Maksat’s sexual orientation as a gay man has cost him the chance of having a family and living in his home country, Turkmenistan, where homosexuality is a criminal offense and a strict social taboo.
Beaten and blackmailed by police, the 23-year-old from Ashgabat recently received asylum in a European country, but he says the ordeals he faced at home still haunt him.
RFE/RL changed Maksat’s name at his request to protect his family in strictly controlled Turkmenistan, where the government has targeted the relatives of dissidents and activists.
Growing up in Ashgabat, Maksat said he had to hide his homosexuality even from his family and friends. In the predominantly Muslim Central Asian country, same-sex relationships are shunned by people even in more progressive urban areas.
Families often force their gay sons to marry a woman and live a “normal” life to avoid becoming a social pariah or ending up in prison.
Maksat found relative freedom when he moved to Russia to study business management at the age of 18.
The happiness, however, was short-lived.
In fall 2019, Maksat tested positive for HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS, a status that effectively ended his legal residency in Russia.
Russia is one of 19 countries — along with Saudi Arabia, China, and North Korea — that deports HIV-positive foreigners.
Not waiting for his deportation, Maksat abruptly returned to Turkmenistan and his “closeted” life.
Desperate to hide his sexual orientation in Ashgabat, Maksat said he even deleted all the contacts and files on his mobile phone that could give away his homosexuality.
He was also unable to seek moral support from family and friends or share his fears about his newly diagnosed HIV-positive status.
Maksat’s situation took a turn for the worse when he took a blood test at the AIDS-HIV Center in Ashgabat to register himself for potential medical treatment in December 2019.
When he returned to the center for a follow-up appointment at the doctor’s office two days later, Maksat saw two police officers waiting for him.
Maksat doesn’t know whether the medical facility had reported his test results to the authorities.
“The officers asked me how I got infected [and] I told them I didn’t know,” Maksat told RFE/RL. Admitting the truth that he contracted the virus through a homosexual contact was out of the question, Maksat said, as such an admission would mean a prison sentence.
Article 135 of Turkmenistan’s Criminal Code deems a same-sex relationship among men an act of sodomy, punishable by two years in prison.
The following night three police officers knocked on the door of Maksat’s small, rented apartment in Ashgabat.
“They took me to the police station,” Maksat recalled. “First they questioned me. Then began to beat me badly. They told me: ‘We know where you got HIV. You’re gay.’ I told them that it’s not true. But they kept beating me.”
“The officers demanded that I sign some documents admitting [being gay]. I refused but they said if I don’t sign it they would tell all my relatives that I’m gay. I had to sign the papers, although I don’t know what exactly was written in them,” Maksat said about the late December incident.
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The admission paved the police’s way to open a criminal case against him on the sodomy charge.
Maksat also feared that he might face a second, trumped-up charge of “knowingly” infecting others with HIV, an offense that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, according to Turkmen law.
The officers ordered Maksat to report to his area police station after the New Year.
Offices in Turkmenistan close for several days over the New Year festivities and it provided a window for Maksat to escape from Turkmenistan and the pending criminal case against him.
With a small amount of money in his pocket, Maksat returned to Russia.
A friend in the city of Voronezh helped him get assistance from some groups that champion the rights of sexual minorities.
They helped Maksat obtain asylum in Europe before Russian authorities found out about his HIV-positive status that would have put him under the imminent risk of being deported to Turkmenistan.
Despite currently living in a free country where the LGBT community is generally accepted, Maksat is still unable to be completely open about his sexuality.
He said he still hasn’t told his friends and relatives in Turkmenistan about his sexual orientation as it would “bring shame” to his parents.
Maksat said he is now a wanted man in Turkmenistan and police could question his family about his case and try to ascertain his whereabouts.
With the criminal charges hanging over his head, Maksat said he doesn’t know if he will ever be able to go back to Turkmenistan or see his parents anytime soon.