By Mariya Gordeyeva
ALMATY (Reuters) - Members of Uzbekistan's LGBT community say they have been driven underground in fear of a violent backlash after a blogger and some of his supporters were attacked last month following social media posts calling for gay rallies at Muslim holy sites.
Uzbekistan, for decades one of the world's most isolated countries, is trying to open its society under cautious reforms by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took office after the 2016 death of Islam Karimov, autocratic ruler since the Soviet era.
Blogger Miraziz Bazarov remains hospitalised with a broken leg, bruises and other injuries, after being beaten up last month by a group of unidentified assailants. Bazarov, who is not gay, had posted on social media calling for LGBT gatherings at holy sites and for a new "state and gay" security force.
An angry mob later attacked several young people who planned to attend an event organised by Bazarov, although it had nothing to do with LGBT issues and was devoted to Korean pop music and Japanese cartoons. Police said they intervened and prevented injuries.
Homosexuality is banned in Uzbekistan and consensual gay sex is a felony. Nevertheless, two members of the LGBT community, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters they had been largely left alone until the public backlash against Bazarov's posts. Now, they said, they felt their lives were in danger.
"Right now, because of this outburst, LGBT people receive many threats and try not to leave their homes, not to meet in cafes, many want to leave the country," one said. "There are thugs on the streets who can approach anyone and question them about their sexuality."
Gay people are now avoiding cafes where they once met in public, some of which have shut, they said.
"They are afraid to step outside, some have left their home cities, fearing for their lives," said an Uzbek human rights activist who also requested anonymity.
'SPEAKING OUT ABOUT THE INEVITABLE'
Uzbekistan, the most populous country in ex-Soviet Central Asia, is landlocked and poor. Mirziyoyev has expressed hope of bringing prosperity by opening it up after decades of isolation under Karimov, including by attracting tourists to the blue-domed medieval Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
But many young people say his reforms do not go far enough. Bazarov's supporters say the blogger's provocative comments on LGBT issues were meant as a challenge to a wider, stifling social conservatism that was encouraged under Karimov to entrench the power of a corrupt political elite.
"This (wave of homophobia) would have happened in any case," said Timur Karpov, an ally of Bazarov. "He was just speaking out about the inevitable."
Karpov said he believed the attackers who beat up Bazarov were motivated less by his posts on gay rights than by his earlier criticism of the government, including a call to boycott a parliamentary election in 2019.
But the gay people who spoke to Reuters said they were worried their security had been put at risk by campaigners interested in provoking confrontation unrelated to their rights.
"Bazarov was just looking for hype and hurt the (LGBT) community," said the human rights activist.
Since Bazarov's remarks, several public figures and one football club have spoken out to condemn homosexuality.
"The day we allow (legalised gay sex) will be the day of our death," Rasul Kusherbayev, a prominent member of parliament, said last month.
Hugh Williamson, Director of Europe and Central Asia division at United States-based Human Rights Watch, described last month's beatings as "totally awful".
"Uzbekistan has committed at UN Human Rights Council this month - in theory - to uphold international human rights standards. It should do so! End attacks on LGBT people," he tweeted.
The authorities, wary both of liberalism and of politicised Islamist conservatism, seem to be want both gay rights and the backlash against it to disappear back into the shadows.
Komil Allamjonov, the head of influential Media Support and Development Foundation whose leadership includes a daughter of Mirziyoyev, urged local media not to cover LGBT issues.
(Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Peter Graff)