Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Uzbekistan face deep-rooted homophobia, discrimination, and the threat of violence, activists and human rights defenders say.
And so it was for K., as she identifies herself for security reasons, a transgender woman who says she indeed faced death threats back home in Uzbekistan.
She was detained in Tashkent by Uzbek police and security forces four times between 2014 and 2017.
Each time, they demanded that K. out other members of the LGBT community, and when she refused she was brutally beaten.
"I was beaten badly. After five or six days [of such abuse] you just lie there," the 26-year-old K. tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service in an interview from Minsk.
Uzbekistan’s authoritarian ruler Islam Karimov died in 2016 after nearly 27 years in power. But his death and the installation of former Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev as president failed to usher in any meaningful improvements in Uzbekistan’s "abysmal human rights record," as Human Rights Watch has described it.
HRW said that police use blackmail and extortion against gay men, threatening to out or imprison them. LGBT people face deep-rooted homophobia and discrimination. Consensual homosexual sex is a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison.
For K., the "final decision to leave" came on January 3, 2017, when she was raped while in police custody.
Getting out of Uzbekistan was tricky though.
"I was born in disputed territory which became disputed after the collapse of the Soviet Union," says K. "At that time there were no borders, and this area belongs to Tajikistan. There was a massive outflow of the population -- to Russia and neighboring countries. And those who came to Uzbekistan have yet to be granted citizenship."
That made her essentially a "stateless" person. Despite that, Uzbek authorities did issue her with an exit visa -- a practice inherited from the Soviet days -- after a six-month wait.
She headed for Moscow, but authorities there on December 25 turned down her asylum request, refusing to recognize her LGBT persecution as justifiable grounds.
Next up was Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled since 1994 and earned the moniker of "Europe's last dictator."
Belarus is far from a safe haven for the LGBT community, but to K. it seemed to be her best option, and Belarus authorities earlier this week granted K. two weeks to formally submit an asylum request.
However, the country suffers from a bad reputation when it comes to LGBT rights.
Amnesty International said in a report on December 22 that LGBT rights activists were facing rising hostilities in parts of the former Soviet Union, including Belarus, fueled by discrimination, homophobia, and what it described as Russia's crusade against "nontraditional sexual relations."
Belarus's LGBT intolerance was on full display a few months earlier in October 2017 when police raided nightclubs popular with the LGBT community, during which two clubs were shuttered and patrons were harassed, some even detained by police.
"The reports out of Belarus are alarming. It is alarming that police targeted legal businesses, violated the privacy of their patrons, demanded personal information, and dragged some away to detention," said Human Rights First’s Shawn Gaylord on October 24.
Room For Tolerance
On the international stage, Minsk has blocked efforts to advance LGBT rights.
In October 2016, Belarus reportedly led a group of 17 countries to block a plan to include LGBT rights in a new urban strategy crafted by the United Nations, according to Reuters.
There is, however, some room for tolerance within the law.
"Our legislation allows a person to ask for protection when a person belongs to a particular social group and for this reason he or she is being persecuted at home," says Belarusian human rights activist Natalia Mankovskaya.
According to Mankovskaya, after submitting an asylum application, K. can legally stay in Belarus for up to six months while a decision is being reached.
"We also appeal to the Minsk office of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to grant K. international protection," says Mankovskaya.
For K., her options are limited. She wants to avoid at all costs returning to Uzbekistan, where she says she would face charges for her sexual orientation.
"I hope that I am granted some type of status here, so I can avoid what I've already faced," K. says. "This is a much more tolerant society."
Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on material from RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent Alyaksandra Dynko