From the American People? Donors Ignore the Plight of an Imprisoned HIV Educator

Richard Elovich

The US, UK, and Global Fund all funded Maxim Popov's successful HIV-prevention work, for which he was arrested by Ukraine's repressive government. Why have these powerful donors abandoned him and his family?

Rewire is covering global AIDS issues in conjunction with the International AIDS Conference underway this week in Vienna.  A protest held today in Vienna by AIDS activists sought to raise awareness of Popov’s plight.

One person is missing among the 30,000 professionals and representatives of multiple governments gathering in Vienna for the International AIDS Conference this week.  Maxim Popov, a young AIDS doctor from the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan, is in prison sentenced to seven years hard labor for his AIDS prevention work funded by the United States, and for charges of fiscal mismanagement that the funders themselves say are baseless. One hopes that Ambassador Eric Goosby, who leads U.S. efforts on AIDS and the U.S. delegation to Vienna, will voice some badly needed public support for Popov and other AIDS workers who have done what is asked of them by the US government, and in the process run afoul of their own.

More than 100 organizations have signed a petition expressing concern about the harsh sentence passed by Uzbekistan on the 29-year-old AIDS worker.  Popov’s alleged offenses include disseminating culturally inappropriate” AIDS education material (that is, publications acknowledging the existence of homosexuality) and handing out clean needles to injecting drug users, which the government termed “misuse of injection equipment.”  In reality, the materials for which Popov was sentenced were produced and vetted by the United Nations, and distributed as part of US HIV-reduction efforts.  The injection equipment was part and parcel of work on needle exchange, an approach whose efficacy is well established to reduce HIV, and which the Uzbek government itself recognized as essential through the establishment of 220 needle exchange points attached to state run clinics across the country. 

To anyone familiar with the situation, the Popov case is more about Uzbekistan’s increasingly paranoid response to any form of independent association organized by its citizens, especially  those receiving international funds, than it is about HIV or the moral well being of the nation.  Many AIDS NGOs, seen as suspect as a result of their foreign support, have been closed in Uzbekistan, and their leaders pressured. 

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But the Popov case is also about the dynamics that find international donors encouraging and incentivizing young health professionals to organize NGOs in repressive societies, and then leaving the NGO staff alone to face the consequences. AIDS work, like other health and development efforts funded by the United States, has always been about HIV prevention on the one hand, and about emphasizing American values of openness and civil society engagement on the other.  The intertwined nature of US AIDS work and US foreign policy is underscored by the fact that contractors are encouraged to ensure that everything that the State Department funds bears a two-by-two inch red, white and blue logo bearing the  phrase “from the American People.”  In a country like Uzbekistan, that logo can become a target on the back of young professionals like Maxim Popov.

So where were the American people, and the US Agency for International Development, when Popov was charged and sentenced for distributing materials as they asked? According to observers, Popov’s wife had to sell their house to pay for his attorney’s fees, and received no support from the local embassy or the US state department during his trial.  The United Kingdom, which had also hired Popov for AIDS work, was similarly silent.  The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which emphasizes the importance of NGO engagement the millions it gives to Uzbekistan and was cited in the court documents used to sentence him, also said and did nothing. 

Popov received no visits from ambassadors or international representatives during his prolonged pre-trial detention, in which he was allegedly subject to cruel and inhuman treatment, or after he was transferred to  prison.  His wife and young child are still struggling to survive, and have received no financial support. No foreign donor has subsequently issued a public statement on Popov’s plight. The silence is all the more cruel given that these same international actors routinely tour the non-governrmental organizations like Izis, the one ran by Popov, and use the stories as examples of success and reasons for more funding back in their own capitals.

Uzbekistan, through criminalization of Popov, may make a radical of an ordinary health professional.  Popov was a young psychologist trying to square his knowledge of good HIV prevention with his professional practice, and saw himself neither as an AIDS or human rights activist.  A recently published Russian language account by a friend writing anonymously describes Maksim as frightened and asking for company with the police demanded the names of his needle exchange clients.  At the police interrogation, though, the friend described how Maksim held his fear in check and instead provided rational explanations for why breaching confidentiality would break the trust that permitted him to reach drug users who needed help.

USAID, DFID, and other international donors should engage in a similar review of basic moral principles.  Foreign funded organizations run by idealistic young professionals quickly raise jealousies from local governments. When the US, the UK, or the Global Fund support NGOs to take on AIDS education, the contracts should be two-way agreements—you do the HIV prevention, and we watch your back and help protect you from those who might be angered by your taking our money and doing a good job.

Instead, months after Maxim’s arrest, the U.S. State Department still advises that it is “following the case closely”—no doubt trying to gauge whether raising a forceful argument about Maxim might endanger efforts to secure use of Uzbek military bases for use against Afghanistan and other American interests. 

This kind of diplomatic double speak and do-nothingness is unconscionable.  The US, the UK, and the Global Fund should be speaking with one voice in Vienna to urge freedom for Popov and to reassure other AIDS workers that  if foreign funded AIDS work gets them in political hot water, the donors are there to protect them.  Otherwise, a contract “from the American people,” becomes as tragic and empty as the offices of Maxim Popov’s organization and the others closed by governments that would rather HIV, and people like Maxim, just went away.

Richard Elovich, PhD, is an HIV expert who has worked on US- and UN-funded projects in Central Asia.

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