the other Tashkent Jew accused of murder earlier this year. On his release from prison, Koinoiv testified that he had been the target of anti-Semitic slurs by prison guards, fellow prisoners and even Uzbekistan's procurator general, the equivalent of a U.S. attorney general.
"If this is a sign of the situation facing the approximately 60,000 Jews in Uzbekistan today, then we need to maintain our vigilance more than ever before," Klarfeld said. "Jews are just not wanted in a Muslim state."
But neither are other minorities, such as Russians, Klarfeld said, and that concerns the BACJRR as well.
"We are not to turn a blind eye when others are suffering from persecution and discrimination," he said. "Certainly what happened with this case is that [authorities] are trying to blame the other, the minority, the outsider" for a crime the outsider did not commit.
Numerous theories are circulating about who did murder Khamdamov, said Klarfeld. Some people believe the murder was a mafia hit but that police fear of the mafia led them to finger someone who poses no threat.
In arresting Fattakhov, Uzbeki police may have been trying to appear efficient in the face of mounting public concern over increases in crime, Klarfeld said. Particularly when a crime is serious, he alleged, police rush to find a culprit because such decisive action sends the message, "`Don't worry. It's not anarchic'" in Uzbekistan.
And someone like Fattakhov, he added, is easy prey.